When Riverdance made its theatrical debut, Haley Richardson was eight years away from making her world debut — as in, being born.
Next week, the 17-year-old fiddle player from Pittsgrove, N.J., will be at the Merriam Theater as part of the revived, 25th anniversary tour of the Irish music-and-dancing extravaganza. Richardson, a precocious fiddler, stars in a band of four. (Other instrumentalists play percussion, saxophone, and uilleann pipes/concertina/tin whistles.)
Outnumbered by the show’s 20-some dancers, the musicians spend most of the two-hour production onstage, playing not only rocking jigs, reels, and airs, but also flamenco and Russian fare. Richardson said it’s not exhausting, it’s “energizing.” She’s 17.
Richardson has performed and recorded all over the world, released two albums (with one more coming this spring), played with Altan, the Chieftains, Dervish, John Whelan, and more. She’s also won fiddling competition after fiddling competition, many in Ireland.
Here, the poised wunderkind, in a South Jersey accent (she dropped the first “r” in “library”) with Irish expressions (“a good few years”), spoke from a tour stop in Portland, Maine, about how Philly’s Celtic music scene figured into her formation — and why anyone can be Irish, if they want.
You’re the only fiddle player on the Riverdance tour. Are you also the youngest band member?
I’m the youngest. Most of the other members are in their 20s. But we all have mutual respect for one another, regardless of age. They’re not treating me as if I’m 17. I’ve been having so much fun performing. In Montreal we played to 3,000 people — it was sold out and everything. Everyone is so enthusiastic about the show. It’s a huge milestone for Riverdance.
How did you get your start playing the fiddle?
I have two older brothers. My parents were homeschooling all three of us. As part of our education, they thought it would be a good idea if we took up an instrument. It was super casual: Pick one, try it out, you can move onto something else if you don’t like it.
My brothers picked drums and guitars. I picked violin. We always had classical music playing all over the house, and that’s what I was drawn to.
I started with Suzuki lessons at age 3. Then, my mom and I were in the library one day, picking out books. My mom saw a poster for a Kevin Burke concert and explained he played a different genre of violin music — Irish music. I was transfixed, dead set on learning Irish music from then on. I was 5.
What was it about Irish music?
I don’t remember what drew me to it at first, other than I just liked the sound of it. I think the reason I’ve stuck with it, more than anything, is the community. Especially growing up in Philadelphia, there’s this huge Irish music scene. They’re so accepting and so welcoming, especially of young musicians. The adults were very eager to have a young musician to share what they knew.
Later, when I was traveling, I found you can always find a community of Irish musicians or people passionate about Irish culture.
Where did you find your first Irish community?
I spent a lot of time when I was first getting into Irish music at the Commodore Barry Center [in West Mount Airy]. The second Sunday of every month, Kathy DeAngelo and her husband Dennis [Gormley] and Chris Brennan-Hagy welcome this huge group of young musicians. They split us into groups of three and teach us a tune. They’d spend the time to really teach us the music. That was the best thing to keep me interested.
Where did you perform?
Growing up, I did sessions around the city: The Plough & the Stars, Fergie’s Pub. I’ve spent my entire life in bars, in an entirely weird way. I would always go in with my mom.
Did your brothers stick with music, too?
They were pretty full in for a while. My oldest brother was a great drum player, but he was more into sports when he got into high school. He went with wrestling. My middle brother Dylan and I, we got into the Irish music. He played guitar and learned to play anything with strings and a pick. We were touring a lot. Five years ago, Dylan and I did an album together.
Are you still in school?
I just graduated in December. I’ve always been homeschooled. I started doing a lot of online college courses that I could bring with me when I’m traveling.
So this is the first time you’re touring without homework?
Yes, for six months. It’s so weird to not have any notebooks with me.
How often do you get to see your family?
We’re FaceTiming all the time, I don’t know what we would do without FaceTime. We moved to North Carolina a couple years ago. My dad is originally from the Wilmington, N.C., area.
I think I was home for maybe a month in November, which was super rare. I went to Dublin over the summer and spent the whole summer there. Those three or four months were the longest I’d been in one place for a good few years.
Are you of Irish heritage?
We have one ancestor we learned about after I got into Irish music. We traced our relative back to Sligo, which was funny, because I was taking lessons from a Sligo-style fiddle player named Brian Conway.
There’s not much Irish in me, but there’s a little bit. That’s the great thing about Irish music: Nobody really cares if you’re genetically connected to it, as long as you’re enjoying it.
Jan. 21–26 at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org