Having witnessed the first Halfpence and Haypenny show in 2013, then last year’s Renoir recording sessions for the new release, I’ve watched this incredibly talented duo go from a mere idea to something truly captivating. It’s difficult to fit them into a genre box, as they’re playing otherworldly music which could fit in any age, imagined or real. Neo-medieval folk, carnival troubadour, ghost country or bardic folk don’t quite capture the depth and imagination of Eva Riihiluoma and Sage Arias’ creations.
The release of ‘To Hold a Candle to the Devil‘ marks the greater world’s first real chance to hear the haunting beauty of Halfpence and Haypenny‘s music and judge for themselves. The recording opens with ‘Valley of Darkness’, an exploration of optimism in adversity. The juxtaposition of title to the bouncy melody lend depth to the message. Throughout the disc, Eva’s ethereal voice and expert storytelling mix perfectly with the stringed accompaniment. Guitar, banjo, Irish bouzouki, mandola, octave mandolin, and a throaty hurdy gurdy, build an impressive foundation for their celestial folk style.
Love, innocence, greed and betrayal ride headlong through the spiritual side of our Earthly existence, with Eva and Sage as our guides. The depth and disquieting allure of ‘To Hold a Candle to the Devil’ conjures emotions and images in a way most music of today doesn’t. The songs are complex enough for the technical minds, yet catchy enough to stick in simple minds, like mine.
What follows is the result of an e-mail interview. I’ve included the full answers from each of them, which may create some redundancy, but editing their words felt unfair.
ElDorkoPunkRetro: How did Halfpence and Haypenny start?
Eva: Sage and I met at the open mic we both frequented. at the time I was playing my original songs, just me and my guitar. We were also auspiciously neighbors. One day I came home to hear captivating music coming from the front steps of the neighboring apartment. Sage was playing a Planxty tune with a friend and I was completely entranced. I sat and watched for quite a time, and they asked if I would like to join in with some backup vocals. We were about a block away from the local radio station and one of the Djs also took notice of the music arising from these stone steps…within a week or two we played a few tunes live on the air. We formed a quartet with this and another friend and played mostly Celtic music for about six months. My writing style was being heavily influenced by the traditional music we were playing, as was an inspiration for learning new instruments. I began writing a song of the fae and got myself a mandola and a bodhran. The other two of the quartet were pretty involved with a jug band, so Sage and I decided to branch out on our own. It was an exciting time for me musically.
Sage: Eva and I met 3 or so years ago at an open mic. I was immediately captivated by her voice. Almost everyone was. Its hard to clearly say what it is about her voice that is so appealing, it has so many different qualities. What struck me most was the honesty in it. Its just straight in to her core and hit me at the same point. I remember thinking to myself in my head something like “I would love to play music behind her voice sometime”. As fate would have it not long after that we became neighbors, literally right next door and at the time a couple friends and I were playing Celtic style music. She heard us and we all knew she could sing so she became part of the band. That grouping produced some really unique music, but unfortunately after around a year we just couldn’t keep the scheduling between us all and sort of fell apart. A short time later I was asked to play the grand opening of my wife’s store and we invited Eva to come play her songs too. I played and when I was finished she played. She mentioned having her own arrangement of a song we played together in the group and I agreed to just wing it with her. When we were done we played through another tune, no rehearsals at all, and after a couple people asked if we had a cd. We laughed but thought we may as well keep playing music and so here we are.
EDPR: Tell me about the evolution of your sound over the last couple of years.
Sage: How has our sound evolved? That’s an interesting one. I think as we play more together and acquire more instruments the “sound” takes on its own life. I’m a huge folk and music folklore enthusiast and so being able to fully explore my interest in those traditions and imbue them with my own personal take is what drives me musically. That’s what’s so amazingly powerful about traditional music. I’m not using folk because that is too broad a term now. Traditional music was originally passed player to player, so there is no wrong way to present it. Its like all these amazing songs and stories and history have been sketched out for everyone but you get to paint the soundscape.
