While it has been 20 years since internationally renowned master fiddler Natalie MacMaster left Nova Scotia, you may be able to take Natalie MacMaster out of Cape Breton, but you can’t take Cape Breton out of Natalie MacMaster.
… I will always want to be considered a Cape Bretoner. – Natalie MacMaster
“I remember all the times I travelled and would sign autographs, and people would say they were from Cape Breton,” says MacMaster. “And I’d always ask where they were from, and they would say that it has been 30 or 40 years since they moved away.”
“That always resonated with me, and I have often wondered how many decades you have to be away before people forget you’re one of them,” she continues. “And I realized that I will always want to be considered a Cape Bretoner.”
Recognizing her roots and contributions in helping to put Cape Breton and Celtic music on the map internationally, the award-winning and renowned fiddler will receive the Director’s Special Achievement Award at this year’s East Coast Music Awards (ECMA).
“I have to say, especially for someone coming from the East Coast, that I have a different appreciation for anything that comes to me from Nova Scotia,” she says. “It means a ton.”
MacMaster considers the ECMA recognition as icing on the cake after a career that has garnered her the Order of Canada in 2006, the Order of Nova Scotia in 2023 and countless awards over the years, including two Junos and a Grammy.
“Then this beautiful honour coming up with the ECMA, is a reminder to me that I’m still considered one of my own people, so it is very meaningful,” she says.
In addition to receiving her award during the East Coast Music Awards gala on May 4, MacMaster will take to the stage at the Scotiabank Centre as one of a dozen performers in the 35th-anniversary ceremony.
“There was no question when I got asked to perform, I knew exactly the piece I’d play,” she says. “It’s called Galicia, off our new album Canvas.”
Released last month, Canvas is the latest collaboration between MacMaster and her husband and fellow fiddler, Donnell Leahy. It is a title born out of the pandemic.
“We didn’t know what would happen to the world at the time, but we knew we had a ton of time and mental space to write and think about music, so we took our time and worked on it. It felt like a blank canvas,” says MacMaster.
Among the featured artists on the album is cello great Yo-Yo Ma, who performs with the duo on So You Love. And while MacMaster has worked with Ma on other projects over the years, his participation comes directly from the music.
“Donnell often said during the recording process to let the music talk, let the music decide. So when we wrote So You Love, we went down that road and tried to free our minds and see where it went and how the music flowed and what should happen,” she says. “We started hearing another instrument and thought maybe the cello. And as soon we said cello, we started with the best. Luckily for us, Yo-Yo had the time to do it.”
The album also features MacMaster and Leahy’s eldest daughter, Mary Frances, one of seven children quickly becoming an integral part of the family’s music dynasty.
“When Mary Frances was born, we swore we’d never have her on the stage, and that lasted about two years,” laughs MacMaster. “We always thought we didn’t want to have our kids in the limelight and wanted their lives to be their own and to find their own way.”
Of course, as musicians themselves, MacMaster knew she and Donnell would teach the children music “whether they wanted it or not.”
“I say it’s like eating vegetables,” says MacMaster. “We know the value of music and all the scientific data that music is good for mind development, and while we knew the kids don’t have to become musicians, they at least have to have an understanding of music. So just in doing that, they’ve just taken off with it and I absolutely love it.”
MacMaster’s commitment to her family is very evident. When asked what she would be doing if she wasn’t making music, her immediate response was a desire to find the right balance between her career and as a mother.
“I think that the beauty of motherhood is so underrated,” she says. “So if you say I didn’t have music, I think I would just be on fire with the homeschooling and catering to the needs of these other eight people that share this home.”
MacMaster is looking forward to getting back on tour, something that she and the family haven’t been able to do much of in the past few years because of the pandemic.
“I’m really, really looking forward to that,” she says. “It’s going to be great to get back to America on tour coming up at the end of May, and we’ll be taking our children for a trip to Ireland for the Irish Fleadh in Mullingar in mid-August.”
A second tour into the United States takes place this fall, and MacMaster will finish getting her first book, I Have A Love Story, ready for publication in the fall of 2024.
“One day, I discovered that, like all those love stories you watch on the big screen, I also had my own love story,” she explains. “I have my own journey with Donnell, and I have an incredible story about how we dated for two years starting in 1991, broke up for ten, and then got married. So the book is about discovering and looking back and realizing what you have, and how it’s all rooted in love.”
The MacMaster-Leahy children are also busy, including the first CD from their eldest daughter Mary Francis, scheduled to drop this fall. She and Donnell already have several shows lined up in what they call “An Acoustic Night with their Kids.”
“And always new music,” she concludes.