The Chiff & Fipple Interview by Dale Wisely
A few years ago, I heard Joanie Madden interviewed on the radio, along with snippets of her recordings. I had only the vaguest of ideas of what a tinwhistle was. Shortly after, while visiting a neighborhood music store, I bought my first whistle, and immediately started spiraling down this long horrible descent into Whistle Obsessive Disorder. It's Joanie's fault.
I was delighted to be able to catch up and chat with Joanie this week, just prior to her departing to tour with Cherish the Ladies. Joanie was kind enough to give an interview to Chiff & Fipple.
Joanie Madden is the leader of Cherish the Ladies, a group of first-generation Irish-American musicians who are among the most popular Irish groups in the world. Joanie was born in New York in 1965. Her mother is from County Clare and her father is from County Galway. She received her musical training early in life by listening to her father Joe play accordion around the house. She began taking whistle lessons from Jack Coen, and within five years became the World Champion on both the whistle and the concert flute. In 1984, Joanie became the first and only American ever to win the Senior All-Ireland Championship on the whistle. She has been awarded many honors including being the youngest member ever be inducted into the Irish-American Musicians Hall of Fame, recipient of the Wild Geese Award and Voted One of the Top 100 Irish-Americans in the country for her contributions to promoting and preserving Irish culture in America. She has performed on over fifty albums but, in 1994, she released her critically acclaimed solo debut "A whistle on the Wind" on the Green Linnet Label. She has followed that up with her 1996 release "Song of the Irish Whistle" on the Hearts of Space label, the best selling whistle album of all time. Joanie just released Volume 2 of "Song" on Hearts O' Space Records.
Dale Wisely: Tell us about your earliest introduction to Irish music.
JOANIE MADDEN: I don't really remember my earliest introduction to Irish music, because it was always around me. My father Joe, is a great accordion player and my mother is a great dancer of Clare Sets! My father had this old reel-to- reel tape recorder going and his records playing every minute of the day. He'd come home from work and the "box" was always brought out first thing. When I finally started to play, it came very easy to me because it was already embedded in my mind.
Did you take up any other instruments before flute and whistle?
I guess my father realized I had music in my bones early on. We had an old fiddle hanging on the wall that my great-uncle had made. My father always loved the combination of accordion and fiddle and suggested that I take some lessons. I said "great"! After about 6 months of lessons, I realized I hated the fiddle and told my mother to go into the living room and tell my teacher I was quitting. He came looking all over the house for me shouting "where is she? where is she? She can be one of the greats! He never found me, I was hiding under the bed!
A year later, I decided that I wanted to play the piano, since we had one in the living room. I took 5 lessons, and told my father I was quitting - I hated the piano.
Then one day, friends of my parents, Mary and Peggy Naughton were visiting. Mary was taking tin whistle lessons from Jack Coen who lived around the corner. I asked Mary - "what's a tin whistle?" She took it out of her bag and I loved the look and sound of it! I told my father that I wanted to play the whistle! He told me to get lost, that he wasn't wasting one more dime on me and music. I said "Fine! I'll pay for it myself with my baby-sitting money. " And I did! I called up Jack Coen who lived seven houses away from us, had my first lesson at 13, and ran home every day from school at lunch time to play. I was hooked! And the rest, as they say, is history!
By what age were you performing in public?
As soon as I knew two tunes, I was playing in my father's band! I was awful! But, he loved having me around!
Did you ever get "sidetracked" into other musical genres?
Fiddler Eileen Ivers and I went to grammar school together and are still best friends today. We used to jazz the music up a little bit and play a little country, blues, rock and roll and whatever else for fun. I always came back to traditional music, I can't help myself!
Who were your most important teachers? You mentioned you first studied with Jack Coen. What can you tell us about him?
