Violinist, Fiddler & Entrepreneur
What’s a nice girl from an Alaskan family of bush pilots who’s sailed tall ships in Tahiti, fiddled around in Morocco (literally, fiddled), played in a Tony-award winning Broadway show, fiddled in pubs all around NYC, given remote tours of Alaska and so much more...what’s that busy and adventurous girl doing as our March Teafluencer? It could do with her big-time love of tea. It could also do with a chance encounter in a tiny NYC pub with a certain master tea blender. Read on to learn about the fascinating and can-do life of Caitlin Warbelow.
Harney: Tell us about you. Where are you from, educational background, where you live, family, your interest in music, etc.
Caitlin: I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, the eldest of four girls in a family of bush pilots, entrepreneurs and Alaskan pioneers. My grandparents moved to Alaska in the ‘40s and homeschooled their four kids while running a roadhouse and a bush air service on the Alaska highway near Tanacross. My dad and his brothers learned to fly from their dad in their early teens, and eventually took over that operation. So I grew up around airplanes, exploring the state, although my father didn’t want his kids to fly due to the risk. I don’t have my pilots license (yet)...probably my biggest regret thus far in my life! But I had a childhood filled with wildness, wilderness and community. In a place where any moment could turn into a survival situation, everyone looks out for each other. I feel very lucky to be Alaskan.
When I was three years old and living in Boston (my dad was finishing his PhD at Harvard), my mom happened upon a bunch of very young violinists doing an outdoor performance. She’d been looking for something for me to get involved in, so she signed me up for Suzuki violin lessons. Well, the rest is history! I got a great start in Boston, then continued back in Fairbanks with a series of exceptional teachers. The music program in Fairbanks has always been spectacular, which is unusual for a place so remote. I always tell people that Fairbanks has produced so many great musicians because it’s too cold in the winter to do anything except practice.
After I graduated from high school, I moved to Boston for college, where I got degrees in Anthropology and Violin Performance. I took a year off between undergrad and grad school to do two research-related adventures that involved sailing. The first was on a tall ship between Tahiti and Hawaii, and the other was on the University of Alaska’s research ship in the Aleutian Islands, during which time I studied sea birds and plankton. The following fall, I moved to NYC to pursue a masters degree in Urban Planning at Columbia University.
On my first night in town, I dropped my bags at my apartment and headed out to find an Irish music session. This is always the first thing I do when I get to a new place! The session I found was at O’Neill’s Pub (no longer in operation) at 45th and 3rd. While there, I reunited with a bunch of friends I’d met in Ireland the summer I was 16...all of us were traveling the country to play music at festivals and in pubs, which seems odd now that I think about it. Coincidentally, we’d all landed in NYC within six months of each other. By the end of that first night, I had a paid gig the following night! And that was the beginning of a few years where I would play tunes almost every night until between 2 and 4am, sleep for a few hours, then go to one of my two jobs or classes first thing in the morning. Looking back, I’m amazed that I graduated!!
I took a job with the US Census Bureau as a Geographic Information Analyst after graduating. However, by the next summer I had numerous performance offers that I couldn’t turn down. So I made the choice to pursue music full time. In all honesty, I thought I’d do it for a year or two and return to city planning. But the gigs kept coming, and my one-person business was successful enough that I kept at it. Ten years later, I’m still at it. The unexpected twists and turns of life have not led where I thought they would, but I wouldn’t change any of it.
As one does when they live in NYC, I’ve bounced around between boroughs and neighborhoods over the years, but I currently live in the Financial District. It’s not a place one thinks of as a residential neighborhood! But I love living down at the southern tip of Manhattan. It’s a chaotic mixture of very old and very new. I love that the narrow streets are not gridded, like the rest of Manhattan...it feels like the city is hugging me between history and skyscrapers. The sense of being in a place where so much history has occurred, so many lives lived, so much work done, is strong. And I’ve always felt more at peace living near water or mountains, so being so close to the rivers is helpful.
Though I’ve now lived in NYC for 14 years, I’ve maintained very strong ties in Alaska and travel back four to six times a year to visit family, go on adventures, teach, perform and do community outreach. For a while I was a part owner of a fishing business in Homer, and I’m working on plans for a micro-tourism endeavor, bringing small groups of people to the most wild, hard-to-reach areas in the state. Alaska is one of my true loves, as you can probably tell. But it’s not a place to make a living as a professional musician.
