String Loaded: Jenny, Ray, Livvy and Gabi Blissett. Picture: Simone De PeakMusic must be in their blood. Sitting with mum Jenny Blissett and her teenage daughters Gabi and Livvy in theAshtonfield kitchen drinking tea and biscuits on a winter’s afternoon, the conversation never veers from music over 90 minutes.
All three are engaged in the chat, frequently echoing one another’s comments, or finishing a sentence. The only person missing is dad, Ray, who’s been caught up with work at the Greenhills law office where he’s employed. But don’t worry, he’s part of all the stories they tell about their music adventure which started long ago.
In early June their family band, String Loaded, a bonafide Celtic fiddle band (the girls play fiddles, mum plays an Irish drum –bodhran, dad plays guitar) played a three-hour set at the Blue Water Country Music Festival in Port Stephens. They had been preparing a special list for several weeks, a mixture of their traditional Celtic music and some bluegrass classics. The grand finale featured Gabi and Livvy as duelling fiddles in a scorching version of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
It went down a treat in front of a crowd of about 300. And they weren’t even the headliner –Beccy Cole was the main attraction.
The show was indicative not only of the preparation the Blissetts put into a show, but the fun they have performing.
“We take people on a journey,” Jenny Blissett says. “Scotland, Ireland, the Shetland Islands, Scandanavia . . . and we do bluegrass as well.”
Ray and Jenny met in Tamworth, where they both attendedMcCarthy Catholic College. They began dating in Year 12 and then attended the University of New England together, playing in various cover bands to earn money along the way. Jenny studied science, Ray studied music (piano), returning to university later to get a law degree.
“My grandmother was very Scottish,” Jenny says. “I’d grown up with all this bagpipe music and Scottish music she made us listen to. Ray’s grandfather was Irish, and he played and sang Irish tunes all the way through Ray’s childhood.”
When the couple moved to Newcastle in 1997 and then began to raise a family, it was inevitable their offspringwould play music.
“They’ve been playing since they were four and three,” Jenny says of Gabi and Livvy. “They were going to play an instrumentno matter what.”
The were introduced to learning through the Suzuki method on classical violin. And have virtually lived a dual musical identity –classical violinist through learning and school, and Celtic fiddler player through tradition and performance –ever since.
They are leading classical musicians at Hunter Valley Grammar School, where they both attend on scholarship.
The day starts at 6.30am every day in the Blissett home where the girlsspend an hour practising violin. They play so much they have sporting-type injuries. Gabi had six weeks off playing last year when she developed RSI in her right arm (her bow arm).
“It was so hard, I couldn’t touch the violin,” she says. “I had a cortisone injection, acupuncture . . . it’s full-on, especially how I play. We really get into it.”
While the family band, String Loaded, plays only for entertainment value, the girls are equally respected on that stage for their fiddle talent.
Six years ago the Blissetts were busking at the Newcastle City Farmers Markets. And then people began asking them to play at birthday parties and weddings. And then they encouraged to play at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, and the Bundanoon Highland Gathering and . . . and . . .
This year the girls played at the opening ceremony of the Woodford Folk Festival, a world-class event on a dedicated property 70 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. They played on stage in front of a crowd of more than 120,000; and then every night as part of music virtuoso Andrew Clermont’s Supper Club band.
“It was a like a sanctuary,” Gabi says. “It was amazing. We got to meet and see all these musicians. There were heaps of stages. We saw real folk music guys, Klezmer guys. All these people who had enthusiasm for different styles of music.”
“It was total isolation,” Livvy says. “On the bus on the way to the show, someone said turn off the news.”
The Blissetts commitment to music, and making music for fun and entertainment, has been bred into their children. At their young age, they already have so many vividmusical memories.
The first time they attended the Australian Celtic Festival in Glen Innes, they decided to playIrish Washerwoman, a traditional jig that gradually gets faster and faster then suddenly ends. Scottish fiddle legend and teacher Colin Macleod was in the crowd, and he started crying.
“That’s when we thought, ‘this is so amazing’,” Jenny says. “He was so enthusiastic the girls should keep doing this.
“Older people are worried the music is going to die out because there are not enough young people doing it.”
In January 2013 Ray and Jenny took the girls to Scotland for the first time. They stayed on the Orkney Islands, off the north-east coast of Scotland in the North Sea, where the girls attended a fiddle school run by the Wrigley Sisters.
“For a whole week, we stayed and listened, as they talked about the fairies, the superstitionsand the stories around how they use the music,” Jenny says. “You know, music they played in their kitchens, they played in their loungerooms, they had dances all the time, that’s how the community would come together. And the fiddle was the instrument.
“So they taughtus tunes, but mostly they talked.”
Part of the show you get when String Loaded perform is that Jenny introduces almost every song with a story about its history and what was going on at the time the tune was created. One such story comes with the song,King George IV,about King George IV’s trip to Scotland in the early 1800s. The kilt had been banned in Scotland by the English after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, but the partying King George IV held a ball and encouraged the kilt to be worn, bringing it back into favour.
“And that’s the sort of thing we do, we tell stories and make it come alive,” Jenny says.
At the Bundanoon Highland Gathering in the Southern Highlands the band was approached by Jimmy Barnes, a proud Scotsman if ever there was one. He asked them to play at his daughter Elly-May’s wedding, and so they did in August last year.
They’ve been regulars at the Tamworth Country Music Festival for years, working their way up after five years of popular busking to a regular shopping centre gig. Next year’s Tamworth schedule is already planned: mornings playing as String Loaded, afternoons as part of fiddle virtuoso Pixie Jenkins band, and evenings with Andrew Clermont’s band.
The hard work and dedication has paid off. The girls have been able to put money in the bank, and the band has won accolades, notably taking home four awards at the Australian Celtic Music Awards in May, winningBest Celtic Instrumental for Morrison’s Jig, Celtic Album of the Year for Beggars & Butterflies, Celtic Group of the Year and the main prize, Celtic Artist of the Year.
Yet, the girls maintain a healthy perspective about the music and success.
“We have a classical world and a folk music world,” says Livvy, who also gets credit for naming the family band.
“Music will be part of our lives, but not as a career,” Gabi says.
“We’ve seen the music industry, and it’s so hard. We’ve seen these amazing musicians, who are just incredible. Because of technology and the internet, the whole industryhas gone downhill. It just gets really hard as an adult. We’re academic, we’re both interested in science . . .We havelots of options.”
The public playing experience has given the girls a maturity beyond their years. They are used to talking to adults –about music, history, the emotions of music. They’ve already played as equal with some of the most talented people in the country.
And they respect the music they play, and where it came from.
“I’d really miss it if we didn’t play Celtic, becausethe Celtic world has really affected how Iplay classical,” Gabi says.“I can perform, Iknow how to settle my nerves.
“I have a different mindset to all the other kids who do classical because Ithink ‘this is fun, I’ve got to make it as entertaining as possible’. I’d really miss Celtic if Ijust had classical. It makes everything fun.”
(String Loaded play the Maitland Tattoo on July 29 at Maitland Town Hall.)