Eva’s original songs or writings are in that same vein. They are archetypal in energy. Distilled to an essence that anyone can relate to because its from the core of human nature. I think just that freedom and honesty is what has let the music evolve, if that’s the term.
EDPR: You each play multiple instruments, are you self taught?
Eva: I have been playing guitar for about a dozen years, and what I have learned I picked up by watching others and listening. I took six months of classical guitar lessons, which were valuable, and had music lessons as a child. That said, I constantly feel like a beginner. One of the aspects about our project that I really love is that I feel comfortable sounding terrible for a while on a new instrument. Exploring playing different instruments has been incredibly valuable in expanding my understanding of music. I am learning so much. And it makes it fun. I especially enjoy how the different sounds and character of the different instruments evoke such a range of moods, and influence the writing style for my vocals.
Sage: I am self taught, but was fortunate to have a couple very strong influencers of thought when it comes to music. I had a couple guitar lessons when I was 15. The guy was a heroin addict and my lessons were a couple chords on a napkin and the progression for House of the Rising Sun. Not much in technical instruction, but he said a couple things that stuck.
“Never play the same thing twice. Just like in language, there is always more than one way to say the same thing.”
“Don’t learn to copy the players you like. Listen to who inspired them, then you will be inspired in the same way and understand the players you admire more.”
“Listen to lots of styles of music. You will always learn more if you absorb more than one style of music.”
The biggest influence on me is my grandfather, who was himself a musician and a teacher (English, not music). I was bored with school at an early age and so for a year I took home study. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather and he would talk passionately and often about music. Relating it to everything, but I rarely heard him play. He had bad arthritis and couldn’t play much anymore. He always encouraged me to listen closely to music. To aurally dissect its instrumentation and follow each part.
When I resolved to learn music at a higher level I was fortunate enough to meet and eventually play with an amazing local musician who could literally play anything, and very well. He helped me unlock music as I now know it and removed my intimidation to learn other instruments. I’m forever indebted to him and he will remain anonymous but knows who he is.
EDPR: I’ve seen you play to an engaged bar crowd, an enthusiastic coffee crowd and group of twenty kids who’d come to see a rockn’roll show…they were absolutely riveted. What do you think gives your music and stage show such a broad-based appeal?
Sage: Honestly, I don’t know. I can only speculate that its a combination of elements. I think that people of today, of any age are robbed of a true identity in history to some extent and that a consumer culture has superseded actual culture. So when they show up they see these instruments of old that have a voice of their own that is older than today similar in the way bagpipes sound “old”, they awaken cellular memory in us. Couple that with the material being for the most part 100 years or older, and being told the folklore behind the songs and it brings a heightened appreciation to what’s presented, I think. Its much deeper than just playing some songs, there is history there as well. Maybe. That’s my guess at least.
Its probably just Eva’s voice being so flexible and pure.
Eva: I am sure it varies from person to person. Many people mention being transported in time, a feeling of nostalgia for some long ago place. Some people seem to be drawn in by the sheer curiosity of the unusual instruments, especially the hurdy gurdy. Others love the storytelling aspect of the ballads and history of the folk songs. And there are those who are fans of my songwriting and vocal style. For myself, when I am at a performance where the musicians truly love what they are playing, I can’t help but feel moved, even if it isn’t normally my style of music. I would hope that this is ultimately what people experience when they come to see us play.
EDPR: Now that you’ve released the material on ‘To Hold a Candle to the Devil’,
what are your plans?
Eva: There are new songs all jangling for attention, so we are working on quite a bit of new material. I have a feeling there is another cd in the works. Much of the darker folk has been expressing itself, in original songs and very old traditionals. We are also incorporating some new instruments. I have fallen pretty madly in love with a vintage Aria hollow body, with a charming old tube amp. This guitar has been making some lovely, haunting songs come forth, I really can’t wait to share them on the stage.
Sage: The release was a great release of material we had developed up a period prior to its completion. We are currently writing new material and will be debuting a number of new songs for the upcoming shows in the months ahead. We are hoping to have an EP started by summer. A themed EP that will feature half originals and half traditional. If we had the time and money we could release it and an album…but all in due time.