Harney: As you mentioned, being a professional musician is not the easiest way to make a living. What has your journey as a musician been like?
Caitlin: The good news is that NYC is one of the only places where you can make it as a musician, or at least make enough to pay your rent most of the time! It’s certainly tough, there’s no denying that. There are lots of traps to fall into. The hours are brutal, and there’s generally no job security or benefits for the majority of musicians. Performing in bars and pubs is not the healthiest of lifestyles. I have to say, just like my dad not wanting me to go into aviation, I’m not sure I would recommend this path to everyone! But, like aviation, it’s never boring. If you’re lucky (and yes, I think a lot of it is luck), you can travel the world and make a living bringing joy to others. And for someone like me who has always known a 9-5 job wouldn’t work, the risk is worth the reward: the possibility of being able to carve out one’s own path.
Harney: Please tell our audience what “trad” music is. Why did you choose that particular genre?
Caitlin: Good question! “Trad” stands for “traditional.” It’s actually quite hard to define, since it is used in many contexts to mean many different things. Generally, traditional music is music that is rooted in a place, often learned by ear and has existed in a culture or community for a long time. It’s not classical music, and it’s generally not commercialized very much. It’s got deep roots. Of course, there are many traditional music genres around the world, but we Irish musicians shorten the term and refer to the type of music we play as “trad.” I was first drawn to trad when I was five or six. Though I was supposed to be practicing classical music, I’d spend hours sitting in my room learning tunes by ear from recordings, which I’d beg my mom for. That’s how I learned most everything I play now - by ear from recordings and sessions.
Harney: How did you land the job playing in the band for the Tony award-winning Broadway show Come From Away?
Caitlin: That’s a funny story - funny in that I turned it down originally! In 2015, I received an email out of the blue from Ian Eisendrath, the music director of the show, asking if I’d like to come to Seattle for a few weeks. (This was two years before the show opened on Broadway, during the “out-of-town tryout” part of the process.) Emails like this are fairly common, so I didn’t think too much of it. The job seemed very interesting, but I’d already booked a trip to Morocco at the same time and changing that would mean a $400 change fee. So I wrote back and said “Thank you, but I have to decline.” Ian replied and said something to the effect of “Look, I know you don’t know me, but I have to tell you that this show is something special...more so than any other project I’ve worked on.” He asked if I’d reconsider. That really struck me! I decided I should take the gig. The trip to Morocco was moved back, and needless to say, I am extremely grateful to Ian for not letting me turn him down!!
Harney: Many industries have been hit hard by COVID, with live music performances among those hit most hard. Tell us about how COVID immediately impacted your career.
Caitlin: Oh man, there are so many people and industries who have been dramatically hurt by the pandemic. But live performance has to be one of the worst-hit, with the industry simply ceasing to exist overnight. And it will likely be the last industry to come back. Think about how packed in folks are when they attend a Broadway show, sitting for hours next to strangers, with performers singing, touching and kissing onstage! It’s logistically very difficult to imagine how and when the performing arts will resume.
Harney: Let’s talk about Tune Supply. When did you and your co-founder, Chris Ranney, first start talking about this concept? Was it totally inspired by the pandemic, or had you been discussing it before that time?
Caitlin: When we got home from the theater around 8pm on the 12th, I started pacing the apartment, completely at a loss for what to think or do. I knew we’d be closed for a while, but at the time, I thought it would be perhaps two or three months, which I could manage. My primary concern was for all of my friends and colleagues in the trad world who were about to lose all of their income as St. Patrick’s Day gigs were all getting canceled. Trad musicians rely heavily on income in March to make it through the year...it’s one of the only times when you can expect to have work. As someone with a Broadway show, I have been very lucky to have some job security and health insurance in recent years, something most trad musicians don’t have. So I knew I had to do something for the community - and fast.
At 2am on March 14, my partner, Chris Ranney (the associate music director at CFA), and I launched the Tune Supply website, with about 40 musicians on board. We offered five-minute personalized video performances for $30 each, and for the next many weeks we worked 24/7 to build a brand and platform out of thin air, in an effort to create work and get money into the hands of musicians who had lost their livelihoods overnight. At the time, I thought to myself: if I can get $10,000 into my fellow musicians’ pockets, I will have succeeded. Well, nearly a year in, we’ve paid out almost $120,000 to over 250 musicians for online performance work and are continuing to expand what we offer to both musicians and the community.
