Natalie MacMaster – A Cape Breton Girl

Natalie MacMaster – A Cape Breton Girl

When I was first asked to write an article about Natalie MacMaster, I was somewhat anxious. I wasn’t completely convinced that my meeting the Village People at Ontario Place, where I worked as a stagehand, had sufficiently prepared me for this assignment. So I did what any budding Rolling Stone reporter would do, I looked on YouTube. Yes, Natalie MacMaster can certainly play a fiddle, but I already knew that. She can also step dance, and that was something I didn’t know. Next, I headed over to her website. It was very informative. I suggest checking it out for all things Natalie MacMaster including: news, photos, road stories and 89 recipes! Some of them are family recipes, while others have been sent in from other musicians and fans. After making a mental note to try my hand at making a batch of Industrial Strength Brownies (perhaps with a Celtic Cousins Cocktail to wash them down) I decided it was time to give her a call.

With my laptop open at the ready and my black terry cloth headband embroidered with the word “SPORTS” securely holding my earpiece in place; I was ready to make contact. It was ringing! Unbelievably my phone started to conk out on me as soon as I had Natalie on the line. That’s okay when I’m talking to the folks on a Saturday morning, but I had Juno winning, Order of Canada receiving, Natalie MacMaster on the line.“Oh, sorry, Hello? I just have to change phones. Battery is dead. Are you still there?” I must have sounded like a train wreck. No matter, I had a killer list of questions lying right under the dog. “What was the first song you ever remember hearing?” (Classic query…answer at the end) As it turns out, Ms. MacMaster was very patient with me and we had a very interesting conversation, which couldn’t have been easy for her with the number of interviews she must have to give.

As mentioned previously on the Life in Quebec website, Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster will be appearing at Palais Montcalm on September 17 as part of the 2011 Québec City Celtic Festival.  I wanted to find out what she thought of our little walled city. Turns out she loves it! Well, all musicians say that, but she backed it up with proof. “I love the foreign appearance and the romantic character of Quebec City. It’s like something out of a movie.” I wonder if she was referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film, I Confess starring Montgomery Clift…?

Architecture aside, Natalie finds the passion of Quebecers appealing. “They really get into the music,” she says. Natalie and her husband, fiddler Donnell Leahy, both agree that Quebec concert goers are among the best. “There’s a real connection between Quebec accordion music and Cape Breton fiddle playing; they’re both light, joyful and have great rhythm.” says MacMaster. Although she doesn’t speak French she points out, “My music is instrumental and music is a universal language.” I thought I would try to impress her with my knowledge of local cuisine, but there was no doing. Turns out that Natalie lived on poutine while she attended teacher’s college in Truro, Nova Scotia. I’m guessing it was at the Prince of Pizza because it’s right around the corner from the Institute for Human Services Education and 94 people like them on facebook.  Basil Knockwood writes “One of the Best Donair Poutines I’ve had!! Good Job!” Donair poutine…?

MacMaster’s teaching degree in early education is serving her well as she homeschools her four children, ages 5, 4, 2 and 7 months. And to think that I was impressed with the fact that she’s played with Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Santana. But who impresses Natalie MacMaster? She’s inspired by some of the great moms that live around her. She says “You have to put kids in the environment you want them to become. They’re not going to want to play a fiddle, or do anything, if their friends aren’t doing it.” I guess there’s a lesson to be learned if a world famous musician finds raising her children to be one of life’s great rewards. She admits that leaving home to tour is one of the most difficult things that her and her family have to deal with, even though they often travel together. MacMaster says “It’s a necessary part of the job.” When asked what she enjoys about her profession Natalie doesn’t hesitate, “I love music. I need to play. I need to entertain.”

She credits her parents with teaching her this maxim: “Work and work hard to hone your craft while you’re young and you have the energy, drive, time and opportunity to learn. Save what money you can.” She confides that if she hadn’t followed their advice, she wouldn’t be enjoying the life she has today. That’s good advice. I decided to get some pointers on inspiring my 11-year-old to practice his trombone. Natalie practices an hour a day, that’s when she’s not on tour. According to MacMaster “It depends on the person if music is important, everyone has different gifts. Learning an instrument helps with one’s personal discipline. It would be good if schools could try to teach kids to play an instrument. If we were all musicians in this world, there would be no war.” Natalie’s not totally sold on computers. She muses that “The world might be a better place if they were never invented. Sure I use them, but people weren’t meant to spend so much time in front of a screen or socializing exclusively electronically. We need to see each other face to face, to be within each other’s physical presence.”

Traditional, that’s the word that comes to mind when describing Natalie MacMaster. It’s also the inspiration behind her upcoming CD, Cape Breton Girl, recorded at the Glen Gould studios in Toronto and due out in October. According to Natalie, “While my other albums have included traditional music they have also been more exploratory, more arranged.” On Cape Breton Girl MacMaster plays a selection of good old tunes, keepers, as she calls them that she has picked up over the years. “While there are other instruments on the recording, it’s the piano and fiddle, the core instruments of Cape Breton music that make up the bulk of the sound.”

Preventing Cape Breton traditions from being lost is something that MacMaster aspires to in her recent book, Cape Breton Aire. In the works for several years, this 161-page hardcover coffee table book is the story of a musical life and place. It takes the reader on a journey through the musical history of Natalie’s beloved Cape Breton Island and features 6,000 beautiful photos of its landscape and its people.

Oh yes, that first song Natalie remembers hearing? “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell.

Categories: Arts & Culture

About Author

Jason Enlow

Jason Enlow is a Special Education Technician at an English elementary school. He was born in Montreal, Quebec and grew up in Burlington, Ontario. Jason studied Radio and Television at Ryerson University in Toronto. His previous employers include CityTV, CBC, The Weather Network, and Global Television. He’s worked as a DJ, camera operator, musician, teacher, translator and video game content designer. Jason moved to Quebec City in 1997 where he still lives today with his wife and three sons.