And, a fiddler from Cape Breton
November 2, 2006
Although Natalie MacMaster fits comfortably in the category of Celtic fiddler, her music has been a balancing act between breaking new ground and hewing to a traditional approach. MacMaster grew up in tiny Troy, on the Canadian island of Cape Breton. “It’s not even a town. It’s a community, a village,” said the 34-year-old MacMaster by phone, from New Mexico.Despite the remoteness – Cape Breton is some 300 miles east of the coast of Maine – MacMaster had numerous musical influences. All along Route 19, where she grew up, were MacMaster uncles and cousins, many of them fiddlers or step-dancers steeped in the Cape Breton style. (Among these were Buddy MacMaster, Natalie’s uncle and a well-known fiddler himself; the two collaborated on last year’s “Traditional Music from Cape Breton Island.”) Her two brothers were metal-heads, who turned MacMaster on to Ozzie Osbourne and AC/CD. And Troy was not so distant that it was out of the reach of MTV.”I was a child of the ’80s and I loved ’80s pop music,” said MacMaster, who performs Saturday night at the Wheeler Opera House. “I’d tape all the videos off MTV and watch them.”MacMaster’s instrument, since the age of 9, has been fiddle. Her father taught her for the first six months, then passed her along to more advanced members of the MacMaster clan. The family functions that served as MacMaster’s first stage were not given to head-banging or Duran Duran, nor was her instrument suited to metal or synth-pop. So while she listened to all sorts of music, she made fiddle jigs and reels the foundation of her playing.”I still play that music. It’s the core of everything I do,” she said. “But I’ve branched out from it. I have a strong desire to create music outside of that tradition. I’ll play the Cape Breton style but get the band to play a funk groove, something rocky or jazzy. That colors the music. It’s all based on what’s appropriate for the tune.”
MacMaster’s sense of what’s appropriate stretches well beyond a purist’s vision. “In My Hands,” from 1999, introduced jazz, Latin and other elements behind MacMaster’s fiddling. For 2003’s “Blueprint,” MacMaster and producer see MacMaster on page B10Darol Anger rounded up the best bluegrass pickers – Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer – for a Nashville-meets-Nova Scotia sound. On “Yours Truly,” released last month, MacMaster gets funky on “NPG,” rocks out on “Volcanic Jig,” and really rocks out on “Matt & Nat’s,” proving that it wasn’t just her older brothers who took a liking to AC/DC. She shows her roots in “Julia’s Waltz,” in which an accordion embellishes a quartet of string players.With “Yours Truly,” MacMaster discovers a taste for another breed of music: her own.MacMaster has been writing songs since she whipped up “Uncle Charlie’s Fiddle Jig” at the age of 10. But her compositions have made it onto her albums only sporadically; instead she has looked to other writers and traditional material. “I never liked my own tunes,” MacMaster confessed.Much of that dislike stemmed from the fact that as a writer – unlike as an instrumentalist or arranger – MacMaster had difficulty breaking out of the traditions.
“Years ago, I wrote only fiddle tune-type tunes,” she said. But over the past five years, MacMaster has put her mind to writing, and to writing outside of that mold. “I guess it just took that long to like what I write. Writing is something you can practice. People say you either have it or you don’t. But the more you do something, the better you get at it.”MacMaster believes she has gotten better at it. “Yours Truly,” which actually was recorded beginning four years ago, features seven entire tunes and parts of several medleys, written by MacMaster. Those that are furthest afield, like “Matt & Nat’s,” are from her own pen.”Most of all, I think I have a bit more control over my writing,” said MacMaster. “If I want to write out of that traditional style, it’s easier for me now to do that. ‘Volcanic Jig’ – you wouldn’t find a song like that in a traditional book of Scottish melodies.”MacMasters said that displaying her emergence as a songwriter wasn’t the intention behind “Yours Truly.” “With most of my recordings, unless it’s a traditional record I don’t know what it will be till it’s finished,” she said. “[‘Yours Truly’] turned out to be a real collection of Natalie tunes,” she added, because when she began assembling material, the ones that happened to stand out were those she had written.With a handful of Canadian Juno Awards and Grammy nominations – as well as the honor of being a member of the Order of Canada, bestowed this year – already to her credit, MacMaster now feels the next artistic front stands before her.
“It’s opened a new chapter for me,” she said of her writing, “especially in my recording career. It’s a great thing to be able to write your own music. I took a stab at it, and I like it.”MacMaster has been trying to write long enough to know that it is something to be pursued while the inspiration is there. “The well may be dry now,” she noted.With “Yours Truly,” MacMaster took a stab at another music angle. She and her husband, fiddler Donnell Leahy, co-produced the album. MacMaster has, in the pat, produced her own traditional recordings. But she found that producing a more expansive album like “Yours Truly” was a different challenge, one she probably won’t tackle again. She’s pleased with the results, but getting them was more trouble than it was worth.”With a nontraditional album, there’s a lot more room for arranging, the instruments, the sound,” she said. “I wouldn’t do that again. It’s too hard. In hindsight I would have liked to have help on it. My husband co-produced, but he’s in the same boat as me. What it took to get there took way too much work and time.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org