Community & Current Events

Get to know award-winning fiddler Natalie MacMaster

By: Wendy Graves

Photography by Kazuyoshi Ehara Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Kazuyoshi Ehara

Community & Current Events

Get to know award-winning fiddler Natalie MacMaster

By: Wendy Graves
To say Natalie MacMaster has her hands full would be an understatement. The Cape Breton–born fiddler has been crisscrossing North America since October 2012 as part of a tour that will see her play more than 60 shows by the end of April.

And this past August she became a mom for the fifth time, with Baby Alec joining siblings Mary Frances, 7; Michael, 5; Clare, 3; and Julia, 2.

Now based in Ontario, Natalie talked to us before the holidays from the Lakefield-area farm she shares with her husband, Donnell Leahy (yes, from the family band Leahy).

What can fans expect from your upcoming tour?
"We'll have some good Cape Breton fiddling – very lively, joyful music. And there will be moments that have a little more depth to them; there's another type of beauty in the slower pieces. But, generally speaking, our show is very up, with the odd corny joke, and it's hopefully a night of ease for the audience."

Do the kids come on tour with you?
"It depends on where I'm playing and how long I'm going for. If I'm doing just one show, I'll take Baby Alec with me, since he's still nursing. I homeschool my two oldest kids, so Mary Frances came with me for some shows in the fall while Donnell taught our five-year-old at home. Mary Frances also danced and played fiddle in those shows."

What's it like to perform with your daughter?
"Parents say it's all about their kids. Well, it's true. Give me a good round of applause, but give her a great round of applause and I'm just beaming. For her to get standing ovations feels way better to me than for me to get them."

How has your approach to touring changed since you became a parent?
"We try to find what works best for the kids. If we stay home all the time and don't play music, that's not good for our kids, because Donnell and I believe we are meant to do what we do. There's an element in involving the kids that's healthy for them. They're not just learning music; it's the experience. We take the summer off and then go like crazy until Christmas. You are always playing that game of how much is too much, how much isn't enough."

I know you always meet fans after the shows. What have been some memorable gifts they've given you?
"I remember somebody gave me a lamp. We get a lot of children's baby gifts. We get a lot of chocolate. (I love getting a box of chocolates.) People also just give me notes; backstage I'll get a little card from somebody who wants to open up. I got a fiddle clock once. I have been given lots of fiddle paraphernalia."

You mentioned you homeschool your kids. Is that a big part of having a good work-life balance?

"I have a degree from teacher's college in Nova Scotia. I've never used it professionally, so it's kind of ironic that I'm teaching my own kids. At first it was just a trial, but this is now my third year. I like the flexibility it gives. It works well for our situation."
With five kids under age seven, when do you find time to sleep?
"I change things up. I'll crawl into bed with the kids at nine o'clock. I wake up a lot because the baby nurses and none of the kids sleep through the night. So my husband and I are up, switching bedrooms.

I might do that for a couple of nights in a row, then the next couple of nights I might stay up until three in the morning doing laundry, preparing schoolwork or meals for the next day, mopping the floor or just tidying up.

We try to be just as flexible with the kids' schooling. For a couple of days I'll teach music all morning and do some lighter school stuff in the afternoon.

And then the next day we might have a real focus on math. You just go with what you feel the kids need."

I know your husband, Donnell, is a great step dancer. Do you dance?
"I'm not a formal dancer. I dance in all of my shows, but my technique is that I don't have a technique. I never learned, but I'm passionate about dancing. I've taken a couple of lessons from my sister-in-law. I'm motivated first by exercise and second by just wanting to dance. It's a different style [of step dancing] in Ontario. I'm a Cape Breton dancer and I throw a little bit of craziness in between the moonwalk and some clogging and Irish dancing."

Do your kids ask you to play the fiddle for them, or is it more like, "Not now, Mom"?
"Every time I pick up the fiddle, the two-year-old and three-year-old want to sit in my lap. If I can play for one minute without being interrupted, it's miraculous.

Mary Frances is just starting to learn to play the piano and sometimes she wants me to play so she can accompany me. We're lucky to have a beautiful grand piano in our living room. I'll start playing the piano and the kids get their dancing shoes on and the fiddle is out. They just want to be involved. And then I get the little one sitting in my lap."

What do you remember most about your childhood Christmases in Cape Breton?
"Christmas is probably my favourite time of year. There's magic in the air. We would go with Dad to the woods to cut down a tree, then haul it back to the house. And the decorations had a certain smell to them because they were in the basement all year.

But that smell conjures up Christmas. I also remember Mom and Dad having someone who wasn't as fortunate over for turkey dinner. I remember playing fiddle for those people; that's a very vivid memory for me."
Do you have a favourite Christmas song to perform?
"I really like ‘Christmas in Killarney,' because it's so much like a fiddle tune. It's like a typical jig and has a nice, strong melody. And ‘O Holy Night' also has a beautiful melody."

What's the most memorable Christmas gift you have ever received?
"It was probably my Cabbage Patch Kid. I was freaking out. He was bald and I absolutely loved him. He's still in my bedroom in Cape Breton, and when I go home and look at him, it evokes the same kind of excitement."

And is there a gift that meant a lot for you to give to someone else?
"I remember giving my godchild a little wooden box when she was eight or nine that had a biblical verse carved into it. I thought that was a pretty special gift for her."

What role does food play in your holiday celebrations?
"It's a big part. Give me a little bit of time and I just love cooking and baking. My husband comes from a family of 11 siblings and they're all around us. So we always have a big Christmas gathering and the meal is just incredible. It's a potluck, so you're always asking, ‘Who made that?' And then you get the recipe."

Is there a dish you bring every year?
"They always put me on carrot duty. What do you do with carrots? I've made a good carrot casserole from a recipe my sister-in-law gave me. It's basically carrots, but they're done in a kind of scalloped potato sauce. The topping is what makes it so good: crushed cornflakes with melted butter. Sometimes I'll make a strawberry spinach salad with balsamic vinaigrette mixed with a little maple syrup. I toast some goat cheese in bread crumbs to put on top. It looks really nice and gives it a nice bite."

What's coming up later in 2013?
"After the tour, Donnell and I are going to record together for the first time. It's crazy: We've been married for 10 years and we haven't recorded together. We plan to do some summer festivals and, once fall hits, we plan on going to Ireland for a show on PBS. We'll do two weeks' worth of shows, but maybe stay for a month, just for the experience of living in Ireland."

This story was originally titled "At Home With Natalie MacMaster" in the January 2013 issue.

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Community & Current Events

Get to know award-winning fiddler Natalie MacMaster