Of Fiddles, Stepdancing and Saskatoon

An interview with April Verch by Michael Lohr

Born and raised in the small town of Rankin, Ontario, a picturesque village roughly half an hour’s drive as the crow flies from the city of Pembroke, April was essentially a child prodigy in both stepdance and fiddle. She was still in grade school when she began winning awards for both. Before the young lady graduated high school she already had released two albums, “Springtime” (1992) and “Fiddle Talk” (1995). She has since released five more records including three for Rounder Records; “Verchuosity” (2001), “From Where I Stand” (2003) and “Take Me Back” (2006). Her latest release is “Steal The Blue” (2008), her first for Slab Town Records.April Verch (1)

Musically, April can play a gambit of styles, from bluegrass, Brazilian rhythms and Celtic to the traditional Ottawa Valley style fiddle tunes she learned growing up. Shortly after graduating high school she won both the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddle Championship and the Canadian Open Fiddle Championship, the first and only woman to do so. She has served as demonstrator and instructor at legend Marc O’Connor’s Fiddle camps and became a member of the Riverdance-styled fiddle touring ensemble, Bowfire.

After gracing the cover of several magazines, being nominated for a Juno award and playing concerts everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC to Celtic Festivals all over the world, April is still a humble, down-to-earth person. I had the pleasure to speak with April about her passions of music and stepdance, the music of legendary Canadian fiddle player Graham Townsend, as well as the review of all things Berklee and Bowfire, Celtic and Canadian.

ML: April was indeed a child prodigy. When did you first start playing fiddle? What about the fiddle attracted you to it as an instrument of choice?

AV: I started playing fiddle at the age of six. I wish I could remember what exactly it was about the fiddle that made me want to play so desperately, I think it was the sound of the instrument itself and the energy of the fiddle music I heard growing up in the Ottawa Valley. More than anything though I remember the passion I had for wanting to learn to play it, it felt like something I was meant to learn to do.
ML: Who is your single most significant musical influence?

AV: I honestly don’t think I have a “single” most significant musical influence. I have had strong and important influences at different stages in my career but I would never be able to single out just one as being the most significant. Whether it was my Dad’s love of fiddle music, my classical violin teacher’s support and encouragement of my musical expression, local musicians I knew growing up, professionals I met later on in life or those I’ve never met but listened to, they have all shaped the music I play and the musician I am in their own unique way… And maybe that’s why I am passionate about so many different styles and find it hard to focus on playing just one thing. It is so exciting to learn and incorporate things from different people and different genres, to keep adding new significant influences all the time!
ML: How many bowstrings do you burn through in a single performance?

AV: The answer to that question really depends on a lot of variables. First of all, the weather, especially the humidity level or lack of humidity in the air! Of course one tends to break way more bow hair when things are dry. It also depends on when I had my last bow re-hair, sometimes the hair gets worn out and starts snapping meaning I am due for a re-hair sooner than later! I am an aggressive player though, and on average because of the way I play and the material I choose to play I do break more hair than someone who plays in a more smooth (for lack of a better word) fashion.
ML: What types of music are you interested in? Coming from Canada, the land of Celtic fiddle champions, the Ashley MacIsaac/Natalie MacMaster Celtic style had to be a strong influence, as perhaps the Calvin Vollrath Métis style.

AV: Growing up in the Ottawa Valley that was the first fiddle style I learned to play. There are several regional styles of fiddling in Canada and when I was a teenager I started to explore some of the other regional styles, in particular the Western Canadian, French Canadian, and Métis styles. Without going into depth about Canadian fiddling, let me say that there are a bunch of regional styles that fit under the umbrella of what we call the “Old Time Canadian” fiddle style, these regional styles are a blend of a few different influences, for example, the Ottawa Valley fiddle style would be considered “Old Time Canadian” and it’s a unique sound, a result of the people who settled here and brought the fiddle traditions and tunes from their home lands, they were Polish, Irish, Scottish, French and German (for the most part!) And then there are a few styles that don’t fit under that umbrella, styles that stayed more true to the roots of the people who settled in those areas, that didn’t blend as many styles together, such as the French Canadian, Métis and Cape Breton styles of fiddling. I think the term Celtic has become somewhat of a catch-all phrase these days and while I would agree that there is some Celtic influence in some of my music I feel a much stronger connection to the Old Time and French Canadian traditions in Canada. And of course as I continue to reach out, other styles of music such as Old Time American, Appalachian, and Latin music influence me as well. In particular my own compositions have become a blend of these different influences when I get inspired by one sound or another.
ML: You’re an excellent stepdancer as well. Did this talent arise in conjunction with your fiddle playing? Author’s Note: April is well known for incorporating stepdance routines in her fiddle shows, and in her youth she joined the Pilatzke Brothers as a member of the Dueling Dancers, a stepdance troupe that earned major accolades throughout North America.

