In September 2013 we interviewed one of the very best fiddlers in the world, Natalie MacMaster, who hails from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and now lives in Ontario, Canada.
by James A. McQuiston FSA Scot, USA
We kick off this issue of Celtic Guide with the story of a woman who has entertained tens of thousands of Celtic music lovers across the world, making a simple fiddle sing as though it had some kind of bewitched creature inside, struggling to get out . . . a fiddler who can bring you to tears, or make you want to dance the jig, though you were a Sunday preacher all wound up for a funeral prayer. She makes that instrument sound like a mother’s voice saying something over and over again, if only we could understand it. And then, without a spoken word, we DO understand, as her music hits the bottom of our Celtic hearts and souls.
Yes, she is that good!
She is Natalie MacMaster, who originally hails from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, home to some of the most complex Celtic music ever created, which is luckily being passed down from one generation to the next.
Her accolades include being called “the most dynamic performer in Celtic music today,” by the Boston Herald. Having seen her in concert twice I would have to agree. She also must be in the running for best Celtic fiddler in the world, too, as her complex, dead-on style, coupled with dance steps and special surprises along the way, make her show one not to miss for anyone who enjoys life and music and wonder.
Natalie was kind enough to answer some questions for us in our fifth Celtic Guide interview. We’ll let her do most of the talking -
CG: Hello and welcome to the pages of Celtic Guide magazine.
NM: Thank you!
CG: Do you remember the first time you picked up a fiddle and wanted to play?
NM: I actually was nine and a half years old. I was given a fiddle by a relative of mine and I knew, that day, I would always play.
CG: Having visited Cape Breton myself I imagine it would be hard not to be influenced by its wonderful music. I’m wondering if you’ve had a special muse or inspiration that has driven you to become such a remarkable musician and performer?
NM: An Inspiration? Yeah, I know I was inspired very much by my uncle Buddy MacMaster, a wonderful Cape Breton fiddler. My style I think most reflects his sound. I spent the most time listening to him, not only on cassette tape but also live. Because he’s my uncle, I heard him perform a lot.
Our family functions always included him playing fiddle. I’ve had some other influences, too. Eileen Ivers was a big influence on my style and Michael Conner as well. I heard them more in my teenage years so I was inspired by them later on.
CG: Do you think your ancestors played a role in your choice to play fiddle, in any way?
NM: Three of my grandparents were deceased before I was born. Did they have a role? Well, I’m a spiritual person, so I believe in prayer. I think they maybe hoped that the traditions would continue and I think the foundation that they built, through their own lives and their own love of music, was very solid and passed on through the generations . . . so I picked up on it that way.
CG: What role has The Celtic Music Interpretive Center or the Gaelic College, at St. Ann’s, played in you absorbing the Celtic culture?
NM: For me, the St. Ann’s Gaelic College – we lived on the other side of the island and so I was actually only there once for some lessons that I think lasted two weeks - but it’s a wonderful part of Cape Breton, keeping the traditions alive, though it’s not something I grew up with. In regard to the Interpretive Center, it was only built after I left Cape Breton. I moved up here to Ontario eleven years ago after I got married. So I didn’t grow up with The Celtic Music Center in my life. But they are wonderful places and I can’t say enough good about them.
CG: Do you speak Gaelic?
NM: Chan eil. That means ‘no’ in Gaelic. My mother spoke it until she was five or six, then she went to school where she learned English. My father never spoke it.
CG: Your musical arrangements often seem very complex, with abrupt changes and surprises for the audience. Is this something you collaborate on with others, or does your band just follow your lead?
NM: We spend a lot of time arranging. I usually come to the band with some ideas and we try them out, and I also come with tunes, but we definitely let it flourish into what it will become. I’m not really rigid about most things and so I’m just very open to having them treat the music in their own unique way. Usually that’s the best way. Some great ideas are born out of that.
CG: What would you say is the most rewarding honor you have ever received because of your talent?
NM: I’ve been involved with the Grammys and was nominated for one, then a couple of years ago Yo Yo Ma won a Grammy for a project that I was on. I’ve won a couple Juno awards and several other musical awards, so I am familiar with the whole process of that. Probably the ‘Order of Canada’ would be the greatest honor I have received. They call it the highest civilian honor. I received that maybe five years ago.
CG: I know that you smile quite often during your performance, but I think I have seen you wipe away a tear after a song one time and I wonder how much of your performance is driven by emotion?
