By Emily J. Weitz
When Molly, Edith, and Elsie Gawler were growing up, there was always music playing in the living room. From the traditional fiddle music of Ireland and Quebec to folk greats like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the three sisters were raised on the music of their parents. And their parents, Ellen and John, continue to be musical powerhouses in their own right. There was never a moment when they decided that the music they shared together needed to be shared with the world outside their home. It just happened.
“It’s not like we decided as a family that we were going to step it up and become more professional,” says Edith Gawler, who plays the banjo and often carries the alto line in the Gawler Sisters’ band. “It’s been a natural evolution. We don’t even actively pursue gigs.”
But the gigs are coming, including a concert they’ll be playing this Saturday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center to benefit WPPB 88.3 FM, the local public radio station in Southampton.
“The crowds just gradually got bigger and bigger,” says Edith, “and the requests came in more often and we practice a little more, but it wasn’t a conscious shift. We’ve grown musically and also as a family.”
Edith met Bennett Konesni, who is the executive director at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, in 2008 and they were married in 2011. Konesni joins John on the bass part of the Gawler family harmonies, and it seems too fitting a metaphor the way he fits into their music as he fits into their lives.
“There’s a thing with family bands,” says Bennett, “because genetically they’re all connected and they all grew up making the same types of sounds. People who are related can blend their voices much quicker because they already sound the same. It’s interesting for me to blend with this.”
At Westhampton Beach this Saturday, the whole family will be present and John, Ellen, and Bennett will all join the girls onstage. But it’s primarily the sisters’ show.
Molly, the eldest, plays the violin as she’s been doing since she was three years old. Elsie, the youngest, plays the cello. And Edith, the middle, plays the banjo. The harmonies, which are an integral part of what they do, are sorted out depending on who brought the song to the group and who fits the part most appropriately.
“Usually what happens,” explains Edith, “is whoever brings the song to the group will take the lead, unless it really speaks to someone else’s voice.”
“The Harrow and the Plow,” a new song that they haven’t performed very much yet, is a poem that Elsie put to music.
“She came up with this incredible melody,” says Edith, “and I started humming in the background, and this harmony emerged and it stuck. I have the harmony below her, and Molly above her, and we all sing on the chorus, and it’s a really fun sound that we’ve all created as a family.”
Many of the songs that the Gawler Sisters perform are old traditional tunes that very much carry the culture from which they came.
“So many people before us have been playing and interpreting these same songs,” says Edith. “It’s a living tradition, and if people stop playing them, they’ll disappear. We feel very much a part of that tapestry.”
Edith acknowledges that people are writing amazing new work all the time, and gives a nod to her husband Bennett, who she calls “an incredible songwriter.”
“But we feel just as important is bringing the music we love from traditions all over the world,” she says, “and giving them to people who never ordinarily hear that sort of music.”
The Gawler family hails from Maine, and the sisters feel very connected to this heritage. That is where their roots are, and you can hear it, Edith says, in the way that they play.
“But now that we’ve been able to travel,” she says, “we find that same quality of music in all sorts of different communities. They resonate with us.”
When Bennett joined the family, they also brought in his wealth of experience, which includes having studied work songs in 13 countries. He now shares these with the Gawlers, and with anyone who comes to see them play.
“Bennett will teach a work song to the whole crowd during our show,” says Edith, “and it’s one of the most special moments of the night, where he brings people in and gets everyone singing.”
Bennett compares it to when he’s at home with the family, bringing the wood in for the wintertime.
“We have a tradition now,” he says, “where we’ll line up and pass the wood from one to another, singing work songs the whole time. We’ll move a cord at a time, really quickly.”
At WHBPAC on Saturday night, the crowd won’t have to do any hard labor, but by listening to the voices of the Gawler Sisters and joining in when they can, they’ll get a glimpse of why this family is constantly referred to as “fun-loving” and “joyful”.
The Gawler Sisters will be performing on Saturday April 20 at 8 p.m. at West Hampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. Tickets are $35 for general admission or $150 for VIP, which include a champagne reception after the show. This show is a benefit for WPPB 88.3 FM. Visit www.whbpac.org or call 288-1500 to purchase tickets.