Jack was the greatest teacher. He was so encouraging and willing to share his music. He always had great students because he was so patient and encouraging. He really focused in on the basics of good timing and ornamentation. Jack was very sparse with his ornamentation in a beautiful East Galway style. He emphasized the tune is more important than rolls and stressed to let the music speak for itself. I don't think I would ever have played if it hadn't been for Jack. He just put me on the right road and I just kept going. I was also very lucky to have two other flute players in New York that were of great inspiration to me; Mike Rafferty and Mike Preston. Mike Rafferty is Mary Rafferty's (Cherish the Ladies accordion player) father. In my books, one of the greatest flute players of all time. Also, Mike Preston from Sligo, who was the flute player from the original Tulla Ceili band lived a couple of miles from us and always was encouraging me. I would be totally remiss if I didn't mention my favorite whistle player - Mary Bergin. Even though I never had a lesson with her, I would have to say that she taught me more about whistle playing than anyone! I wore her record out, literally. I could still play you side A or Side B right now!
Interviewer and Interviewee in Birmingham, Alabama
You are distinguished as an American winner of Senior All-Ireland Championship on whistle. These competitions are unfamiliar to a lot of people outside of Ireland. Can you tell us a bit about the experience of competing?
Well, to me going to the All-Ireland was always more of a social outing than a competition. Every year, the Fleadh Cheoil (pronounced fla keeol, Irish words meaning music festival) is held in a different town in Ireland. It is held each year at the end of August and hosts dozens of music competitions and attracts hundreds of thousands of musicians and music lovers from all over Ireland and the world. You're simply amazed at the music in the pubs, on the streets - every nook and cranny has a fiddler or whistle player in it, it's just unbelievable. For days after you leave a Fleadh, you hear music in your ears! It's every musician's dream to win the All-Ireland, and the competition is fierce! Ireland is divided up into 32 counties and 4 provinces. Each county holds its own county championship where the top two players (males against females) in their field goes on to represent the county at the provincial championship. Then the top two from each province goes on to represent Ireland at the All-Ireland. So, you're basically playing against the top 8 whistlers in the country. Then other countries send their champions; there are two from Europe, two from Canada, two from New York, and two from Chicago. At the end of the day, one is competing against the top 16 in the world! Let me tell you, the standard is incredible. The level of virtuosity among all the players is just amazing, and I was thrilled just to get to hear these wonderful players.
After a couple of years of competing and getting nothing, I got 2nd two years in a row, and in 1983 I won the Gold medal. My father was overjoyed, because we were actually the same age when 25 years to the day in 1958 that he won his All-Ireland Championship on the accordion. The following year, I went back and won the Senior All-Ireland championship, the first and only American to ever do so. I was very happy to win those medals for my family and for America, for you see that years earlier, an old authority on the music had said to me, "Americans are great fiddlers and box players, but ye have no whistle players who will ever take the championship cup out of Ireland." I was thrilled to prove him wrong. The greatest thing about bringing the perpetual championship cup home, was that Mary Bergin's name was on it! It happened that she was on tour here at the time and I went and met up with her at one of her concerts. We filled it up with champagne and drank a toast! That was the highlight for me!
How did you come to put Cherish the Ladies together?
Right after I came home from winning the All-Ireland, I received a phone call from Mick Moloney. Mick is not only an incredible musician, but he also has a Ph.D. in folklore. He called to congratulate me and all the other musicians like Eileen Ivers who had won over in Ireland. He asked me if I realized that of all those who had won for America, 95% were women? I said no, I didn't -- and what difference did it make anyway? He said that he had just got off the phone with the Irish Musicians society in Philadelphia and that in 1959, there was 2500 members and not one of them was a woman! He said he was putting a series of concerts together, with the Ethnic Folk Arts Center in
New York, featuring the top female players in America. He wanted to highlight the changing role of the female musician in the Irish scene and asked me would I help him put it together and MC them? I said sure -- "what are you going to call the series, Cherish the Ladies?" (which is an old Irish jig) He said that's fantastic, we'll call it that. Needless to say, the concerts were a smash with hundreds of people turned away. We went on to record an album featuring the various women from around the country. That was picked by the Library of Congress as one of the best folk albums in 1985. That was so successful they put a tour together in May of 1987 and that was when the group was born. We did one more tour with The Ethnic Folk Arts Center and the NEA and then they said that's it! You're on your own! That was when I took over booking and managing the band. The original tour was supposed to be for 10 years, we're about to celebrate our 12th anniversary!
Chiff & Fipple readers have a special interest in whistles as instruments. You must have many, many whistles. More than me.
