‘Nua’ in Gaelic means ‘new’, and for Toronto-based NUA it stands for the trio’s approach to creating adventurous and contemporary Celtic tunes inspired by tradition. It’s the fruit of a close friendship between fiddler James Law, guitarist Graeme McGillivray, and bodhrán player Jacob McCauley, who with Bold (2013) and Flow (2016) have delivered two of the finest Canadian Celtic roots albums of recent years, each one bursting with fresh and exciting ideas, magnifying the sonic scope of Scottish and Irish music.
Though the trio came together five years ago, Law and McGillivray have been making music for much longer. “They started fiddle lessons together aged three in Robert’s Creek B.C. where they grew up,” says Jacob. “James’s parents are both originally from Scotland, and ran a music camp for many years on the Sunshine Coast. Graeme is more towards the Irish side but has Scottish too. I’m from Toronto and have just the Irish blood, and was playing drum in the family band with my mum since I was five.”
Two bands stand out as influences and inspirations for NUA – folk power-trio Lau, based in Scotland, and the recently reformed Flook, based in England and Ireland. Both are pioneers of progressive Celtic bands who make traditional music the foundation for rich, composite works that defy easy tags or regular time-signatures.
“I was knocked out by the synergy between [Flook’s] bodhrán-player John Joe Kelly and guitarist Ed Boyd,” says Jacob. “I’d never heard anything so well thought-out and tight between two rhythm-players. I wanted NUA to be that tight. As for Lau I remember hearing their first album Lightweights and Gentlemen (2007) and thinking how cool their compositions were. Aidan O’Rourke definitely has a strong effect on James as a fiddler with his smooth, clean, and precise playing.“
In 2010 James and Graeme moved to Toronto to attend music college, where both learned to play jazz – another important ingredient in NUA’s compositional cauldron. “James studied drums as he felt he’d done so much fiddle, and it gives him good insight into the percussion aspect of NUA,” says Jacob. “He and I work together quite a bit in the studio. The jazz training adds not just knowledge of the genre but chops. Graeme’s ability to come up with unique chord progressions is rare for Celtic guitarists, who are mostly self-taught. It helps to contribute more new ideas.”
Those ideas spark one another to create pieces that have their own particular colour, pattern, shape – keeping things varied and at the same time organic, three minds on parallel wavelengths coming together to form a greater swell.
“There’s a couple of different ways it happens,” Jacob explains. “Sometimes we’ll sit down and come up with ideas and write a whole tune or a whole set all at once. Sometimes it starts with an idea from one of us. Graeme is a tune-composing monster, and he or James will say ‘we’ve got a new tune’ - they live down the road from one another whereas I’m on the other side of town – and one of them will make a rough recording and send it to me and I’ll jam with it, then we come together for a rehearsal. But sometimes at rehearsals we try to write from scratch to come up with interesting licks that may have potential for a set. Anyway, early in the process we all get together. Generally it goes through quite a lot of changes.”
The set “Rest in Pineapple” – which can be heard in full on NUA’s website – captures the band’s playful spirit, structural intelligence, and in-depth understanding of Scottish and Irish idioms, while its title shines a sidelight on their lifestyle.
“It’s probably my favourite on the album,” Jacob confides. “Naming tunes is one of our ongoing jokes. Graeme wrote both of them here – “Rest in Pineapple” which goes into “Russian Dragon”. He lives in a big house with a bunch of mates, one of whom tears down stage set-ups at a music venue. He gets to take home some things, so there was this prop that was a weird, tombstone kind of thing, R I P but it was like a pineapple. He took it home and made a fountain out of it, spending hours and hours doing it. That’s where Graeme got the name. He writes a lot of the more dynamic and weird time-signature tunes. It’s a very odd-sounding jig without the layers”
According to Jacob NUA’s time and tempo shifting and predilection for crooked tunes (airs croches) with unusual numbers of bars and other quirks most likely reflect Graeme’s fascination with rhythmic oddity rather than any Balkan or other Eastern European influences.
“I’m sure there’s a bit of that, but we don’t listen to much world music. Graeme is a very rhythmic guy, and maybe he just likes challenging himself. He loves writing and I think he wants to push envelopes. The second tune of “Rest in Pineapple” is in 5, one of the trickiest time-signatures to play. It’s a great transition going from 6/8 into 5/4. I find it really interesting melodically as well as rhythmically. That’s why we decided to make “Rest In Pineapple” a single – if we can only show one tune to everybody, that would be it.”
“Smuggler’s Cove” - also on the website - is another Flow stand-out, with a striking mid-set effect when the music vanishes, then comes back very quietly, gradually, gaining strength in volume, tempo, and texture. “These tunes are simpler – a melodic slower rhythmic tune, starting with the simple melody. The layers build and Graeme comes in with a really good chord progression, and a rhythm that goes in and out of a 4/4 reel groove and then into a 6 groove.”
“James had this idea of a recurring fiddle line. You hear that build up. At first we didn’t know what to do with it. After several weeks of rehearsals we kept grooving on it. I felt it didn’t need to become more complex, but to have layering - like James doing some harmonies. Instead of going into a reel - our first thought - we decided to go back to the original melody. That sounded really cool. There are actually 64 layers of strings on the build-up in the middle, so for a simple tune it’s a lot of work. I had that goose-bump feeling when it starts up so quiet and builds. It still gives me goose-bumps even now to hear it.”