Fiddler on the Rise: Rosemary Lawton Finds Passion in Raising Young Voices

Rosemary Lawton released her debut album Painted Glass in 2017 to a reception beyond anything she had imagined. Since then she has been performing across the island, receiving accolades- including a recent ECMA nomination for Roots/Traditional Recording of the Year- and helping to shape young musical minds. The Racket caught up with this up-and-coming musician to discuss her story, her inspirations, and her plans.

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For Lawton, there was never an alternative to being a musician.

She fell in love with the violin in first grade. “A string quartet came to my school and I went home to my parents that same day to tell them that I had heard the most beautiful instrument in the world and that the violin was what I wanted to play for the rest of my life,” she said. “My parents put me in the Suzuki program in St. John’s and that’s where my love for music began to grow even more.”

Through this program, she also discovered that her violin doubled as a fiddle- something that would, unknowingly, change the course of her life and career.  “I was able to join a youth fiddle group called the STEP Fiddlers where I was first exposed to traditional Newfoundland music. I partook in various youth programs around the island such as Young Folk at the Hall hosted by Fergus O’Byrne of Ryan’s Fancy, and Vinland Music Camp in Gros Morne, run by Eric West.  It was through these programs that I was able to grow as a musician in Traditional music, and gain role models to aspire to.”

Lawton was accepted to Memorial University’s School of Music, where she studied under Dr. Andrew Staniland. “He gave me the tools to be able to write out harmonies and full pieces of music that I had always had playing through my head.  Because of those courses, I was finally able to put my ideas down on paper.”

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She may not have realized it at the time, but one of her courses at MUN offered Lawton the opportunity to write the first track on her debut album, Painted Glass. “I wrote the “Movie Jigs” as part of an assignment that I completed in my Electronic Music course.  I wrote them as part of a score for a short film about a dragon so when you are listening to them, the first tune is where the dragon gets lost, and his owner goes on an epic quest through mountains to track her dragon down. In the second tune, the dragon gets loose in a market place so you can picture the dragon knocking down cartons of apples, and bumping into people as he careens through the chaos.”

The “Movie Jigs” was one of two original tracks on Painted Glass, the second being “The Siren”, a beautifully haunting vocal piece about a man who leaves his wife to go to sea and becomes drawn to the rocks by a Siren. “At this point,” said Lawton, “his wife’s voice plays through his head telling him to come back home, so he does, and he survives.  I wanted the song to portray two strong female characters and demonstrate their leadership.” “The Siren” became the most played song on the album after its release, on platforms such as Spotify and the radio.

On the topic of strong female characters, Lawton shared that she has no shortage of role models in her personal life. She described several family members who have worked in the music industry, taught young musicians, and even a great aunt who studied piano at Juilliard. “Because of these women in my life, musical pride was very strong in my family and I was constantly encouraged to perform and learn throughout my entire life.”

Lawton recorded her debut album, Painted Glass, after graduating from music school. “Painted Glass was truly a passion project for me.  I had completed my music degree at Memorial University and had decided to take a year off of school to work and write. 

“I took a job as a full-time musician in Twillingate, NL with a theatre company based in Gander called ‘Beyond the Overpass.’  While I lived there, I chose not to have Internet or a television, and I did not own a car so I passed my free time by hiking, riding my bicycle, and writing music,” said Lawton. “ It was during that time that I was able to develop into the musician that I am today. I became more comfortable on stage because of the daily shows that I performed and it was there that I was able to hone my craft as a performer.”

In the past year, Lawton has signed a label with Citadel House, been nominated for the MusicNL awards, and most recently, received an ECMA nomination for Roots/Traditional Recording of the Year. “It still doesn’t feel real to me,” mused Lawton after seeing her name amongst prominent nominees such as Rum Ragged and the Fortunate Ones.

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“I grew up listening to the Barra MacNeils, and I met them last spring at the East Coast Music Awards.  I was star struck, and now I am nominated in the same category.  I can’t believe it. It is so nice to be nominated alongside friends too.  I played in a group called the Celtic Fiddlers with Mark Manning and Anthony Chafe of Rum Ragged so I can’t wait to attend the ECMAs with them.”

Life is moving at a mile a minute for Lawton, who recently completed a second degree in Music Education this past December. She had barely walked across the stage before she was offered a position at an intermediate school in Gander. “This has been a completely unexpected and very exciting change for me.  I never expected to be able to find a job doing exactly what I want to be doing right out of my degree and I mean right out of it because I only finished my program in December.”

Fans will be thrilled to hear that between job offers and award nominations, Lawton has managed to recently lay down tracks for her next album. “During my time off at Christmas, I recorded my second album called Untamed which is a vocal album full of songs about empowering Newfoundland women, and features the fiddle.” She plans to release the album in June of 2019 and to spend the summer months touring to promote it. 

The young artist is making heads turn across the island and country. She attributes this success to her unique relationship with this province’s music tradition. “I have been a big advocate for promoting Newfoundland and Labrador music, and putting it out in modern and different ways.  With Painted Glass, I put my own take on it by adding so many string harmonies, and I ended up calling the project ‘folk/classical fusion’.”

“With my new project Untamed, I have taken unaccompanied ballads and put them to music. I am trying to maintain the integrity of the songs while making them my own, and giving some of the lesser-known songs a second chance to be heard.”

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Through all the adrenaline and bright lights, Lawton reveals that the part of her career which excites her the most right now is “being able to help to instill a passion for music in young minds as a music educator. I love problem-solving and for me right now, problem-solving is finding different ways to access a child’s mind through music, so I am constantly looking for ways to help students relate to music at their own level.”

Lawton has three pieces of wisdom for young aspiring musicians.

“I think the biggest advice is the hardest to hear, but my advice would be, ‘Don’t worry, this takes a long time’.  I remember being insanely frustrated when I was in Junior High and High School because I just wanted to be respected as a musician in Newfoundland and get my music heard.  The fact was that I had not yet developed the skills that I needed to advance my career the way I wanted.  For me personally, I needed to go to university in order to achieve this but everyone is different.”

She also encourages budding musicians to seize every opportunity possible to enrich themselves. “If there are open mics, play at them.  If there is a session happening, go to it.  Sit next to someone who is good at what they do and ask questions.  The people who go to these events are often very open to sharing the knowledge that they have. Go to concerts!  It may sound expensive, but a lot of the opportunities that I just listed are very inexpensive or free.”

Her final piece of advice is one that applies to all walks of life. “Be kind. That old saying ‘You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’ rings true.  In the music industry, it is so important to build relationships and form connections with people.  When I say relationships, I mean friendships and bonds.  Get to know people.  Learn about their families and their passions. It should never just be what can they do for you.”

To follow Lawton’s next adventure, you can visit her website, like her Facebook page and check out her Instagram @rosemary_lawton, and follow her Twitter @rosemarylawton.