When Shannon and Matt Heaton travel to Thailand in January, they will be arriving not only as ambassadors from Boston’s roots music community, but also under the banner of a homecoming of sorts.
The Heatons, a local husband-and-wife duo who play traditional Irish music, recently raised close to $7,700 through an online crowd-funding campaign to finance a new album they will celebrate with performances across Thailand.
Let’s get that straight: A Boston couple venturing all the way to Southeast Asia to play Irish music for the locals?
It makes sense when you consider Shannon’s background. At 17, she was living in the Midwest when she made a decision, rather nonchalantly, that would stick with her to this day. She won a Rotary Foundation scholarship to study abroad her first year of college.
Her fellow scholars were headed to the usual places — Germany, France, England — and Shannon wanted a challenge. How about Thailand? Never mind that she had to look it up on a map and didn’t speak a word of Thai beyond the vocabulary terms she had learned from stickers placed around her bedroom.
The good news? She was told her host family was bilingual. The bad news? They spoke Thai and Chinese. Nonetheless, she was sent to a small village called Suphanburi, and it was promptly a matter of baptism by fire.
“There was no English. It was a tough first couple of months, but that’s how you learn,” Shannon says on the phone from the Medford home she shares with Matt and their son, Nigel, 3. “It was like zero to 60.”
It was in Thailand that she first got a taste of the multicultural thread that she and Matt weave through their take on Irish roots music. She arrived there with her flute but quickly switched to playing traditional stringed Thai instruments.
“Those early experiences in Thailand were about realizing the commonality of traditions for everybody and wanting to show that in my music,” she says. “I want to show people how much all different cultures can come together and be authentic, and authentic doesn’t have to be regional.”
“That’s a big part of who she is,” says Matt, who first recognized that when he and Shannon met in 1991. “I think Thailand was a major formative experience for her.”
That’s apparent in the music the Heatons have been making since they moved to New England in 2001 to be part of the local music scene. Their albums have incorporated their deep interests in different styles, from Shannon’s love of old bluegrass and country to Matt’s experiences with Brazilian music and surf sounds. She plays flute, he’s usually on guitar.
Shannon, 42, is fluent in Thai, which is amusingly obvious in the video for their fan-funding campaign on Indiegogo. She peppers her speech with various expressions in Thai, while Matt looks on and holds up cue cards to express himself. The money they raised will offset travel costs to and within Thailand (they’ll give a free show in Suphanburi), plus the manufacturing of CDs. The new album, which they’ll release in February, will be called “Tell You in Earnest,” with each song imagined as a “dialogue ballad” (as in a conversation between two people).
It’ll be the Heatons’ fifth album as a duo, which makes you wonder: Why make the connection to Thailand now?
“It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with being fully honest about my unorthodox set of influences. Matt and I are not preservationists of Irish music,” Shannon says. “We are fine to be totally accessible and bring in all of our own unique musical ideas. And at this point in my life I’m not ashamed to admit that some of our greatest arranging moments have been inspired by Pixies songs.
“But back in the day when I was really learning Irish music and trying my best to know about tradition, I guess it harks back to those Thai days of really wanting to fit in,” she adds. “I was embarrassed to let people know that I had this whole weird background and set of influences. And now I feel like: well, whatever. That’s authentic to me.”