SimpleGifts to perform in Cambridge Dec. 10

By Elizabeth Sias

SimpleGifts, a Twin Cities-based musical group, stays close to the heart of Christmas by focusing on a traditional holiday repertoire that has become the trademark of this award winning six-piece ensemble.

SimpleGifts will perform in Cambridge Dec. 10. Musicians are Billy McLaughlin — acoustic guitar/producer, Karen Paurus — vocals, Jeni-Lyn Starr — piano/Celtic whistles/flute, Heather Garborg — vocals/piano/violin, Carin Vagle — vocals/melodica, and Billy “O” Oehrlein — percussion. Photo by Ryan Taylor

Now in its ninth holiday season together, SimpleGifts continues to combine violin, Celtic whistle, piano, acoustic guitar and percussion with three-part female vocals to create a “Modern/Old-World” sound.

SimpleGifts will perform in Cambridge at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Richard G. Hardy Performing Arts Center at Cambridge-Isanti High School. Tickets for $22 are available at their website or by calling the Community Education Office at 763-689-6189. For more information, visit

The concert will also serve as a fundraiser for the Cambridge Area Chamber of Commerce and Isanti Area Chamber of Commerce. For every ticket purchased, $8 will go toward the chamber of your choice. Please designate the chamber of your choice when ordering your tickets.

The Isanti County News spoke with SimpleGifts producer and acoustic guitarist Billy McLaughlin to discuss the group’s background and the challenges and rewards of creating music.

How would you describe your music?

SimpleGifts is a really unique combination of traditional acoustic instruments that some people have referred to as “modern/old-world.” We come at things with an old world flavor, with but a modern approach, so when we do Christmas music, we focus on the old carols and hymns that really focus on the Christmas story. We definitely have a Celtic sound with the combination of the violin and Celtic whistle. We play very much like an orchestra does, where as players we control our dynamics. We really play as an ensemble.

Is all of your music holiday-themed?

We’re going to branch out next year and do a non-holiday album. It will be fun to see what we come up with. On our last recording, we included some original holiday music that audiences have enjoyed.

What do you enjoy about creating music?

I believe the arts give people ways to express themselves when they run out of words to express what they’ve experienced in their lives. Music is very powerful, and instrumental music can be just as powerful as music with words. We really try to bring a very high aesthetic to everything we do from our set and how we pace our songs throughout the evening and connect with the audience to make them feel they’re part of the show in a deep way. Every audience we play for, we make a deep connection with. This music and this season has a big impact on people.

What are the biggest challenges as musicians?

A lot of these melodies and these songs have been arranged in so many different ways that coming up with something original to your group is very difficult to do. We’re proud that we can come up with something unique. I think our version of “Joy to the World,” for instance, adds something to the legacy of that song. It’s just so much fun to play that piece.

What do you find most rewarding?

The reaction from audiences. I love playing music and playing with other great musicians. There’s a high level of satisfaction. For me, it’s knowing that, when people come to our concerts and they hang around afterwards and say “I didn’t know what to expect, but that was the best Christmas concert I’ve been to in my life” — that’s very rewarding.

We’ve really gotten some momentum and shows are starting to sell out earlier and earlier. We do this music because we’re passionate about it, so to see that happen is rewarding.