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Q & A: Twenty minutes with Natalie MacMaster

Artist dishes on music-industry longevity, family and her favourite Christmas carol

7 min read
Caora McKenna

Natalie MacMaster’s ability to “keep that Celtic sound relevant” is something Morgan Mullin, the listings editor for The Coast, admires about her.

Mullin remembers reading about MacMaster in Reader’s Digest magazine with her grandfather when she was little. MacMaster’s ability to foster an appreciation for Maritime culture makes her important to the East Coast way of life; it teaches people “you can stay here, and you can do things,” says Mullin.

caption Natalie MacMaster and her daughter Mary Francis.
Caora McKenna

MacMaster has a wispiness about her: her blond curls bounce about her head, and she turns to her daughters to make a funny face when a camera comes out. But when speaking about her art and a lifetime of making music, she gets down to business.

The Signal caught up with her in a Halifax restaurant as she finished lunch with two of her six children and her husband, Donnell Lahey.

Q. Tell me about your first show in Halifax.

A. I don’t know if I can ever pick one that was my first. I remember playing shows in Halifax. (I) know that before I did my own shows I was always part of a show. I can remember coming to the Rebecca Cohn, which was a big deal, and playing this one show… A fundraiser for the Amnesty Highland Dancers. I remember being on the stage and being nervous… I probably would have been 14 or 15, and I was entering into a time where I started getting nervous. And I remember it being a real issue for a couple of years and my hand would shake before going on stage. So to play a slow air – I remember playing a slow air! – on that stage for that performance and my hand was just shaking and my slow air was terrible and I thought this was awful. If I can’t control this, its ruining my fiddling, its making it sound bad. Anyway, that’s a whole other can of worms. I’ve long since gotten over that ….

MacMaster performs a slow air on stage.


Q. How has your relationship with your music changed since then?

A. You know, the music is like a good old friend.

Certain things about it as you get older blossom and grow and evolve and other things about it never change. So, there is lots of things about my music that have changed, for example when I play now, my style and how I’m playing, the types of tunes and what I like or arrangements on stage, and how I carry a show is a little different. How is it different? … I love making set lists. My husband digs on me all the time for all my set lists. He says, ‘you spend hours on a set list!’ I don’t actually spend the hours, but I spend a lot of time making set lists because I’m really into the art of placement for your pieces in a show. And I think it’s just one little thing that’s changed over the years.

I’ve become more about that flow, whereas, years ago I was just like ‘just put her on start and just driver ‘er and finish’. You know I wasn’t as thought out as I am now. I mean, I don’t play the square dances like I used to. I miss that part, that’s changed …

Q. How has touring with your family then changed the way you feel as a performer as well as a mom?

A. As a parent, and spouse, and a performer, they’re all intertwined; I am quite good at leaving one and focusing on the other. I remember when Mary Francis, my first, was born, and it was just a couple months later that I did my first show. Obviously, that show had been booked before I was pregnant with her, so I had lots of time to think about ‘oh my gosh am I going to be able to do that’ and everybody said ‘no you can do it, it will be fine.’

I did this show and when I got on stage I didn’t even know I had a child. Like, I … was in my zone. And when I am on tour I am totally in tour mode and when I’m home I’m totally in home mode. So I am good at being able to separate the two even though they are very intertwined. I don’t take my — shall we say problems or concerns — to the stage and I don’t take my stage issues to the home. But its all good; it’s a balancing act for sure and it’s a lifetime. It’s a lifetime of lessons learned and relearned and relearned …

Q. So you are very good at balancing life and tour, but how are your children at balancing life and tour while they are on the road with you?

 A. They’re experts. Honestly. I am actually not very good at it because I over analyze, as a loving parent would, right? But the kids they are so easy and free and you just pick them up and take them anywhere and they’re good to go. They’re just easy going. What I do love about our children is that they do appreciate (experiences). So anywhere we are, we see something new or we eat something simple, they really appreciate the experience. And then two seconds later it’s forgotten about and they’re running around. So they’re so flexible, it’ s amazing. I don’t know if that stays when they are in their teens but it’s certainly like that now.

Q. Now that some of them are performing with you, what is the first song that you remember teaching to your children?

A. Listen to MacMaster’s response:

Q. And for yourself, what song do you love to perform, and why?

A. Hmm, that changes from day to day. I don’t have a favourite. Now, there are moments in the show, or in different shows when I am really into something, but it’s different every night. It could be just my mood. I might be in a traditional mood one night… And then some other nights, it depends a lot on the crowd.

If you feel that the crowd is a younger audience and they’re rockin’ and they don’t care about tradition [and] they just want to party, then you kind of go: ‘well lets play this tune and this tune and this tune and lets get the drums going there’ and then it’s fun you enter to that zone. And then other times, like last night (in Pictou County), for example, you could tell they really appreciated Cape Breton traditional fiddling. So you want to give them that. Sometimes artists might say. ‘I don’t care I’m just making my art if people want to listen.’ but I care, I really care…

Q. You have 30 years’ worth of fans who all expect a bit of a different thing from you. With your meticulous set list making, does it all go out the window or how to you give everyone what they want?

A. Yeah, that’s a great question because they do all expect something different. Like some people know me from my years of playing all through Cape Breton. Or that’s where they got to know what I do, and like that version of me. And then making records that incorporate different styles, some people never heard of me before that. Because it gets radio play so they start listening to that, so they only know that side of me… I always get a kick out of people who have seen me pre-pregnancy or post-pregnancy. Over the last 10 years I’ve been either expecting or nursing …. I’m always surprised at the amount of people who have seen me only in the last ten years. I’m like, ‘wow, I did most of my playing before those ten, before the kids were born.’ So, I‘m always surprised that so many people have seen me during those years ….

Q. Up next for you is the release of your first ever Christmas album and a holiday tour. What is your favourite Christmas song and why?

 A. Listen to MacMaster’s response:

“You can hear choirs of angels, with their tap shoes on.”

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