Culture Q&A: Grammy-Nominated Fiddler Liz Carroll

Set to perform a free concert at Indy’s Northminster Presbyterian Church on Friday, Carroll describes playing for Obama and the ’difference’ between her instrument and the violin.
Better late than never: Renowned fiddler Liz Carroll will perform a free Indianapolis concert in honor of St. Patrick’s Day at Northminster Presbyterian Church on Friday, March 20.

Carroll’s talents have been recognized nationally and across the Atlantic: In 2010, she received a Grammy nomination for Double Play, her duet album with Irish folk guitarist John Doyle, and she recently became the first American-born composer to win Ireland’s prestigious traditional-music prize, the Cumadoir TG4.

“Even though this is slightly after St. Patrick’s Day,” says Carroll, “I am hoping people will come out and enjoy hearing just flat-out—I mean, it’s really pretty trad what we’re going to be playing. We’ll have a bit of fun as well, and throw some things in, but it’s really hardcore Irish music.”

We caught up with Carroll ahead of her Indy appearance:

What was your inspiration to play the fiddle and Irish music?

My family is Irish; my mom and dad were from Ireland. My dad played accordion, so I did hear music in the house growing up, and that spurred me on. They really liked Irish music, and they went to listen to it outside of the home. And so I always liked it, and as soon as I put my hands on any instrument, I was trying to find an Irish tune, a tune that would be in my head from hearing it in the house.

What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

Well, you know, they’re the same thing. I think that maybe back in the day, old-time players and maybe bluegrass players would have gotten the notion that if they cut down the bridge a little bit and flattened it, they could bow—and you can still do this totally fine on a regular bridge—but I think they got the notion that if they flattened that bridge, they could get more, maybe a third string, on the same pull of the bow when playing. That’s one theory, and then they would have called that a fiddle.

But I think anytime you get to something that’s not classical, ethnic musical or different genres, they’ll tend to call it a fiddle. Ultimately, it’s a friendly term. So if you’re really friendly with your violin, you tend to call it a fiddle.

What was your most memorable performance?

I’ve had lots of fun situations, but I can only seem to remember the most recent things. I would always say getting to play for Barack Obama on his first St. Patrick’s Day [as president]. It was pretty great getting to do that when he first got in. And everything else is what it is. There have been great concert halls, great audiences, great festivals, so, you never know. It’s … you couldn’t name just one, except that one!

What music do you listen to in your downtime?

A lot of times in my downtime I’m jumping all over the map. I go to the library, and I just grab anything and everything, and I see what hits. I was at the library yesterday, and I picked up Imogen Heap’s last album. I’ve grabbed everything, and sometimes my kids are like, “Really? You have Kanye West in the car, and you’re playing me a track?” It’s really pretty eclectic, and I think most musicians are like that.

In the real downtime, I like to listen to sports radio. I like to listen to NPR, you know. I like to hear people chatting and get away from music.

What advice do you have for young musicians?

It’s a big world of the fiddle. And even if one type of music is a challenge, the next one may fall very easily under your fingers. So don’t quit. That would be my advice. No matter what you’re doing: If you’re doing Celtic music, try classical as well, because you may find out Holy cow, this is where my comfort is. And I’ve seen some musicians go from being Scottish players, and the next thing at school, they were exposed to jazz, and they found out that they were terrific at it. Keep looking around. Ultimately, if it’s not the fiddle, don’t dismiss your musicality. It could be another instrument. Pick up a guitar and find out.

Have you ever been in Indy before?

Yes, I have. It was about three years ago for an Irish festival.

Will you do anything other than perform while you’re in in town?

There are Irish musicians in Indianapolis, and they are planning on having a nice music session after we get done playing. We said, “Okay, we’re up for whatever you want to do on Friday night after we’re done.” And I don’t know where that is, but I would imagine it could be a pub.


Liz Carroll will perform as part of Northminster Presbyterian’s “Sound & Spirit” concert series on March 20 at 7 p.m. Free admission. 1660 Kessler Blvd. E. Dr., 251-9489,