Meet Natalie MacMaster: wife, mother and virtuoso Cape Breton fiddler.
You know her more as the latter than the former; an electrifying performer whose passionate proficiency on the beloved four-string amplifies the traditional East Coast sound for contemporary times.
It’s a signature sound that has resonated with world audiences through 10 albums, multiple gold sales figures and 27 years; numerous Juno and East Coast Music Awards; two honorary degrees (from Niagara University, NY, and Trent University) and an honorary doctorate (St. Thomas University); the Order Of Canada – and a reputation as one of Canada’s most captivating performers.
She also has the respect and admiration of the crème de la crème of top-notch musicians: master violinist Mark O’Connor, whose camp MacMaster frequents as a guest instructor; legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma – who invited her to prominently participate as a guest performer on his 2008 holiday-themed album Songs Of Joy & Peace; banjo prodigy Béla Fleck; fellow fiddling marvel Alison Krauss; spiritually electrifying superstar guitarist Carlos Santana – the list goes on.
But to Natalie MacMaster, her beloved family now shapes and informs her musicianship as much as the jigs, reels, air, waltzes, strathspeys, marches and traditional folk that feed her spiritual soul.
“Not so much the sound as the delivery,” states MacMaster, who married handsome fiddle phenomenon Donnell Leahy of Leahy in 2002. “I am a Mom now. I am a wife. Those things are my priorities in life, and I think people get a sense of that – of that part of who I am – through my show. But my music itself hasn’t changed.”
If anything, family has reinvigorated Natalie MacMaster’s commitment to the stage and her audience.
“I like being on stage even more,” she enthuses. “When I appear onstage, that’s my departure from Momhood – and I transform into Natalie MacMaster: the entertainer, the fiddler, the performer. “ I relish that now more.”
As do her audiences, who are left clapping, hollering and screaming for more as MacMaster and her band wow them with stylistic diversity as reflected in such top-selling CDs as the Grammy-nominated ‘My Roots Are Showing,’ ‘Blueprint’ and ‘Yours Truly.’
The applause only increases in excitement when MacMaster incorporates step dancing into her performance.
“I was 16 when I started focusing on the step dancing, and it was kind of a joke at the time,” she recalls. “I was with a bunch of other young musicians and we all played and we all danced. It was a joke at the beginning, but then I began pulling it out of the hat so to speak when I needed to perk up the crowd, and it always did the trick.”
But it’s her majesty with the bow and her intricate technique in making the fiddle sing and championing the Cape Breton tradition that floors her admirers for over 100 shows per year.
“I guess culture and tradition never go out of style,” MacMaster explains. “For my crowds, they’ve been there for so many years – they just keep building and hanging on. I think they’ve seen me go from a very youthful new sound into a maturity and a confidence through the years.”
And she’s not simply sticking to her roots.
“I am a very musical person,” MacMaster declares. “I love music, and I don’t just love Cape Breton fiddling, although it’s my favourite: I love jazz and pop rock and country. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Anne Murray — if I hear something really great, like Bonnie Raitt’s Luck Of The Draw and ‘Good Man, Good Woman,’ I want to be a part of it.”
“That love spawned a few tunes like ‘Catharsis’ I recorded on ‘No Boundaries’ – my first rock piece – and ‘Flamenco Fling’ on ‘In My Hands.’ I heard flamenco guitar playing and I thought it was awesome, and thought I could put a fiddle tune over flamenco rhythms.”
“I guess I’ve never felt that because I’m from Cape Breton, that’s all I can do. I’ve always felt like I can play music however I want to play it, although everything is rooted in the tradition of Cape Breton fiddling.”