Caitlin: Yes! I have come to think of Tune Supply as an octopus. There are so many things that we jumped headfirst into, and every month we are launching new things. You’re correct that all the work we’ve done, and money we’ve paid to artists, has been made possible by community contributions (with the exception of those personalized videos which are still available). We want anyone to be able to take advantage of the performances, learning resources, community engagement and general whimsy that’s become a Tune Supply signature. There’s too much pain in the world to restrict something that can create such joy to just those who can pay. But at the same time, one of my goals has been to try to let folks know that music itself is not free. We’re used to being able to stream and download for little or nothing, but the fact is that every recording you hear is the result of decades of work on the part of musicians. As Tune Supply has grown, we’ve been successful in creating a strong community which is mutually supportive - from artists, to listeners, to learners and back. It’s like weaving a web that buoys everyone.
Harney: Your “Concerts for No One” series is amazing! It’s live performances mixed in with a bit of Nat Geo -- love the Alaska scenery and knowledge. From the stuffed animal dino mascot Avocado (with face mask!) to a real-life stuffed albino moose to stunning mountain backgrounds, these concerts have it all (including fantastic music). What was your inspiration? How have the concerts been received?
Caitlin: Thank you!! We had such fun filming and editing the concerts and sessions we did from Alaska, where we lived for three months in late summer 2020. We’d been in our small apartment nearly 24/7 since March, and I’ve never done well in hot weather. So when things warmed up, we decided to head north. I’ve always said I wanted to spend a whole summer in Alaska again, and this terrible pandemic meant I could do that without losing work in NYC.
Chris has been to Alaska many times with me, but we spent this trip traveling to places he hadn’t been...and some that even I hadn’t been to! We wanted to incorporate the beauty and wildness of Alaska into the broadcasts, because we knew so many people were stuck at home. And of course, to me, music and nature are two sides of the same coin. I have a long track record of taking my poor violin out into the wilderness and playing tunes in places that violins should not go, ha! So we continued that effort, filming on glaciers, mountains, in places you can’t drive to and in communities well off the beaten path (which is saying a lot in Alaska)! Everyone seemed to enjoy the content, and yes, our “pet” dinosaur, who has their own Facebook group, traveled with us. People must have thought I was being paid by the Alaska Tourism Board...but the fact is that I just love sharing my home place with others. I hope everyone can travel there at least once in their lives. It’s the best.
Harney: When live music comes back -- hopefully in just a few months -- will you continue Tune Supply? If so, will it look different?
Caitlin: That’s a good question...one that we’re being asked more frequently now. The answer is that I don’t know. It’s going to be highly dependent on how quickly venues open back up, but also how willing people are to go to those venues. I suspect that many people find value in being able to “attend” performances from their homes for various reasons. We have a lot of viewers who live in places where there weren’t any sessions or many performances before the pandemic, and so Tune Supply has actually opened up more opportunities. Those people keep requesting that we continue, even after the pandemic ends! But at some point, Chris and I will go back to work on Broadway, and at that point we won’t be able to work 24/7 on Tune Supply. So it may just mean a restructuring, to meet the needs of the community at that point, whatever those needs are.
Harney: Assuming you have any spare time, what’s your next project? Any more CDs?
Caitlin: Spare time is not something I can imagine right now, ha! But I always have a million projects I want to do next. I’d love to do another CD and to complete a fiddle learning method I’ve been saying I’ll do for years. But I think my next projects will actually be related to tourism in Alaska. I’m also very interested in the possibilities of Alaskan marine aquaculture. Who knows! I’ve stopped trying to predict the future. Doors close, doors open, and I’m an adventurer at heart, so whatever the next adventure is, I look forward to it.
Harney: You have a connection with our Harney family. How do you and Mike know each other?
Caitlin: Yes!! This is one of my all-time favorite stories, and I’ve told it so many times. It’s a perfect illustration of life in New York and how connections and possibilities are endless, if you’re open to the natural flow of the city!
