Irish Flute Player & Singer | Composer | Teacher | Podcaster
Deeply rooted in Irish traditional music, Boston-based flute player/singer/composer Shannon Heaton has appeared on stages in four continents. She has shared tunes for learning on her educational YouTube channel since 2015. And after receiving a 2016 Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, she launched the Irish Music Stories oral history project which explores universal themes through an Irish music and dance lens. Live Ireland named her Female Artist of the Year in 2011 and 2010; and she was Irish American News’s Female Musician of the Year in 2009.
When she is not playing Irish music, Shannon is an avid runner and hiker, and is STILL able to get lost in her local Middlesex Fells Reservation. Many of her compositions and podcast episodes have been written and developed after long forest explorations.
Irish flute/whistle player Shannon Heaton was exposed to a variety of music traditions during her first highly peripatetic two decades. She’s been learning and sharing melodies and stories ever since. After chapters in Iowa, Milwaukee, Southern Illinois, Nigeria, Navajo Nation, Thailand, Chicago, Ireland, and Colorado, she settled in her adopted home of Boston in 2001. She was named Traditional Artist Fellow by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2016.
A warm, entertaining performer, Shannon excels at making Irish music relevant and accessible in her duo with guitarist husband Matt Heaton, music sessions (all virtual at the moment), and the Irish Music Stories podcast, Shannon also composes tunes in the traditional style, and has written several “chamber trad” pieces for flute and piano.
When people ask me where I’m from, I usually say I started out in Chicago. That’s where I became deeply involved in Irish music. It’s the place I’d lived the longest (up until that point). And it’s easier to just say you’re from one place.
But I didn’t really GET to Chicago until I was 18. Before that I’d lived in Iowa City. (My first two years. Don’t remember it). Then my journalist parents moved us to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My beloved Garfield Avenue School was open back then. It finally shut its doors in 2006. (Public school deserve more support than they get.)
When I was seven, we headed to Nsukka, Nigeria. My parents taught at the university while I improved my penmanship, ate too many cashew fruits with friends, developed an affinity for Igbo Highlife music, and learned piano and recorder with Huguette Brassine. I recently tracked down my first music teacher. She had no memory of me.
Brassine may have forgotten me, but those early lessons focused on learning by ear and playing with strict rhythm stayed with me. So did those Highlife grooves.
On our way home from Nigeria, we spent time in the British Isles and Ireland. I traded in my recorder for a tin whistle. By the time we’d returned to the States, I’d worn out Matt Molloy’s black album (purchased on cassette).
We got a few new tapes just in time for the big book trips around the Southwestern United States. Travelling in an orange pop-top VW throughout Arizona, New Mexico and beyond, my parents worked on Let My People Know, a history of Native American journalism, while my sister and I listed to those Matt Molloy Irish flute albums (and Free to Be) in the van, and Native American flute music all around Navajo Nation.
A few years later, I heard some of those same flutes near Chichen Itza, on a family trip to Mexico.
Our next big move was down to Southern Illinois, where my 6th Grade Teacher Ms. Normagene Warner encouraged me to write about what I’d seen and heard, and to find the bigger stories behind the music. Three doors down from Ms. Warner, Ms. Swindell taught me to play the flute I’d inherited from my Aunt Mary Ann. I loved it even more than the tin whistle.
There were good, kind people in Southern Illinois. And in rural Wisconsin, where we’d summer with cousins. And in my dad’s homeland of Spokane, Washington, which we’d visit by train (from Carbondale, Illinois).
But all good things come to an end. And new chapters begin. My dad died just before my 13th birthday, and we moved back to the Milwaukee area—just two miles away from where we’d started, this time in the comfortable town of Shorewood. The local high school had a robust music and drama program. I got to play in the pit band for musicals on the silver flute and alto sax. Outside of school, a few of my mom’s grad students encouraged me to continue learning Irish tunes on whistle. Aidan, Chris, and John even arranged a backstage visit with Matt Molloy, whose music had rocked my world since that childhood trip to Ireland and the book trip years.
I took a break from Irish tunes for my first year of college at Achiwa Seuksa in Suphanburi, Thailand. I played lots of music, but it was Thai music that year. Even though I was getting together with friends to play Pleng Pae and not the Galway Rambler, I loved being part of a social music tradition. It was fun to get together with a gang, to hang out and learn tunes together. We were a little tribe, with a shared passion.
When I went on to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, I tried to keep up my Thai music. But the closest group was at Wat Dhammaram on the far South side of Chicago, worlds away from North Side Evanston. So I headed into the local Irish pub. And there I heard wonderful flute players like Brendan and Siobhan McKinney, John Creabhan, sometimes Kevin Henry and Larry Nugent. I heard lots of great jokes, too.
When my friend Tom Peterson found an old German 8-keyed flute for me, I started to sit in on the Sunday session. That old flute had a huge crack in the headjoint, and I had to seal it up with beeswax in order to get a sound out of it. But it was my way in.
In between music theory, orchestra rehearsal, and anthropology classes, I’d play tunes with the gang. The more I showed up, the more Brendan, Siobhan, and accordion player John Williams brought in albums for me to borrow. And as I delved into recorded Irish music, I learned that some of my favorite flute players were also singers: Josie McDermott, Cathall McConnell, Marcas O’Murchu. I listened to more singers and even learned a few songs on my own (the first ones were from Paddy Tunney, whose son John had helped arrange that Matt Molloy backstage visit back in the day).
For my first solo adult trip to Ireland, I sought out singing and tune sessions. I got invited to set dance events in the country. I met people. And I couldn’t wait to get back. When I met Matt Heaton back in Evanston, I took him with me for the next trip.
Matt and I graduated from college. We got married. We fell into a habit of going to Clare for a while. We had a few wonderful Irish music-centered trips to Boston and New York. And in the late 90s we tried something really different. We moved to Boulder, Colorado and started mountain biking. There WERE Irish music sessions with really friendly people. Eventually we got back into playing tunes and started teaching. We formed our band Siúcra with singer Beth Leachman and later fiddle player Sam Amidon.
And we started going back to Ireland, which is where we were on September 11, 2001.
After the Twin Towers attacks, flights were grounded for a while. During that unexpected extended stay in Ireland we decided to move on to a bigger Irish music town—we’d already been to Chicago, so we thought Boston could be a good next stop.
We moved to Somerville, Mass in October 2001, in a little apartment near the Burren Pub. We played a lot of sessions all over Boston neighborhoods. In 2004 I founded Boston’s Celtic Music Fest with my friend Laura Cortese. Matt and I started traveling extensively as a duo, including big Fulbright/State Department tours through Thailand. With the help of our accordion playing friend and real estate agent Johnny O’Leary, we bought an old home in Medford and gradually fixed it up.
Almost 20 years later, we’re still here, with dear friends we’ve made through Irish music, through the Thai temple, though the local public school our son (a Medford native) attends. I’ve never lived anywhere as long as here, and we have no plans to leave anytime soon.
So, where am I from? It’s complicated. But the short answer is I started in Chicago and now live in Boston. You get the idea.