Brittany Haas (‘09), Princeton’s Fiddler

By: Heather O’Donovan ’16

Brittany Haas’ Princeton journey began with a Google search. A precocious fiddler, she’d spent her adolescent years in California honing her craft under the mentorship of renowned folk musicians. By fourteen, she was out on tour with Darol Anger’s band Republic of Strings. By seventeen, she’d released her own solo debut album. But by the time senior year of high school rolled around and Brittany began to weigh her college options, she grew wary of a looming threat of burnout: “I had this idea that if I went to music school, my love of music might get crushed.” 

Brittany’s mom, a pianist, knew better. Ever since those earliest violin lessons at the age of five, her daughter had thrived under the guidance of exceptional teachers. So when her research led to the website of a folk fiddler named Dan Trueman who taught at Princeton University, she encouraged Brittany to schedule a meeting.

“I had this idea of what college could be — someplace where you get a really full picture — and Princeton really was that.”

— Brittany Haas

Attending Princeton, all the way on the opposite coast, meant that Brittany would have to quit Republic of Strings. But in the folk community, doors rarely close; they just swing half open until someone comes a-knocking. That’s precisely what occurred halfway through Brittany’s Princeton years, when innovative bluegrass group Crooked Still approached Brittany to see if she’d be interested in joining the band. Crooked Still’s cellist, whom Brittany had played with in Republic of Strings, was moving on to pursue other projects, and the band was replacing his part with a two-part fiddle-cello combo. Brittany had come highly recommended. 

“[Folk music] is such a community-driven scene. I met Bruce Molsky [her mentor] at a summer fiddle camp called Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School, he introduced me to Darol [Anger], and Darol’s group [Republic of Strings] introduced me to all of these other musicians.” — Brittany Haas

Balancing touring and recording with schoolwork required a meticulously divided schedule: weekends and school breaks were for professional gigs with Crooked Still and other East coast collaborators, while weekdays were dedicated to classes and homework.

As a Music Performance Certificate student, during the week Brittany delved into an eclectic array of musical genres and cultures: Indian music in an introductory course led by Zakir Hussain, a shakuhachi flute workshop with Riley Lee, and a British rock and roll historical survey. 

“When you study or listen to music, it becomes a part of you. Studying counterpoint in college probably helped me create better inner voices when playing a backup fiddle part. Learning all those different styles contributed to my development too. Even today, I listen to a lot of the same stuff I’ve always loved — old time stuff, Celtic stuff, Joni Mitchell — but I’ve also gotten really into choro music and other styles. It’s an eclectic mix.”  — Brittany Haas

And then, of course, there were the baboons. Just as Brittany’s musical pursuits had been inspired and nurtured by remarkable educators, a particularly exceptional biology teacher in high school fed Brittany’s passion for science. Declaring as an Evolutionary Biology major at Princeton, Brittany admits, “was a bit random,” but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Focusing on primatology and working with Jeanne Altmann (“the Jane Goodall of baboons”) Brittany studied secondary sex ratios in yellow baboons as a means of better understanding their matriarchal social structure: “Mother baboons are able to influence the sex of the baby baboons. That happens quite a bit in the animal kingdom, but it’s still pretty crazy.”

Lessons with Dan were also foundational during Brittany’s college years. 

“I remember meeting Britt as a prospective undergraduate, and it was like hanging with a peer; she was already a world-class fiddler, and just so mature as a musician.” — Dan Trueman

Drawn together by a mutual interest in folk fiddling but coming from two different traditions — Dan, Norwegian folk; Brittany, American — the pair didn’t so much have “lessons” as they did exchanges. ”We would get together for lessons and exchange tunes. After that, we started writing together: I would come with a tune that I’d written, and he’d come with a tune that he’d written, we’d show each other, and then we’d make second fiddle parts.” Having rarely composed before, she found the process thrilling. 

“In [Dan’s] approach to writing, there are no walls. You can do anything… especially if it’s fun.” — Brittany Haas

CrissCross, a 2012 album co-released by Brittany Haas and Dan Trueman

“Time flies at Princeton, and I remember her senior year approaching, realizing she was going to be moving on soon, so we set up a regular Wednesday afternoon fiddle session where we wrote stuff together, resulting later in the album CrissCross. It was such a delight for me, and I learned so much from her! To this day, I’m very proud of that album.” — Dan Trueman

Brittany was certain of the path she’d pursue post-Princeton. It was always fiddling. Since graduating in 2009, she’s traveled the world recording, gigging, and touring with Crooked Still, the Dave Rawlings Machine, the house band for Live From Here hosted by Chris Thile, Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser, Swedish fiddler Lena Jonsson, Natalie Haas (her cellist sister), and her own instrumental group Hawktail, among others. Her newest gig: fiddler for the Grammy-winning folk band Punch Brothers.

“I played in the house band for this radio show called Live from Here that Chris Thile [mandolinist of Punch Brothers] took over. He knew my playing and how I operate under pressure. When he invited me to join Punch Brothers, I actually already knew all the members [of the band].” — Brittany Haas

Alongside other ongoing projects, Punch Brothers is keeping Brittany perhaps busier than ever. When we connected for a Zoom call in early February, Brittany was enjoying a brief moment of repose in between an eight-show podcast recording with Punch Brothers that will be released on Audible this year and traveling for gigs leading up to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June. She was also about to go back out on tour with Hawktail and Swedish duo Väsen (first to the West coast for two weeks and then to Sweden for more performances and an album recording), editing an album that she and Lena Jonsson had recorded, and she’ll need to have the entire Punch Brothers back catalog memorized and performance-ready very soon.

“There’s a lot of comfort that I’m stepping into with Punch Brothers — they’ve been a band for 18 years — so I’m observing and learning a lot from watching their process.”  — Brittany Haas

With so many different projects in the air, Brittany tries to be intentional about making the most of her downtime: “I have a decompression phase where I need to go in the garden and exercise and cook.” 

Work sometimes creeps in, as when she has a student to teach or a lesson to record for the ArtistWorks platform. (Or as when the Music Department of her alma mater reaches out requesting an interview!) And practice is a constant — besides fiddle, Brittany plays banjo, guitar, a little mandolin, beginner piano, and drums (which she picked up during her time in the Princeton Band when her top choice, sousaphone, was co-opted by an influx of freshmen tubists). But just being at home in Nashville with her grandma’s old upright piano and the garden keeps her grounded.

2024 marks Brittany’s 15th Reunion, and while she wishes she could be Goin’ Back, she’ll need to settle once more for celebrating from afar. “Sadly, Reunions time is also prime festival time.” This year, Brittany will be across the country in California, playing the Strawberry Music Festivals with Aoife O’Donovan and Hawktail.

Thanks for chatting, Brittany! 

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