A Conversation With .. Natalie MacMaster
The multiple Juno-winning fiddle virtuoso discusses her work/life balance, the impact of the pandemic, her musical offspring, and an exciting new co-writing project for which she and hubby Donnell Leahy are soliciting public input.
By Bill King
We last spoke May 2015, and Natalie MacMaster was short on time, not for the interview – music time, write and record time. July 2020, how things have changed. Lives spinning out of control, the fast pace of commitments lost, after school rendezvous, soccer matches, piano lessons, sporting events – that family in motion dynamic has hit the brakes. This is why I love this interview. It came a day after speaking with singer Kim Stockwood, who also spoke of family, teenage boys. We tend to get lost in publicity, managed imagery, and forget that when the lights dim many artists long for home or go directly home and put food on the family table and read a child to sleep, yet the ideas and music never stops.
Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy share hundreds of thousands of albums sold; a Grammy win, 14 Juno nominations and four wins, a Canadian Folk Music Award, 21 East Coast Music Awards, five Canadian Country Music Association win, a Gemini win, four honorary doctorates, an induction into the Casino Nova Scotia Hall of Fame, an Academy Award-winning documentary, and a Member of the Order of Canada between them, both as solo artists, frequent collaborators, and Donnell in Leahy alongside his ten siblings. They also have seven children who, for their part, shine on stage as the MacMaster Leahy Kids.
And now, for the first time ever, they're opening up to the public a writing opportunity with an invitation to finish a melody they've started temporarily called the "Covid Co-Write."
Entries in MP3 or WAV format for "Covid Co-Write" close July 31st at 11:59 pm EST and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill King: How are the MacMaster/Leahy kids making out these past few months?
Natalie MacMaster: Well, thanks for asking. We are doing pretty well. When it first happened, I was pulled from a tour and came home early. I was really glad to get home and when away from home, worrying about this awful virus. It's very scary, and you just want to be with your family and be safe.
When I first got home, there was this joy and appreciation for having one another and living on a farm; there was a novelty to it. All the running around we normally do just came to a stop. There is something glorious about not having to go anywhere for a family constantly on the go - a mother's kind of dream in a sense. Having everybody there and doing lots of things we never do. We watched a lot of movies in the first couple of weeks. We got out our projector; we always take it on tour and we set it up in our basement and suddenly had this home theatre. We were eating junk food.
B.K: How did the kids feel about that? There's seven.
N.M: They were the same. They didn't know what was going on much. The little ones don't have a clue still. We didn't want to put fear in them.
B.K: You live on a working farm.
N.M: It's about cows and calves. My husband, Donnell, has been a farmer since he was born – his father, his father's father, and that farming blood is bred right into him. Their operations have always been cow and calf. We breed cows with the bull, the calves kept for a year or two, then sold.
B.K: And the kids participate?
N.M: Oh, goodness, yes. It's real farm life. We have five horses that the kids always want to ride. They are also home-schooled, and that didn't change. Some of the classes the older kids go to a friend's place for math and science and a couple of online courses my friend does by Skype. For the piano lessons, it's three hours every Thursday morning through Skype. Not much has changed for schooling.
B.K: You must have felt more secure with kids at home than in an open environment.
N.M: It's the age of the kids. They are not quite old enough to move about. They miss social for sure, but it isn't a catastrophic thing to not be with their friends. Boyfriends or whatever. We don't exist in that world yet. Nobody is driving. The oldest is fourteen and down to age two. It's a nice balance of ages where there are no types of those worries.
B.K: Covid Co-Write. How did this come about?
N.M: Between the two of us. We bounce ideas back in forth. One thought from one of us can inspire the other. Then there's the back and forth, and it just grows. We've been doing a lot of writing and were planning to get into the studio. When Covid happened, that didn't seem like a possibility. We ended up, for the first time in our lives, purchasing recording equipment. We thought why not take on a big project; we are not going to stay in the house and eat, sleep and drink cows. We have to keep our music up; it's our #1 livelihood.
I'm sure a lot of people have thought it's time to take on a project that you've never afforded time to do, so you do it now while you've got time. We thought it was time to get into the technical side of the recording. We were being asked to do things and had to tell people we don't have our own home recording studio. We've been doing lots of writing and have sort of a co-producer, a friend, and fellow bandleader who has been helping us through the learning curve. We've written probably twenty tunes or so. Some are good and will be used. Some have not found purpose, and we will probably forget about them.
There's this one tune that's kind of interesting, simple enough yet catchy. The first part came together quickly in about ten minutes. Some tunes take years, some only seconds. We were getting into the second part and probably struggling with it for about an hour trying different things. There were some good ideas but nothing that matched the first part. Then we thought, with technology, wouldn't it be great if someone helped us write this. Think about how the world has opened up now. We started brainstorming and thought wouldn't it be cool if people can hear this and take a crack at the second part. We kept talking it through and came up with this concept – the Covid Co-Write. We committed to putting out to the world, and whoever wanted to take a shot in the second half, we will commit to recording the piece. We want to make it a good song, have it nicely arranged. Based on what we've got so far and if I had to choose right now, there are half a dozen great options.
B.K: The example comes in different tempos.
N.M: The intention is to make it easier for somebody to learn by ear, and for kids to try this too. It might be too fast otherwise. We are completely open. If a dancer wanted to try and take a crack at the second part using your feet and the rhythms, that's O.K. Or if a singer hears a melody or words or a chorus. In the fiddle world, we don't have choruses, but if you want to make one go for it. On our Facebook site, it's been all fiddlers. We wanted to hear something from other styles of music; we do have other cultures, but let's say from the jazz world someone takes a crack. We are trying not to be narrow in what we want it to be and be open to what it can be.
B.K: The closing date is July 31st?
B.K: Girls Night In, July 16th?
N.M: We are home, we are musicians and want to be creative and don't have a lot of outlets and one thing that never gets enough attention is our social media. We are working on this record and want to be more connected with our fan base. We want to connect our persons and who we are. This sort of came about the same way.
As a mother, we are busy people, and we are in the studio, and Donnell says, "You should just have a hang out one night with the girls, all of the moms. He was talking about my friends, I thought he was talking about the world – something public, so I got on that tangent. I have a curiosity about Facebook Live and felt in so many interviews there have been so many questions about what's it like to raise kids, you have seven, what's it like to tour with them? Your career is still going. You were Natalie MacMaster in your twenties, and you're Natalie MacMaster in your forties. These are the types of questions I often get and it's kind of fun talking with other women. It's Thursday night at 7 pm I'm going to have a glass of wine, my fiddle beside me and we talk. Go to Natalie MacMaster on Facebook and it will get you there.