Boston-based Irish flute player/singer Shannon Heaton has performed and taught on four continents. In her duo with guitarist Matt Heaton and with her Irish Music Stories podcast, Shannon has made Irish traditional music accessible and welcoming for many. She received a 2016 Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and was twice named Live Ireland’s Female Artist of the Year.
Boston-based Shannon Heaton specializes in Irish wooden flute and traditional style singing. She is deeply involved with her local music community: she co-founded Boston’s Celtic Music Fest with Laura Cortese in 2003; taught for Boston’s CCE Irish Music School for a decade; and was named Massachusetts Cultural Council Traditional Arts Fellow in 2016.
Shannon was exposed to many music traditions on her way to Irish music, travelling extensively throughout the U.S., Mexico, Nigeria, Europe, and Britain and Ireland with academic parents. After her first year of college in Suphanburi, Thailand, she studied music performance and ethnomusicology at Northwestern University and attended Irish music sessions throughout Chicago. There she met guitarist Matt Heaton, with whom she spent many winters in Ireland.
When not performing as Matt & Shannon Heaton, Shannon has collaborated with numerous acts including Japanese-based tricolor, Newfoundland native Keith Murphy, balladeer Robbie O’Connell, harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and fiddle player Sam Amidon.
A wildly creative teacher, Shannon has created free resources for Irish traditional musicians, including her long-running “Tune of the Month” video/podcast series. During the early days of the pandemic, she started the Virtual Guided Sessionwith participants from over 50 countries. She is also a prolific composer and arranger. And her original music has been recorded by the Battlefield Band, Allie Robertson, Childsplay, and many others.
Shannon is a world class American performer with Irish roots and universal appeal. She is passionate about making Irish music accessible to players and listeners of all levels and backgrounds.
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 to that point. (And it’s easier to 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.)
- We headed to Nsukka, Nigeria when I was seven. My parents taught at the university while I listened to Igbo Highlife music, ate too many cashew fruits with friends, and learned piano and recorder with Huguette Brassine. (I recently tracked down my first music teacher. She had no memory of me.)
- On our way home from Nigeria, we spent time in Britain and Ireland, where I traded in my recorder for a tin whistle and Matt Molloy’s black album (purchased on cassette).
- On trips around Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, while my parents researched the history of Native American journalism for their book Let My People Know, my sister and I wore out more Irish music cassettes. And we also heard 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 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. 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, 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.
Two years and one more Ireland visit later, a few of my mom’s grad students encouraged me to revisit the tin 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. And with that, I was back in Irish music land…
… until my first year of college at Achiwa Seuksa in Suphanburi, Thailand. I played lots of Thai music that year. But it was “Pleng Pae,” not the “Galway Rambler.” Still, it was a social music tradition, and our little tribe got together to learn tunes and have meals together. I knew I wanted to keep that going, even after leaving Thailand.
So after an intriguing few seasons in rural Wisconsin with my Weird Old Aunt Jane and an extended Euro backpacking trip, I headed to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The closest Thai music group was at Wat Dhammaram on the far South side of Chicago, worlds away from North Side Evanston, So I ended up in the local Irish pub for my social music fix.
At the Evanston Sunday session, I heard flute players Brendan and Siobhan McKinney, John Creabhan, sometimes Kevin Henry and Larry Nugent. Then my friend Tom Peterson found an old German 8-keyed flute for me, and 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 at the university, I’d play tunes at Tommy Nevins. The more I showed up, the more Brendan, Siobhan, and accordion player John Williams brought in albums for me to borrow. As I delved deeper 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 played in lots of tune sessions. And I also found singing gatherings and set dance events. I made friends. I learned lots. 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 to Ireland.
Matt and I graduated from college. We got married. We fell into a habit of going to Clare for a while. We had 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 there, too. And we started up a tune learning session and formed our band Siúcra with singer Beth Leachman and later fiddle player Sam Amidon. And we kept going back to Ireland, which is where we were on September 11, 2001.
After the Twin Towers attacks, flights were grounded in Ireland for a while. During our unexpected extended stay in Galway, 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. (I had an Aunt in JP and a cousin in Cambridge, which is really all you need…)
We moved to Somerville, Mass in October 2001, to a little apartment near the Burren Pub. There were loads of live sessions then, and we played tunes seven nights a week. In 2004 I founded Boston’s Celtic Music Fest with my friend Laura Cortese. And then Matt and I started performing extensively as a duo, including big Fulbright/State Department tours through Thailand and month-long concert tours in Germany. Between trips, 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, the Thai temple, and 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. I’ve received support from my community and from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who awarded me an Artist Fellowship in 2016 (which I used to launch the Irish Music Stories project, a culture and oral history podcast and collection of essays).
So, where am I from? It’s complicated. But the short answer is I started playing Irish music in Chicago and now live in Boston. You get the idea.