Meet Ali Comerford, a musician and singer-songwriter from Ireland who has lived at International House for nearly three years. She is also one of the institution’s 2017-18 Women in Leadership (WIL) Fellows. I sat down with Ali to chat about music, life, and the I-House Experience.
What drew you to apply to live at I-House?
My mum! So I got into Manhattan School of Music (MSM) to do a Master’s and I didn’t know where I would live. But then my mum said to me one day, “There’s this amazing place—I Googled it!” and she told me about I-House and I thought it looked amazing so I applied. I didn’t know anyone who lived here when I applied.
What sort of art are you interested in? What sort of art do you create?
I studied Viola Performance at MSM. When I was living in London I played the violin, and I did an undergrad and Master’s in violin performance, and then one day I woke up and decided I wanted to switch to viola, and then I had the idea of coming to New York. I auditioned for MSM, got in, and moved over here. And I absolutely loved MSM—I thought it was amazing. I felt such ease and comfort playing the viola. And it’s funny because the stereotype of the viola is someone who’s super chill. And I found that they were! Everyone was so loving, so caring. It was a really great community and I had an amazing teacher, Ms. Copek.
Can you tell me about your experience living at I-House?
The best thing about living at I-House is that I have such a diverse group of friends now. I used to only have musician friends, but then I came here. And I get to live with people who do so many different things, I see how people work and it’s influenced how I perceive my own work now. It’s broadened my horizons, in a way. Lots of my I-House friends work in education, politics, science, engineering—and that to me is what’s been so beautiful about my time at I-House. As a musician, it’s so easy to isolate yourself into only being around other musicians, and I’ve found there are so many other performances at I-House, too.
In my first year at I-House I was still adjusting to life in New York, learning a new instrument. But after my first two semesters, I joined the acapella group at I-House started by Madeleine Klouda. We performed at I-House’s All Nations event, and it was so much fun. Through that I got to meet a lot of people. I got to play a lot of Irish music.
By my second year, I became one of the Programs Fellows, and then a Performance Fellow, which really opened my eyes to New York and new experiences.
This past summer, I was the Summer Programs Fellow. I did my very first ever 4th of July barbecue right on the I-House patio overlooking Sakura Park. It was my first 4th of July in America, and I’d also never barbecued before, so that was a funny and completely new experience for me. We all had fun. We also put on a Bollywood show.
There are so many opportunities for music and performance at I-House—I started playing in a band here, we write original music. It’s kind of like soul music, hard to define, really. It’s just me and a couple I-House Residents—it’s an all-Residents band! I’ve also played with the official I-House band, the Continentals, and they’re so good. They do covers, and the band was started by I-House Residents too. It really took off, they’ve put on shows in the pub and other places too.
What was the Performance Fellowship like?
I scouted tickets for things, told people about I-House and our mission. It was an amazing fellowship because it discounts tickets for Residents, and you get to experience so many things. Everyone goes in a big group. I loved the Shakespeare programs and we also went to see jazz at the Lincoln Center. Alvin Ailey was incredible as well, we went to a few of their performances and saw some Broadway shows. I think these opportunities are so great because you wouldn’t go by yourself—going with I-House Residents make it so much more fun. You all go together.
What inspired you to apply for the WIL Fellowship?
I knew one of the WIL fellows last year, Emily Rose, and she told me to go for it. It’s been amazing. I think the greatest part of WIL, aside from all the great programs, is the women who are partaking in it. All the women are so intelligent and they have great social and professional skills. Everyone is so accepting too, I feel like we’ve made a little band of women together. If we face any challenges, we all help each other. Right now, we’re organizing the WIL week in March, so we’re planning it out right now.
Last semester, at our WIL weekend, I learned so much. So many practical things. I really loved the two speakers from Alvin Ailey who came in and facilitated a dance workshop. That was incredible. It was really hands-on, and the engagement in the room was magnetic. We were all dancing, and it was about more than just dancing. It was about how you hold yourself, how you speak, and it was just wonderful. I think we all loved that.
WIL has showed me how much support women can give to each other. It promotes such a healthy environment for women to be able to express themselves and learn from each other.
Can you tell me a bit more about your music?
Yes! I do classical music and Irish folk music primarily. I do a bit of everything as a freelancer. I play in this quartet doing classical, pop, and Bollywood. We’ve done gigs on yachts, weddings, conferences, things like that. I perform as much as possible for different orchestras as well. Right now I’m also teaching, I have a few very young students I’m teaching the piano and violin, too.
I also just accepted a job with Lincoln Center Stage. They’ve started a new partnership with the cruise line Holland America, so they’ve started a Lincoln Center Stage cruise from Vancouver to Alaska. Five of us are going on as a chamber ensemble starting in May, and we’ll give classical concerts every night on a cruise for four months. I’m so excited for that. To be honest, it’ll just be great to play really solid music for four months.
I also just finished writing my own EP, I’m going to start arranging it now and hopefully soon I’ll be releasing it. The album is about a long-term relationship that ended. It was exactly what I needed to do. I was rediscovering who I was, and music helps with that so much. If you’re not being truly honest in your music, it will show through. The best music is because it’s so raw, there’s no hiding.
Do you have a favorite Irish song?
I always do this song called “The Parting Glass.” At the end of a gathering, you’ll sing the song, and so I sing it at events here. I actually sang it at one of our WIL events last semester, at the end of our WIL dinner.
What would you say to artists interested in applying to live at I-House?
I-House is so amazing for discovering yourself. People at salon nights here go up and perform songs they’ve written, and I-House creates a space where you can express yourself artistically with only love coming back to you. People love seeing each other on stage, there’s so much support here.