Over the past few years, it is just amazing the way the whistle has developed. When I was first learning, all that was around was the Clarke tin whistle and the Generation. Nowadays, there are so many gifted whistle makers out there who have totally improved the whistles' sound, tunability and tone. It makes a vast difference. As a rule I play mainly Pat O'Riordans whistles, but I have a really nice B whistle made by Mike Burke and some by Glenn Schultz, I have some Overton low whistles and a couple of Susato's.
As you say, you are most associated with Pat O'Riordan's whistles. Tell us how you came to know Pat and about your association with him.
I first met Pat while I was teaching a whistle master class at Irish week at the Augusta Heritage festival in West Virginia. Pat was actually a student of mine. After the 2nd day, he asked me to look at his whistle, I said this is very good -- where did you get it? He said he made it! The craftsmanship was remarkable. We were soon found conversing all the time about ways to improve his whistles. He's such a lovely man to speak to that I soon became his friend and guinea pig. Soon whistles were arriving at my door step for approval. I told him what I liked and what I didn't. Another revised one would arrive the following week with the changes I had suggested! This process would go on until we were both satisfied. I think my neighbors thought I was dealing drugs the way these long cylinders kept arriving every week! I then asked him if he thought he could make me a low G whistle. He said he would try. The Low G arrived in the mail and it was just beautiful! Since that time, I have commissioned Pat to make me a Low C, Low D, Low E, Low F, Low G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb and E! When I asked him could he make me a low G - he should have said no! :) I think his whistle tone is absolutely stunning, and I don't think there is a better low whistle anywhere! I recently did a concert in New York City with Davy Spillane. Davy saw my array of whistles and said "Jaysus, what are those?" He wouldn't stop playing them and said they were the best he ever played. He just kept saying "Pure class, pure class." He wouldn't let me go without giving Pat's number! Another reason I love O'Riordans is their durability. I was loading my car one night after a Cherish gig and thought my case was in the trunk. It wasn't. I backed over my whistles with the car. They didn't even get dented! I don't recommend anyone trying that trick! But the bottom line is that I think they're the best and that's why I play them.
Excuse me, Joanie, I'm trying to get my mouth to work after that story about you running over your O'Riordans. Ok. I got a chance to talk to Mr. O'Riordan recently (I ordered a Low G!). He tells me you consulted with him extensively on the design of his new Low D. Could you say a little about it?
Again, cylinders arriving every week -- the neighbors arching their eyebrows, even the mailman was starting to get suspicious! But, getting back to the low D, I think what's great is the span of the holes. The Overton used to give me pains in my hands from the reach. Pat put a third (bottom) section with a joint to let each player move the positioning to suit each individual. He has since done that with the Low C that he has made. Pat managed to make the finger holes smaller without jeopardizing the tone. I'll say it again, in my books, they're the best low whistles anywhere.
Tell us about the whistles you most often use in live gigs and in recording. With the growing popularity of low whistles, how do you divide your playing time between high and low whistles?
I usually play the high D whistle in the band, but when I'm backing singers the key of the song usually dictates which whistle I'll use. Then I try and feel the song and decide if a low or high whistle suits better. I think my favorite low whistle is the G. I used it to play the Level Plain onSong of the Irish Whistle album and also when I solo'd with the Boston Pops on the Celtic Album. When I'm choosing a whistle, I always go with which one that suits the particular piece.
What flute(s) do you play?
I play a solid silver heavy weight Miyazawa (Japanese make) concert flute, and an Altus Alto flute.
How did you come to collaborate with Brian Keane? (On both volumes of Songs of the Irish Whistle.)
I first worked with Brian when he was producing an album for piano player John Boswell. We enjoyed working together and he invited me back to perform on John's second solo project. About a year later, I got a phone call from him asking me if I would record a track for this "new age" album he was working on called Celtic Twilight. I said I wouldn't really know how to play new-age music, nor did I want to, but I would play a pretty air. Anyway, I went up and recorded Sean O'Riada's composition, Woman of Ireland, layering a dozen whistles to create a wall of whistles sound.
