This week we have an interview with the lovely and talented Jenny O’Connor. Jenny is the fiddle player and frontwoman for the band Circa Paleo. Her bandmates are Joshua Amyx, Kelly O’Connor, and Jay Elkins. The band plays a unique mix of tunes from a variety of cultures, including Celtic, Nordic, and Arabian. Jenny is known to the online world as “The Hot Violinist” thanks to a fan’s YouTube video of her — a nickname she was reluctant to acknowledge but has now embraced and encourages all musicians to find their inner Hot Violinist as well!
HKA: How did you first start playing the violin?
JO: Towards the end of high school, some friends of mine were playing music together. They were learning the unusual genre of Greek music and performing at Greek restaurants. My friend was learning to sing the songs phonetically and just repeating them as best she could, having no idea what she was actually saying! I played the guitar a little bit, but I never really practiced, so I was very impressed that they were professional musicians! As I got to know them, I became inspired to start practicing and actually getting better. At that time I heard a CD that my mom had played when I was a kid. I had probably heard it hundreds of times, but this particular time I had the idea of, I could actually learn something! It was by the singer-songwriter Garnet Rogers and there was one instrumental track on it, a solo violin playing a sad, slow Irish song. It completely stopped me in my tracks and I felt like it was someone communicating to me from the past. And it wasn’t really that ghostly at the time, now that I put it that way! But it really touched me, and I decided that I wanted to be an Irish fiddler. My mom had an old broken violin in the closet, and I took it to a couple of places to get it fixed up. When I asked the guy at the first shop about lessons, he thought I was asking for my kid! And when I said, “No, the lessons are for me,” he completely discouraged me from doing it. He said, “Don’t bother!” So I made some calls and eventually found an Irish fiddle teacher.
How did Circa Paleo form?
Circa Paleo formed about three years ago. Joshua and I were the founding members. We met on the Ren Faire circuit. I was in a band on the circuit called E Muzeki, and he joined that band, playing percussion. We recorded a CD in 2009 called Eleven Lives, and toward the end of the recording, Jay joined the band. We had known him for a long time because he had been a music listener on the circuit. Then my sister Kelly got out of school, and we asked her if she wanted to join. She saw what we were doing, you know, getting the opportunity to travel, so now she plays the guitar with us.
A lot of the challenges of travel aren’t quite as bad with Renaissance Faire gigs as they are for musicians that have to be at a different place every single night. When you do a festival that lasts for two months you get to settle in and feel at home. There are places we go every year, so we know where to shop and what to eat and what friends we’re going to see there. One challenge is staying organized, because when you move every two months, it’s hard to stay organized and productive. You can’t have a lot of stuff. My first five years of traveling professionally as a musician, I did have a house, and I was constantly either moving in or moving out. I got to be there about six months out of the year, but I was always dressing myself out of Tupperware bins! So about three years ago, I got a trailer, and now I have my own little house on wheels, which takes away a lot of the challenges. I should mention that I’ve never lived any other way. My entire adult life has been doing this for a living. There was a time about four years ago, when I was in between the two bands, that I tried staying in one location for a while, and I got a job locally, but after the third and fourth month went by, I started getting antsy and I realized that I’ve developed a natural cycle of thinking, every couple of months, it’s time to go! I don’t even want to settle down. I like that change of scenery; it keeps my creativity fresh. Different things inspire me in Arizona than in California or in Michigan. But I do see the benefits of staying in one place. One time we spent about four months in Austin and I saw the local scene of the musicians and what you can gain from a community like that, and I thought that could be nice too.
What inspires your music?
Most of the music that we play is traditional folk dance music, so we go through lots of old tunes and recordings and find things that sparkle to us. We don’t strive to do things authentically. We have sort of an earthy taste. It wouldn’t really be correct to say that we modernize the music, but with our western ears going through this exotic music and picking out what resonates with us, it sort of narrows it down so that other people with western ears can listen and it will resonate with them too. The original tunes that we write tend to be structured using rhythms and scales from folk music but are also inspired by stories — folk tales, things from history. There are also a few modern cover tunes thrown in. We’ll take old exotic songs and make them sound a little bit more rock and roll and accessible, and then we’ll take rock and roll songs and make them sound more exotic. That’s kind of a bridge for some people. They’ll hear something that they recognize, but then they’ll stick around and listen to an Armenian harvest dance from 200 years ago that they would’ve never heard.
Do you ever feel like all of the faires that you go to, the shows that you play, and the people you see are all the same?
No! No, never! They’re all completely different. Every single day at the festival is completely different and you never know what people are going to say. People are always surprising us, and they’re completely different from one faire to the next, too. People sort of follow each other as an audience group in how they respond to the music. There are some places where people just go completely crazy and dance and sing, and there are some places where they’re just quiet and listening and it takes a few of those crazy dancers to get them all riled up.
What are your hopes and dreams for the band?
Well, we recently had two CDs come out. The first CD we recorded, me and Joshua, was a studio creation of what this band could sound like. I played the guitar, he played multiple drum parts, and we had guests come in with different instruments and we created this album that sort of sounded like a band. But with the new project, we actually had our band and we got to play together, live, in the studio. We did two CDs at once. They’re both inspired by travel. With the one called Tideland, the concept was travel by sea. It encompasses songs from Scotland, Ireland, and the journey of those people to the United States and the origins of bluegrass. And the other one, Roseland, ended up being the more gypsy caravan, jingly, exotic one inspired by land travel. As far as future hopes, it’s always been about making it possible to live outside the world’s rules — to be able to make a living being creative. So much of what we hear is, “Well, if you absolutely have to do this for a living, then do it, but if there is any other job you could possibly have, then that’s what you should do.” Ha! I want that to be available to as many people as possible, to add people to the band and travel and be free, but not starving.
When you are on stage performing, do you feel like you’re really in the music, or do you feel like you’re going through the motions because it’s your job?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately and I learned something about it in an acting class I took. There’s an acting technique called inner imagery. It sounds kind of vague at first, but say I’m playing a song and it reminds me of a certain feeling or experience. If I think about that, it may change the way I play it, and because it’s an authentic human experience, someone in the audience is going to get the feeling of it beyond just observing the show. People say to me sometimes that the music flows through you. And I do love the songs that I play, but at times it can become repetitive, because there are some songs I’ve played literally thousands of times, so you think it’d be dead in the water. But every time I play it, some other image may come up, like imagining a person on a boat journeying across the ocean, that brings up an emotion in me that feeds into the song and the song feeds back into the emotion. And the other piece to that puzzle is the audience. Sometimes someone will be crying, and that may have been at a moment when I was just thinking about my shopping list or something, but that will help to bring me back into the emotion of the music. Even if I’m playing a song for the fourth time that day or the eight time that weekend or the thousandth time in my life, seeing the audience and getting up on stage, the music inspires me every time!
Circa Paleo just wrapped up their first season with the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. While we’re sad to see them leave, they have great adventures ahead at the Texas Renaissance Festival and beyond! To learn more about Circa Paleo and see if they will be playing in a town near you, visit their website and their Facebook page. To become a Hot Violinist yourself, visit Jenny’s blog. Thanks for the interview, Jenny, and best of luck with your travels!