AV: I actually started stepdancing first. I started Ottawa Valley stepdancing at the age of three, mostly because my older sister Tawnya was taking lessons and I wanted to do everything she did! The Ottawa Valley style of stepdancing is a mélange of French Canadian stepdancing, clogging, tap dancing, Irish stepdancing, and probably a bunch of other styles as well. It’s high-energy and intricate and a lot of fun to do.
ML: What kind of music scene existed in the Ottawa Valley that helped shape your musical style in those formative years?

AV: I was fortunate that my parents loved the traditional music scene that existed in the Ottawa Valley and that’s what I grew up around. There was and still is a strong traditional scene here if you are looking for it, but it’s not the same as when my parents were children, when you went to the local dance hall every Saturday night for entertainment and everyone had a fiddler or dancer in the family and kitchen parties abounded. I grew up around fiddle jams and playing for dances with the county fiddle association, at fiddle and stepdancing competitions, and performing for local events that were always looking to feature the traditional music of the Ottawa Valley. Now it’s still that same kind of scene, however there are more young people stepdancing and fiddling now than ever in the Ottawa Valley, the tradition is in good hands. We just need to work at making sure that they have an audience to play for, young people are playing the music but we need young fans of this music as well. And in addition to the healthy competition scene in Canada we need to encourage the young players to play for dances and fiddle jams, etc. so that part of the tradition lives on – it’s that original social aspect of this music that makes it what it is.
ML: What is more intrinsically important to your artistic being, fiddle playing or step dancing?

AV: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question, and I’m not sure that I can answer that by picking one or the other. To me they intrinsically go together. I can’t play the fiddle without moving around, I might not be dancing but I’m tapping a toe or swaying, the music is for dancing pure and simple. That being said, I figure I’ll still be able to fiddle when I’m 90 but I may not still be able to stepdance, but I certainly hope my playing would still inspire someone else to.
ML: How did your collaboration with Doug Cox and Tony McManus come about?

AV: A couple of years ago I was working with Bob Jensen of JMI Productions for my Canadian bookings and he had this idea for a group that featured stringed instruments. Since he was my agent he approached me about it and when I told him I was interested he suggested we contact Tony (guitar) and Doug (resophonic guitar). I had met Tony once briefly at Fiddles of the World about ten years ago and was familiar with his music. Doug I had heard of but had never met. The three of us took a big chance by deciding to do a tour together, not knowing much about each other at all… We met a couple of days before the first gig of a three-week tour, put a set together and we just clicked! We get along musically and personally and decided that we wanted to do more of this. We just finished recording our debut CD which will be released early in 2009, and we’ve added a fourth member to the band now, Cody Walters on bass (who also plays in my band.) So we are all super excited about this project, we’re going to do a bunch more touring and see where it takes us. It’s a challenge to find time for everything since we all have solo careers as well but we’ve all made it one of our top priorities and so far it’s working.
ML: You’ve been recording for several years now, what about the process has changed over the years? With experience and hindsight is there anything you’d do differently or learned to do better?

AV: Can you believe my first recordings were only available on cassette?! CDs didn’t even exist yet. Wow. So much has changed and I have learned so much along the way, both on the technical side (I am no expert but I’ve learned watching as we record each time) and on the production side. I think with experience and hindsight I have learned how to make more educated and appropriate choices as far as production, material, etc. Just because you like a song doesn’t mean its suits you, just because you like someone’s music doesn’t mean they should produce your record, just because you have a broad fan base doesn’t mean you should try to or could ever please everyone with one recording… There is a learning curve to putting out a record that you’re proud of. It’s ongoing and I keep getting better at it.
ML: How special to you is the music of Canadian legend Graham Townsend?