NM: Oh my gosh, I hear that comment so often. As sweet as it sounds, its always sweat. I’m wiping away sweat.
CG: Oh my gosh!
NM: It wasn’t a tear, it was sweat. I hear that so often. No, I hear that a lot. Perhaps I shouldn’t say anything. But what it is, when you get to playing, and it always happens on a slow tune for me, usually I try to set my slow pieces up really nicely, so that people are really ready for a slow piece, so I’ve usually played three or four fast ones, possibly with dancing before. By time I stop and stand in one spot, I sense the sweat just dripping down my face, during that slow piece so I am always wiping it away. It was a tender moment, but . . .
To answer your question, I do very much get into my music. I have lots of tender moments on stage. Normally I am concentrating very hard on making the music sound beautiful which requires a lot of focus on the actual instrument and on your technical ability. So you don’t let your mind go free to wander. I need to be methodical about everything, and that’s so I can produce a beautiful product for the audience. I need to focus myself and how I’m holding the bow, my fingering, and getting in tune, and feeling the music in such a way that I’m directed as to make soft notes or loud notes or put a little stop in the movement. That all requires technical ability so you have to feel it enough to decide what you’re going to do, then you have to focus enough so that you can pull it off.
Now there are times - a couple weekends ago I played in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I was playing outside on a ski hill, and it was just beautiful, and everybody’s there and the sky was so blue, and there were perfect white clouds hanging in the sky and the grass was green, green, green. There was a slight breeze blowing and the trees were there standing straight and tall, and, you know, here’s this beautiful ‘air’ that I was playing, the sound just filling up that air. I just loved it there. At times my mind strays to the moment where I’m at and how beautiful and great the world is. It’s always beautiful feelings of thankfulness and just grateful that I’m able to do what I do.
CG: That leads into my next question. I was wondering if, during a complex tune, do you ever find yourself thinking about something else unrelated to the music – for instance your family, or home, or your next performance?
NM: Oh, absolutely. Usually it’s my family, and it’s God’s creation. Those are usually the things that trigger me – and just being thankful that I have them. I think about that specifically and I think about the beauty of the earth and the trees, and how much God . . . I don’t mean to be getting spiritual . . . I’m just telling you . . . I think about how much God loves me, you know? I’m thinking about how much He loves everyone I’m looking at.
I had a bishop friend of mine who passed away last year. He was a fiddler and he was from Prince Edward Island and he used to say, “Where there’s fiddle music there’s joy and where there’s joy there’s no room for the devil.” He used to say that in kind of a light-hearted way but I think of it so often, when I’m standing on stage and playing and everyone is focused and listening, in that moment, and I’m surrounded by God’s creation, I think to myself, you know what, this is unity, this is people who are motivated and inspired and positive. We’re all feeling that together. And that’s what we mean to create, and it’s all joy, and there is no room for sadness, and if there is sadness – you know somebody lost a loved one or something – it’s always a hopeful sadness, that sweet sorrow that tears are brought on by, which inspires them, somehow, to love more . . . to appreciate more.
CG: Which do you enjoy more – performing in front of a live audience, recording in a studio, or sitting around as a music session on Cape Breton?
NM: You know everything’s good. Too much of any one thing you get tired of. I love the variety. I love playing at square dances at home, I love house parties. I love the performance stage and that stage could come in the form of a small community hall for 200 people, or the Hollywood Bowl for 10,000 people.
I’ve done acting things where I acted on different musical projects I’ve done in the past, or shooting videos, or hosting award shows, or being on Sesame Street. There’s been so many crazy, wild different things. I love it all because of the variety.
I like doing symphony shows. I only do maybe ten of them a year so they’re always exciting.
You know variety’s the spice of life for sure.
CG: Is there something special you’d like your fans and the readers of Celtic Guide to know about you and your music?
NM: You know this Cape Breton music comes from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and I’m a Cape Breton fiddler. I always used to think to myself “that’s all I do, that’s the only style I play” and I always thought it might be nice to expand my abilities and get into jazz and get into other stuff, classical or whatever. Now I’m realizing, as time goes on, it has actually been the reason for any successes that I’ve had, the specific style that I do, and it’s been a big reason for my whole career. Now I very much have a different attitude about being really, I guess, authentic in one area. I think that translates to people. I know that translates to people.
CG: I want to thank you so much for granting us this interview and of course to wish your family well.
NM: Good Stuff!! Thanks a lot . . .