NATALIE MACMASTER is a Nova Scotia blue blood — royalty tied directly or indirectly to Buddy and Isaac MacMaster and distantly Jack White.
In 2002, she married fiddler Donnell Leahy of the Leahy family band, and moved to Lakefield, Ontario. It’s been gangbusters ever since, and recently the duo teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin to record One, an album that captures the dazzling artistry these two have wowed audiences with for years, and bringing a genre of music steeped in the past into the 21st century in brilliant stereo.
Last week, our own ‘Ivory’ Bill King caught up with Natalie for a discussion about her roots, the album, and child rearing. What follows is another in FYI Music’s regular A Conversation With… feature.
Bill King: I was watching the video FYI Music posted of ‘The Chase” — quite a performance. You recorded the album in Cape Breton — was the music written long before or some on the spot?
Natalie MacMaster: Oh gosh, we’ve been putting this together for 12 years. A couple tracks were done there, but most was very well prepared.
Bill: You’ve lived in Ontario for some time now.
Natalie: Yes, every since we got married. It was an obvious decision when Donnell Leahy proposed. I was renting an apartment in Halifax. He owned a house, a hundred acres of land and a hundred head of cattle. I wasn’t about to ask him to sell his home and quit farming. It’s a beef cattle ranch.
Bill: How much are you involved?
Natalie: I take the cheque. He involves the children. They are there when they breed the cows and when the little calves are born; they keep them for a year or so and then they are sold.
Bill: You worked with famed producer Bob Ezrin on the recording. Did that put pressure on you?
Natalie: It put awesome pressure on me — I loved it. He’s amazing to work with. The difference in the air with Bob and without was very noticeable and I’d much rather him be there. There were moments when he came in for three or four days and we did one day without him — which was overdubs and things, but the day that he left we were all saying we wished Bob was there. It just wasn’t the same, as exciting — not as confidently run.
Bill: Did he get specific about things he thought should happen?
Natalie: He’s the kind of guy that goes for energy; it’s the vibe and energy.
Bill: Did you focus on the first few takes?
Natalie: Yes, 'five times max’ he said and 'we are moving on’.
Bill: At home do the two of you pull out the fiddles and often jam?
Natalie: To be honest with you, it’s a hard 'no’. It’s the age of the children. When you have a two year-old running around, a four year-old, and a one year-old infant, they have to be watched all of the time. So if I start playing the fiddle they might run around until they get dizzy and fall over and hit their heads on something. Or they are climbing in the cupboards. If I were to pick up my fiddle in the ten years we’ve had children, I would not be able to play longer than two minutes before stopping to pick a crying baby up, or there would be one crawling up my leg.
When we practice and play, it has to be planned out. We can’t play at the same time. We organize. We’ll say Tuesday at two o’clock — get a baby sitter for three hours, write or practice; hide away.
Bill: You’ve had such a storied career, so many great concerts. Are there any you wish you could experience again?
Natalie: That’s an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that. When I think of it, yes, there are moments I’d like to be back to. One was when we were opening for Carlos Santana years ago in Chattanooga, Tennessee and there were 80,000 people there and I broke a string in the middle of my performance. I’d like to repeat. I’ve actually had lots of cool gigs like that. Playing for Luciano Pavarotti. I would love to do that again. I would love to absorb these moments more.
Bill: Those moments are fleeting and not enough time to hold on to the magic.
Natalie: It’s so true and the memory is a wonderful thing; they are always sweeter in memory.
Bill: Cape Breton — God’s Acre. To my memory, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
Natalie: Wow! That’s really cool. I always find that interesting when people say that because to me Cape Breton is such an unrefined beauty. I always wonder what people see. I think it says something about the person. You’re not going into a manicured property.
Bill: It seems detached from the rest of the country. We went as far as Bay St. Lawrence.
Natalie: Now that’s detached.
Bill: Even went to Meat Cove.
Natalie: You’ve been to Meat Cove? Those places are very remote. We never spent much time up there. I’m from the other end of the island. I played square dances a half a dozen times over the years. You’d drive forever and arrive at a little dance hall and the place would be packed.
Bill: The reception must have been endearing.
Natalie: It was. They appreciated us so much. The best audience.
Bill: Buddy MacMaster passed away not long ago.
Natalie: About eight months ago.
Bill: Did you learn from Buddy?
Natalie: Buddy didn’t teach me fiddling. I have listened to him live and on cassette more than anyone. I did a recording with Buddy five years ago and am so proud of how I played with him. We played so well together — a feather in the cap, and people will say we sound very much alike; but for me, I think of all the different things I learned from him through listening. I think I sound more like him than any other fiddler.
Bill: How different is the fiddling of Cape Breton from the Cajun fiddling of, let’s say, Louisiana players like Doug Kershaw?
Natalie: I know who you are speaking of but don’t know that music intimately so it’s hard to comment on. But I do know the Cape Breton style. For those who are into fiddle music and know the nuances there is definitely a huge difference.
For Cape Breton fiddling, its most distinct attribute or virtue would be the rhythm. That comes from the bowing. There’s not a lot of slurring as compared to other styles. Slurring is when you put two or more notes in the same bow movement. A lot of times we use just one bow direction on one note. You hear the bow change direction for every note. It gives our music a truly rhythmical sound.
Bill: I would guess percussion instruments can be found in the kitchen?
Natalie: There’s always the good old spoons. Actually, there wasn’t a lot of percussion in anything I ever heard in Cape Breton music.
Bill: Dance is such a big part of it.
Natalie. Oh yes. Most of what the fiddlers play for are square dances.
Natalie. We never stop touring. We do about 100 shows a year. One-offs and sometimes thirty in a row.
Bill: The kids come along. Pack them in the bus?
Natalie: Yep. If I do one show, like St. Patrick’s Day in Nashville, I go by myself.
Bill: If you could sit down and jam with one fiddler from any era, who would it be?
Natalie: There’s a guy I saw on YouTube. I don’t know his name — but if I were to choose, I’d pick Stéphane Grappelli in a heartbeat!