Although they seemingly grew up worlds apart – she in Cape Breton, he in Ontario – a love of the fiddle is just one thing that Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy have in common.
Since learning to play the fiddle at age 16, MacMaster has become an internationally acclaimed musician and a guest of television shows that have aired on CBC, CTV and PBS. Her 11 albums have sold more than 200,000 copies and is the recipient of two Juno Awards, 11 East Coast Music Awards and also has the honour of having been nominated for a Grammy Award.
Donnell Leahy hails from a multi-generation beef farming family. Growing up in Lakefield, Ontario, he would go on to lead the double platinum selling band Leahy, winning three Juno Awards before the group eventually went their separate ways.
MacMaster shares she met Leahy in the early 90’s when Leahy boldly drove to Cape Breton in a quest to acquaint himself with the MacMaster family’s musical heritage he had heard so much about.
Incidentally, Leahy found more than just the MacMaster family on his journey. He also happened to find himself a girlfriend in Natalie.
“We went out on a boring date,” MacMaster says with a laugh, “but ended up dating for two years before breaking up for a period of time.”
Fortunately, their break-up was not a permanent matter. In 2002, as they continued making their respective marks in music, the pair married, but as their family grew in size – the couple has six children, the youngest of which is approximately two and a half years old – the desire to make music together became stronger.
“Before children, we each had separate booking agents and separate tour schedules. Once the children entered our lives though, it felt wrong for either of us to have to leave them or each other so starting to make music together was a natural next step,” MacMaster says.
In April 2015, the couple released their first album together, One, recorded and produced by Bob Ezrin (Kiss, Pink Floyd) in Cape Breton. While the pairing of Ezrin with the celebrated Celtic-inspired fiddlers might seem like an odd choice to some, MacMaster shares it was the producer that had actually planted the idea while in the studio with Canadian country star Johnny Reid.
“Johnny had invited me down to perform on an album he was making. It was there that I met Bob. We hit it off almost immediately, and when he got wind that Donnell and I were going to be making a record together, he put his name forward to serve as producer. He told me that producing a fiddle record was something he had wanted to do for some time,” she says.
“People don’t tend to associate Bob with fiddle music, but he is a music fan with very broad tastes. As far as Donnell and I were concerned, Bob’s lack of experience in the realm of fiddle music didn’t concern us in the least. He had the heart and drive to make a record we would all be happy with in the end.”
Aside from their upcoming performance at Casino New Brunswick on Wednesday evening, MacMaster and Leahy will be releasing a holiday record, A Celtic Family Christmas, on Oct. 28. The album is not only notable for the duo’s Celtic-inspired interpretation of time-honoured Christmas classics, the voices of some of their children can be heard on select tracks on the record.
MacMaster acknowledges their lives might be a little different from other families. She adds, however, that she and her husband are committed to providing their children with the same cornerstones that were a part of their childhood, including faith, fiddling, step-dancing, piano lessons and more.
“It’s a little too early to tell if any of the kids will have full-fledged careers like Donnell and I have had, but they have all shown an interest in music and dance.”
Asked who among her six children is showing the most interest in music, MacMaster surprises with the revelation that their two year-old is currently the most enthusiastic of the bunch.
“All of the children have shown a level of enthusiasm towards music, but none as much as our youngest,” she says. “If I take the fiddle out and start playing, I could be there for anywhere from one to a few hours.”
What: Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy
When: Wednesday Oct. 19, 8 p.m.
Where: Casino New Brunswick, 21 Casino Dr., Moncton
Tickets start at $19.99 plus taxes and service charges. Advance tickets are available at the Casino Gift Shop, by phone 1-866-943-8849 and online at casinonb.ca