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Lonely Heartstring Band navigates "Deep Waters"

By John Lupton, July 2016

Four years after forming in Boston and a year after receiving their first major award (an IBMA Momentum nod), when most bands might be expected to have two or three already in circulation, the Lonely Heartstring Band finally has its first full-length CD release "Deep Waters" (Rounder) out on the street.

Patrick M'Gonigle, the band's fiddler, says, "We're perfectionists, and I think that that's probably why that is…We weren't gonna have just four great songs and then eight mediocre songs of ‘filler' to just get that out into the world. I think we all, without even discussing it, knew we wanted to have a great record, start to finish, with great original songs and unique and original sounding covers."

Lonely Heartstring Band - See the Light, June 2, 2016

A "preliminary" version was ready for release a year ago, M'Gonigle relates, explaining that they sought out Boston-area resident and Rounder Records founder Ken Irwin for advice, got picked up by the label and wound up remixing a good bit of it before finally putting it out. "We're really trying to be careful about making the music that we really want to be making and doing things right the first time," he concludes.

In addition to M'Gonigle, a British Columbia, Canada native, the band includes Massachusetts-born identical twin brothers George (guitar) and Charles (bass) Clements, Gabe Hirshfeld (banjo, also from the Bay State) and a Californian, Matt Witler on mandolin. The common thread that brought them together was spending their college years in Boston at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music (M'Gonigle attended both).

"Our influences are super broad because we all come from different backgrounds," M'Gonigle says, "It's hard for us to pinpoint even half a dozen influences because within the band we've studied every kind of music – Charles, on the bass, who's subbed with the Boston symphony, he's got a classical approach, and we all kind of grew up listening to rock. We love Tom Petty and that kind of stuff. But at the same time, we also really love old bluegrass, and modern bluegrass – we listen to a lot of Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers and the Bluegrass Album Band and J. D. Crowe and the New South. But we also love the Punch Brothers and all the newer contemporary bands. So really, our influences are kind of constantly evolving, and whatever we really listen to and like, we'll draw on."

It started, M'Gonigle recalls, when one of them spied a notice on one of the "gig boards" around campus seeking an unusual wedding band.

"(A) groom…posted on a gig board somewhere that he was looking for…a five-piece bluegrass band to play only the Beatles' repertoire. We…thought ‘this would be a fun project' and kind of threw together the band, not thinking it was gonna ever go on beyond that."

"We worked up about a dozen Beatles songs, but we didn't – we never even talked about it – but we didn't just take these songs and play them as ‘bluegrass songs.' We really picked them apart and tried to play them as true to the original composition as possible, kind of in a ‘Punch Brothers-esque' way. In that way, we realized we really liked working together, and we played that one gig, and thought, well, we should do another gig."

Things progressed rapidly. They began developing their own material and arrangements and found they had grown beyond their original "cover band" origins. Needing a name for the band, their first attempt was "Beatlegrass," which M'Gonigle admits with a laugh was a bit over the top.

M'Gonigle laughs, "Which was just so blatant, it was just trying to say everything we need to say, but what we were doing (with) the band name. Then, very quickly, we realized, well, if we're actually going to make this a band, we should probably pick something that's a little more ambiguous. We wanted to keep the nod to the Beatles in there…so, we're the Lonely Heartstring Band, based on the Lonely Hearts Club Band…and it kind of stuck, and we're actually quite happy with that name now."

Though long renowned for its output of classically-trained musicians, M'Gonigle found Berklee to be a good fit with his interest in folk and traditional music.

"Berklee, specifically the American Roots Music program that Matt Glaser launched in 2009, is how we all met…and I remember my very first day, sitting in a hallway waiting to do my ‘meet and greet' and assignments, and play my initial entry audition, and I was sitting right next to Sierra Hull in the hallway, and everyone had fiddles and banjos and mandolins, and they were all sounding incredible, and it was like this moment of ‘yeah, this is exactly where I need to be.'"

With the recent passing of Ralph Stanley, M'Gonigle is keenly aware that the era of the pioneers who, as he puts it "were playing bluegrass before it was even called bluegrass" is drawing to a close.

"We all, of course, loved the Stanley Brothers. George and I, when we started singing together…we would get together and just as a vocal exercise, we would just learn Stanley Brothers stuff because it's so rich, not only in what they're actually doing technically with their voices, how they're blending and matching their sounds, but the sound, and the vibe, the energy those guys had as a duo...I think the Stanley Brothers…in my opinion were the first to really take the vocal aspect of bluegrass and put it in a whole other level. We were so lucky, as a band, to see Ralph play a few times…he really has shaped the music so much, and the music has shaped us so much, in an almost direct way you can say that Ralph Stanley has totally changed our lives in very tangible ways."

In addition to the original songs and compositions reflecting their own talents and skills, "Deep Waters" contains covers of Paul Simon ("Graceland"), Bob Dylan ("Rambling, Gambling Willie") and Pete Seeger ("If I Had A Hammer"). M'Gonigle says that is simply a continuation of their deep respect for the folk music of the past, regardless of genre.

"It's kind of a testament to the idea that we really grew up listening to that kind of music. We love rock and roll, and Bob Dylan, and the music of the Sixties is a huge influence. I think it's hard for anyone who's a musician, especially in the U.S., to not have that era – the Bob Dylan era of music – be a huge influence. Even if you don't think it's an influence, it is, because everyone listened to that music and was affected by it…we're happy to have a Bob Dylan track on it for that reason."

And it's the listening, M'Gonigle says in wrapping up, that's the most important thing.

"‘Listen to music, listen to any music,' I think, is a mantra for me and for everyone in the band…these days, the world is an intense place. There's a lot of craziness happening out there, but I think that's something we can all do as a group and as a collective, a way to foster understanding between people, is just listening to music. Go see live music because I think it's a really important and ancient tradition that we can as a species and as a civilization...can go and do that together.