The album was incredibly successful. At the present time, it has nearly sold a million records. Hearts of Space, the label then asked us to record a track for Celtic Twilight 2. We did the Black Rose (Roisin Dubh)
keeping the same quality for the album. Both tracks were some of the critically acclaimed tracks from the record and Hearts of Space said, "You have two tracks done for us -- why don't you finish a record for us?." That album is Song of the Irish Whistle.
Song of the Irish Whistle is the best-selling whistle recording of all time (if one doesn't count Titanic or the Riverdance recordings, which one shouldn't). It blends traditional tunes with nontraditional arrangements and recording techniques. How has this gone down with the hardcore traditionalists?
I'm totally blown away by all of that! Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to sell 200,000 whistle albums! My first album on Green Linnet, A Whistle on the Wind, sold about 20,000 - so it's quite an improvement. Regarding the hard-core traditionalists, I guess if I listened to everybody - I'd be an accountant somewhere! I hold the music so dear to my heart, that I would never do anything to abuse it or alter my role as a traditional music bearer. In my opinion, I just took some of my favorite haunting airs and arranged them in a pretty way. I've taken some blows from some of the purists, but what the hell -- you can't keep everyone happy! The positives have certainly outweighed the negatives. I have received so many letters from people all over the world who said that it turned them onto Irish Music or the whistle and I think that's what it's all about!
Joanie at Gaelic Roots 2000. Photo courtesy of Jessie Kislin
You appeared on the Boston Pops program on PBS as a guest soloist. How did that come about?
I received a phone call one day from the Boston Pops, they were looking for an authentic Irish band to arrange traditional Irish music with. They said, everywhere they turned people said, get Cherish the Ladies. They asked me to send them some CD's. I mailed them a Cherish CD and a Song of the Irish Whistle. They immediately called me back and said how could they get in touch with
the Whistle player? I said your talking to her! He said, I thought you were the manager. I said that's just one of my hats! Anyway, it's been an extremely wonderful union. We have since performed with numerous symphonies around America and about a half dozen times with the Boston Pops. We then got together and recorded a couple of tracks with them for their most recent CD, The Celtic Album - which I'm proud to say is nominated for a Grammy for best classical crossover.
I know you're touring with CTL. What other plans should our readers know about?
Wow, that's a tough one! With Cherish we are on the road about 150 days a year so it doesn't allow me too much time off! If whistle fans want to know where we'll be, they check our web page at
But, when I'm home, I'm always wearing the manager hat again! Fortunately, living in New York, I get a lot of calls to do session work with various commercials or accompanying people on recordings. I really enjoy doing that. But, I'm always composing and gathering new material for the next whistle record. I'm hoping to do the next album with a symphony -- probably record it in Ireland with the Irish Symphony or something like that.
Inquiring whistlers worldwide want to know: How did you make all those wind sounds at the beginning of the 3rd track on SOIW?
Well, Brian was asking me what other sounds could I get out of the whistle? So I started messing around. But, basically, I put the mouthpiece under my bottom lip and blew downward so that you're only getting the air running across the fipple and played like usual. We then miked my fingers just playing without blowing to get that percussive sound. I must say, that Hearts of Space has had about 100 returns from people who have told them that their CD is distorted -- but only track 3! It's hard to tell people that that's what it's supposed to sound like!
I'm out of questions for now.
Finally! I just want to say a special hello to all who read this interview and to tell you to keep driving people nuts around the globe by playing your whistle at every red light, during TV commercials and at every opportunity and possibility! Drive your wife and family daft with a shrieking whistle! Nothing keeps the heart younger. To all of you just starting out, I recommend that you listen to the best players and hang in there. If you practice just 15 minutes a day, the improvement in a year will mystify you. Another thing that I've learned is that you're never too old to start! If you can only play 1 tune, you'll get tremendous satisfaction out of it and that's what it's all about! Anyway, I look forward to meeting you all in my travels and to staying in touch with you through this web page. Good luck to all of you and thanks for giving me the opportunity to have this chat with you all! And Please remember, WHISTLE PLAYERS RULE!!!!
My heartfelt thanks to Joanie for taking time to do this interview. Besides her wonderful musical gift, Joanie personifies the Whistler Personality: Generous, smart, kind, and funny. It's a thrill to be able to include this interview in my little newsletter.
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Copyright 1999 by Dale Wisely
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