AV: Graham is an Old Time Canadian fiddle legend, who was passionate about a lot of fiddle styles. Just being able to hear him play in person though, and to play with him from time to time, was an amazing experience for me. He had a great Old Time feel, and he was really the only Canadian fiddle legend (other than the ones gaining that status now) I got a chance to meet, a lot of the others I looked up to like Don Messer, Ward Allen, Reggie Hill, Andy DeJarlis, I could go on and on, they passed away before I came along or while I was very young. So Graham’s music holds a special place in my heart. He and his wife Eleanor both wrote such wonderful tunes and many of their tunes are considered “standards” in the Canadian fiddling repertoire all across the nation. Another special connection is that Eleanor was the only woman to win the Canadian Old Time Fiddling Championship (held in Shelburne, Ontario) until I became the second many years later. She had already passed away when I won but I think she would have been really proud.
ML: How did the violinist, fiddle-based Bowfire project come about?

AV: Lenny Solomon is the artistic director and creator of Bowfire. I was thrilled to join them on a couple of their recent tours for the first time. Lenny had emailed me several years ago and a few times since, but with my solo career in full swing the dates just never connected until recently. I hope I can do a bunch more with them; it’s a group of amazing musicians from different backgrounds, and a huge production, kind of like Riverdance for fiddlers in a way. Everyone is so talented in the group; I really consider it an honor having a chance to share the stage with them.
ML: As proof of her prodigy status and musical prowess, April studied for a year at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Did Berklee broaden your senses musically-speaking?

AV: I really learned a lot at Berklee. First of all and probably most of all, yes, the way it broadened my musical senses was monumental for shaping my career. Growing up in the Ottawa Valley and raised by parents who adored traditional music I really hadn’t been exposed to many other styles of music. So that was a wonderful awakening! I also learned a lot about the music business and I made a lot of great contacts. Of course nothing teaches you about the business like getting out there in the middle of it, but my time at Berklee certainly gave me a good base for doing that and the resources and contacts I had afterwards are things I still use today.
ML: Was it special to play on your father, Ralph Verch’s CD, “No Other Would Do”? How did this project come about?

AV: Yes, that project was really special. My Dad had a country music band before I came along that played a lot in the Ottawa Valley. They played a little bit when I was small, but then they kind of gave it up because they got too busy dragging my sister Tawnya and I around and giving us the opportunities they did. But he’s a great singer and guitar player and Tawnya and I really wanted him to make a CD, people around the Ottawa Valley were always asking him if he had one when we played out anywhere… He didn’t feel he was worthy and he was nervous and he wouldn’t agree to do it, so finally, we gave him the studio time etc. one year as a Christmas present, leaving him no choice! It turned out just great, and once he got into the studio he was a natural! “Punch me in and I’ll try that line again!” I play fiddle and sing some harmony on it, Tawnya plays piano and sings, my husband, Marc Bru, plays some percussion, my Mom even sings on one song and she never sings! Anyway, he’s sold a pile around home, I sell them on the road too, people love the songs he chose – lots of those old country gems that aren’t easy to find these days. People around home keep asking him when he’s going to do his next one. Hopefully soon!
ML: Tell me about your new record “Steal The Blue”, your first recording for Slab Town Records? Who are some of the guest musicians on the record, etc?

AV: I am really proud of my new release “Steal The Blue”, sometimes I even put it on just to listen to it like I would any other CD, and that says something! It’s got a few more vocals on it than my earlier recordings, and it feels a little bit more country/bluegrass than folk – none of that was by design really, I decided I just wanted to make something that was indicative of my current musical tastes and passions, so I chose material that was something I would want to listen to, and that’s what we ended up with. We included songs by Ron Block, Tim Stafford, Craig Market, Larry Cordle, Erin Enderlin, Mark Simos, Jon Weisberger, Steve Gulley, Sarah Siskind, Sarah Pirkle, to name a few. I included some originals and traditional instrumentals. It was co-produced by Jon Weisberger and Stephen Mougin, and they did a wonderful job of capturing our sound. We recorded as the “April Verch Band” with my touring band members and then added a few special guests, but essentially it sounds like we sound live and it will be really easy to take this music from the record to the stage. We recorded the base tracks at Scott Vestal’s studio, recorded overdubs at Stephen’s studio, and Randy Kohrs mixed the album at his studio. So I spent some quality time with great people in Nashville during this process! Actually, Jon, Stephen, Scott and Randy all play on the record too, as well as Sam Bush (yep! I was so nervous!), Travis Book, Patty Mitchell, Jana Mougin and Melonie Cannon.

To learn more about April, her new “Steal The Blue” recording as well as her complete discography, tour dates and so much more please go to www.aprilverch.com/

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