MacMaster returns to her Cape Breton roots

24 Nov

Cape Breton Home of our Hearts

Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is the No. 1 island destination in Canada and continental United States, according to Travel and Leisure magazine’s 2011 World’s Best Awards


By Jim Barber/Napanee Guide

Posted -10 second ago

With titles such as ‘Jimmy MacKinnon of Smelt Brook,’ ‘Butcher’s Jig Set,’ and ‘Stumpie,’ you can tell Canadian fiddle sensation Natalie MacMaster’s latest CD isn’t going to have a lot of covers of Jay Z or interpretations of ABBA songs.

Arguably the most traditional recording of her nearly two-decade career, Cape Breton Girl pretty much says it all – it’s an exploration of the music that inspired and shaped the life of the talented violin player and step-dancer, and countless generations of residents of the remote Nova Scotia region.

Released, Nov. 1, It contains 12 ‘songs’ – more compilations of like-sounding tunes, and encapsulates the unique variety of Cape Breton stylings, as interpreted through traditional Celtic jigs and reels.

In a sense, it’s sort of a ‘thank you’ card to the musical influences of her youth, including her own uncle, the legendary 87-year-old Cape Breton fiddle master, Buddy MacMaster.

“It’s definitely made for the hardcore Cape Breton fiddle fan. I think of the people who go to the square dances and they just love the music the way it is, without any bells and whistles, just straight-ahead traditional stuff,” MacMaster said.

“And that’s what moved me the most at home listening to music growing up. There’s a real deep meaning, and a genuine love for that music for me. I love listening to it, and I love playing it, and because of this music, I have met so many great musicians along the way.

“But there’s depth beyond that when I go to play the traditional stuff. I just want to satisfy those people who just love the Cape Breton music. And in doing that, you have to stay within the confines of the traditions. Not that it is difficult, but it is an obvious choice. In one way it’s easier to do that because it’s all spelled out for you. But in another way, it’s more refined, and you have to be really specific. On this album, there are medleys of tunes that I want to be carefully crafted. I don’t just go with the flow, it’s all very deliberate.”

The process to create the album began about three years ago, two years after her previous album, the more contemporary Yours Truly, was released.

And most of the recording was done two years ago, but MacMaster said she didn’t feel rushed to put out a new record.

Yours Truly came on the heels of the birth of the first child to MacMaster and her husband, the equally talented fiddler Donnell Leahy, from the Lakefield, ON-based family band, simply called Leahy.

Mary Frances was born in 2005, and three more kids have followed for the prodigious couple (Leahy is one of 11 siblings): Michael was born in 2007, Clare in Feb. 2009, and Julia in January of this year.

“Yes, it’s been a busy time. Someone just the other day mentioned that it had been five years since I put out a record, and I went, ‘no, you’re kidding.’ But I guess it’s true. There’s no rush. Life has been busy, and family is of the utmost importance to me. It’s my priority, so I fit this in when I can,” MacMaster said.

“I have maintained my career, but I am certainly not making any great efforts to expand and grow and move beyond where I am, at this point. In fact, I am kind of cutting back a little bit, because the career can’t interfere with the growth of these children.

“So I don’t like to be gone, or preoccupied too much. I am always looking for the right balance, and sometimes it’s overwhelming, and sometimes it’s totally manageable and it’s like, ‘hey, bring it on!’ It just depends, because with four kids, things change minute to minute.”

MacMaster and her husband do play some shows together, but both realize they have to focus on their primary acts: Leahy and ‘Natalie MacMaster.’

“I have had people who have been to 10 or 15 of my concerts and see the Donnell and Natalie show and say it’s the best one. My parents, who have seen so many versions of Natalie MacMaster, they see the show and they say it’s the best version of me,” she said.

“But it’s not the focus. Donnell plays with Leahy, and they are awesome, and they tour and perform and record, and when Donnell is with me, they don’t play, and that is a priority. We want Leahy to thrive. With minimal, special gigs it really can only help Leahy and Natalie MacMaster. They are the bread winners in that we’ve spent our lives crafting these careers.”

MacMaster immersed herself in Cape Breton music and spent countless hours, meticulously choosing tunes to include on Cape Breton Girl.

“I just literally go through song books, and mostly the old cassettes that we have of house parties back home. And then I have a library of tunes that I have notated myself, based on listening to those cassettes. So I just flip through those and see, ‘oh, I never did record that. It’s a great tune,'” she explained.

“For the most part, I just spent my time listening and jotting down notes. And then you’re piecing together five, six, ten tunes, and they all have to have a point, and they all have to flow together.”

She said she also relies on her piano player, Mac Morin, to help fit tunes together.

Morin often travels back to Cape Breton and returns with all sorts of ideas after going to a few house parties or square dances.

This past fall, MacMaster toured throughout Texas and other southern U.S. states, and is still amazed at how well traditional Canadian east coast fiddle music is received.

“It’s interesting to me always. I just freaks me out, actually, seeing how much they love it in the southern U.S. I don’t know why or how, but there is something that is delivered to them through the music, and they get it, and they receive it in the way it’s meant to be received somehow. I don’t know how that is, but I don’t argue with it.”

As for Cape Breton itself, MacMaster said that she misses her home more and more, as she is less able to get out east, because of her ever-expanding family.

“I find myself needing to go home, to be among the people, and stay connected with who I am and where I come from, and my family, and what it means to be a Cape Bretoner.”

With Cape Breton Girl, MacMaster shows no sign of ever forgetting her roots.


– Jim Barber is the editor of the Napanee Guide and a veteran music industry journalist. Contact him at

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Posted by on 24/11/2011 in Uncategorized


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