A few years after I arrived in NYC, I was running an Irish trad session on the Upper East Side, at the tiniest bar ever. It happened late on Thursday nights. We’d regularly pack 10 musicians into a three-sided nook in the back. It was impossible to play without touching the person next to you. The acoustics were amazing, though, and we musicians could basically ignore the rest of the bar and exist inside of an intense bubble of trad. Because the place was so small, there were only three seats at which listeners could sit and be able to see the session. It was a little ridiculous. Sometimes people would stop by and then leave, rather upset, because the three seats were already taken. The pictures on the Tune Supply website are actually from this session.
One night after the session, a man who had been sitting in one of the three seats stopped me as I was packing up, and asked a few questions about the session and the musicians. This is the cool thing about pubs in NYC late at night - everyone is there!! People from all walks of life, doing all sorts of things, enjoying the extremely wide variety of experiences on offer. I sat down and we chatted for a while. (I have to thank my fellow trad musicians, specifically my good friend Dan Lowery, who taught me the art of talking to people in bars...I’ve always been painfully shy!)
I can’t remember exactly how it came up, but eventually the man introduced himself as Mike Harney, of Harney & Sons tea, and asked if I’d heard of the company. I said OF COURSE!!! I was already a huge fan. I couldn’t believe what serendipity this was, to meet Mike Harney in a tiny random pub late on a Thursday night. But this is how NYC works, and what makes it so magnetic. You never know who the person next to you is, but it’s very likely they have an amazing story, a shared interest and a reason to chat. Mike and I exchanged cards, and since then, about once a year, we’ve exchanged emails and updates. This chance meeting with Mike is one of my favorite things that’s happened since moving to NYC, because it demonstrates the infinite possibility that exists in this city, when people are willing to reach out to others. (And of course every time I see a tin of Harney’s, I think of that session!)
When the pandemic started, and we began doing Irish trad sessions online, I got in contact with Mike when we decided to do a Tea and Whisky-themed session. Sometimes I play gigs for Aberlour, the Scottish whisky company, and so on that session we drank Harney and Aberlour...just like at a regular session! It was lovely. We continue to drink both tea and whisky on the sessions regularly. And just last week, we did our 62nd live virtual session. Wow.
Harney: Love that story! What role does tea play in your life? Do you have any rituals that involve tea?
Caitlin: Well, I love tea. Oddly, growing up, I really only remember drinking water, with the occasional hot chocolate or cider from a packet after skiing. My parents aren’t really coffee or tea types. But for whatever reason, I became rather obsessed with teas early on and would go out of my way to obtain flavors and types I’d never tried.
For me, the thought of drinking tea is calming...even if it’s got caffeine. A cup of tea makes me feel like things are going to be ok. I find myself drinking tea even more during the quarantine, when the need for comfort and “feeling ok” has become even more important. My partner, Chris, who hadn’t really joined in my tea-drinking before last year, has become a tea fiend, drinking multiple cups a day! His current favorite is mint, and he buys it in bulk.
I find the preparation of tea, especially black teas, to be calming in and of itself. I’m a huge fan of good honey, and make it a goal to pick up a jar whenever I travel (or when I’m home visiting my sister, who keeps bees on her land). All the tastes and smells remind me of far-off places I’ve visited and experiences I’ve had - often in the company of Irish musician friends, many of whom also love black tea. (In fact, it’s the go-to drink of many trad musicians when they aren’t drinking the stronger stuff.) Tea is woven into the fabric of my daily life, just like music is.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea, or anything on your list you’ve been dying to try?
Caitlin: Yes and yes! Being a trad musician, my go-to tea is anything that’s strong and black. The Organic Assam and the 2001 Golden Needle Pu-Erh are favorites. On the rare occasion when I don’t need caffeine, I love the Organic Rooibos or the Chaga Mushroom and Chaga Wonder teas. (I grew up looking at chaga growing on trees, and didn’t realize its health benefits until recently!) In terms of things I want to try...well, like in life, I want to try everything. Especially the most unusual things! I’m fascinated by the Avocado Leaf and African Antlers teas, the latter of which I see is sold out! I’ve signed up for the waiting list, though, and can’t wait to have a sip.We can’t wait for you to check out Caitlin’s website, see the great work being done at Tune Supply, visit her Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube pages or download her digital albums, Warbelow Range and Manhattan Island Sessions. We’re rooting for musicians like Caitlin and the thousands around the world who have been significantly impacted this past year. Thank you, Caitlin, for your passionate work on their behalf and for sharing your journey with us -- we don’t have the words to adequately express our appreciation. All photography was provided by Caitlin.