Known for her incredible Celtic fiddle and stunning step-dancing skills, Canada’s Natalie MacMaster is a Cape Breton treasure.
Not content with an outstanding music career, MacMaster went on to marry another fiddle legend, Donnell Leahy, in 2002 and the couple have raised seven children together.
Her latest album Sketches is a Celtic masterwork and draws on projecting emotions without any vocals.
She heads to Stratford’s Avon Theatre on Jan. 25 and returns to Brantford’s Sanderson Centre on April 8.
We spoke with Natalie at her Lakefield, Ontario home.
You grew up with a very extended musical family. So there must be a formula for being successful as a parent, wife and a respected musician. How do you keep it all balanced?
Well, I’m not really sure. We just kind of do it. I think like anything in life you come to it in little increments. So even for the example of having seven children, we just didn’t have seven children, we had one. You know, you slowly ease into it. Now, this is a big story, it’s like, Oh my gosh, you’ve got seven kids, you home school, you tour, you both have careers, how do you last? Well, you can understand this is the path that life has led us down and we have said yes to follow by many little actions and slowly over days, weeks, months, years, we can make a statement and it sounds like a grand statement, but I really think that anybody given the same set of circumstances that we grew up in and were given, that anybody would do the same thing. It’s not as hard as it sounds. I just do it. I feel like a Nike ad campaign now.
Did you always want to have a big family?
I guess so. I tell Donnell now, and I remember when I was in high school telling my friends I was going to have six kids someday, three girls and three boys. So, I don’t know. Then in my twenties, I mean, for me, I’m always open to all of that. So, we didn’t set out for any amount of kids. We were open to what life is going to give us.
When you go on tour or you play a show, do you get to bring the family with you?
Most times, yes. Any big tours we do that are fairly extensive, like two, three or four weeks, we will take everybody. Usually the shows that we do together, we do it with everyone. It’s like it’s a family, more of a family show and that’s what it’s becoming anyway. And then, for gigs that we do separately, we might just take one of the kids, do something special, or something different.
Tell me about Donnell. It seems like you guys have the ultimate relationship, both career and family-wise.
Donnell and I look at each other and we say, you know what, it’s pretty good. I think the biggest key for us is that we just come from an era with our parents example where you’re just there forever. You’re going to be there no matter what. We’re flexible with one another. We allow each other to be themselves. We don’t try and force change or anything like that and we’re glued. It just is. It’s how we live and that’s how our parents lived their lives together and that example was given to us. It was an unspoken thing and you don’t discover it until you’re in your parents’ shoes and you don’t even think of it until someone asks the question.
If both of you guys were the fiddle players in The Devil Went Down to Georgia which one would you be? Would you be Johnny or would you be the devil?
Oh, I’d be the devil. Yeah, that’s a great question. Donnell would be Johnny. Donnell is very obedient. I’m a rule breaker. Donnell is just with little things, I always get a kick out of when we’re walking through airports and it says, don’t drive your stroller on this walkway and I’ll just quickly do it, you know? Donnell’s like, Oh, you can’t do that.
You make the fiddle speak when you play it. It’s like an extension of your whole being with your relationship, it must be extraordinary?
Yeah. I mean it’s funny, somebody just recently gave me a copy of a thing that was done in 1994, so it was 25 years ago and at some festival somewhere. We were listening to it yesterday and I was analyzing my music then. I mean I feel like I’m the same, but there’s something more seasoned, I think, about me now and to just answer your question, I definitely feel as the years go on and times go on and you keep at your craft, you do mature with it in ways that you can’t predict. And it’s a subtlety, but it is there and it is definite and obvious, but it’s subtle and it’s beautiful. And I do like the transformation, the slow transformation.
And I remember one time my uncle Buddy MacMaster, who was, who passed away two years ago, he was 89 when he died, but we passed a fiddle around one time at our house. Buddy was sitting there and there was a bunch of people like myself and Donnell, and some of Donnell’s siblings who played fiddle and a few friends, they were all fiddlers. So there were 12 of us and we passed this one fiddle around and everybody had to play a little piece of a tune on the fiddle. And when it got to Buddy’s hands and he would’ve been probably 80 or we’ll say in his 70’s, he was probably in his late 70’s at the time. When it got into his hands, it just sounded like a different instrument. There was a calm seasoning about it. A season found, a maturity of depth. A calm that was not existent in any of these other fiddlers, myself and Donnell included, like there were good fiddlers there and here’s this old guy and so yeah, I’m looking forward to living through that change.
With spending your whole life playing the fiddle, do you find that it gets repetitive or are you still discovering new things about it?
It’s freaky, but I’m so just excitedly discovering new things. I can’t quench the thirst. Yeah, it’s awesome. And I don’t know why. You’d think after all these years, I’d be sick of it. I think it’s just the change of the, the thrill of the game is still there. The game being, what’s going to come, what’s around the corner? What can we try for and achieve, that’s the game. How do we do this? How do we do that? And then, the actual music of it is the game, and then there’s the actual music that is an absolute delight, like to write music. I love writing music. I never get to do it very often. That’s probably why I like it so much. I’m always consumed with parenting, which is number one. So, you get that in little bits and I just love it. Love trying to be a better player. I’m still working on my intonation. Its 37 years. It’s still an adventure. It’s still exciting.
Out of your entire catalog, what is the hardest song to play?
That is a different answer for different stages in my life. I was telling the kids the other day, they obviously all play fiddle and one of my daughters said, mom, I want to learn this tune called Olympic Reel. And she’s eight and I said, “Julia, I was like 25 when I had to learn that tune.” And I said, “It took me a month.” It took me a whole month. And now, when I play the tune, I realize this tune isn’t that hard. But at the time, it was a new challenge for me. And so, that was where I was at then. Now okay, I can remember when I was a teenager learning Tullochgoram, which is a traditional Scottish piece and it took me probably a month. Now, to learn it, it would take me a day probably. It just depends on where you’re at in life.
Your new album is called Sketches. Why did you call it that?
Because, I felt like I wanted to give the listener a sense this record was a sketch of the music, basically. It is not a full band. It is not a big production. It’s an outline of the music. And the reason why I don’t want to do a lot of music is I recorded the whole record with guitar. Just a guitar player. The first time I’ve never had piano on a recording and I did it with just guitar and then, I over dubbed the bass. It’s very simple. I mean the arrangements are still very intricate, but just a couple of people playing melody. That’s why it’s called Sketches. I’ll let you fill in the rest. And, on the cover is a picture of a hand, a bird settling in someone’s hand and it’s meant to represent a rare beautiful moment.
Is the cover art actually one of your sketches?
I can’t draw. Actually, originally Donnell and I were saying, Oh my gosh, we could have the kids artwork, you know? But then we thought, Oh, it might look like it’s a kid’s record. We thought, no, we won’t do that. I had a girl draw something. I didn’t tell her what, but we talked about conceptually, what we wanted it to say. I want to say it was different than normal. She was thinking rare bird, settling on the hand and I see real beauty in the simplicity of it. Anyway, that’s getting really deep about it, but you asked, so there you go.
Do you miss the East Coast? I know with songs like West Bay Road, it sounds like you still love the area.
Oh my goodness. I love it. Every time I think of it, I get teary eyed and it comes up on me like that. I just think of it right now and my eyes are welling. Yeah, I love it. Do I miss it? I can’t say I miss it and I don’t know why that is. Like, to be so moved by the place and, but not having feelings of longing for it. I don’t have missing type feelings. I have feelings of favoring and loving and gratefulness and we go there a lot. I mean we’re there three or four times a year anyway. I see my parents probably six times a year, because they come up or they meet me at a gig somewhere or something. remember when I was in my twenties, I remember the first year we were married, I was home in Cape Breton more than I was the previous five years.
Maybe that prepared me. I’ve just been used to jet setting and gone, gone, go, go, go going, and going. I’ve been leaving Cape Breton for decades and I guess I’m used to always feeling like, well I’m just gone for a bit, but that’s my home, you know what I mean?
I still feel like that. I feel I’m just gone for a bit. I know, it’s strange, but anyway, it’s good. I don’t analyze it too much, because I don’t want to change. I mean, I don’t live there now. We’re raising our kids in a little farming village in Ontario and I wouldn’t change that. I just love it. I don’t know why I have such a sentimental attachment for home, but yet I’m 100% confident on where we’ve been planted to raise our family anyway.