Not every day do you see a woman nine months pregnant step dancing with a fiddle under her chin.
On stage. For a theatre full of fans. Like it ain’t no thang.
Call it just another day at the office for Natalie MacMaster.
The Cape Breton girl who jigged onto Canada’s music scene at 16 and launched into album after album of Celtic tunes and a non-stop touring schedule from her early-20s onward has long since transitioned into life as a mother of many – but the two-time Juno Award-winner and Order of Canada recipient hasn’t yet let up on the relentless active musician’s lifestyle that got her where she is today.
She found the formula for mastering both.
“You let life happen and hang on,” says a three-months-pregnant MacMaster, backstage in Madison, WI. with her five kids, all under age 10.
The three eldest will take the stage later that night, fiddling and dancing alongside their parents. MacMaster’s husband Donnell Leahy – one of the eight siblings in the famed Canadian folk group Leahy – is a partner on and off stage and plays an integral role in the equation.
“It’s hard,” she says. “Anyone who’s a parent knows how challenging it is, but that’s the other part. The main part is that you’ve got your own kids and you love ‘em to bits. It’s rich and full and exciting. You go to bed rewarded at night feeling I’ve really lived a full day. You also learn how to let go of yourself. You learn virtuous things through your children and it’s all good stuff.”
Barring the roughly one-third of the year on tour, those full days are spent on the family farm in Douro, Ont. While MacMaster is making practical use of a university degree in education by home schooling the clan – along with leading fiddle, piano and dance lessons for her seven, six and four-year-olds – Leahy is out in the fields raising cattle. The one and two-year-olds play different roles in the finely tuned machine that is the Leahy-MacMaster home, one that includes a few more naps and the helping hands of some of the best babysitters around, MacMaster says.
“If I just picked the fiddle up and started playing, I bet that I would not last one minute before the baby or my 2-year-old would interrupt. They want mommy and they see it as competition.”
A retired school teacher also steps in part-time two days a week, or more when MacMaster might need a little spare time to record a song or two (her next album will be recorded this winter), publish a coffee table book (Natalie MacMaster’s Cape Breton Aire, 2010) or plan an album launch party and concert in her living room (Cape Breton Girl, 2011).
“Donnell and I are not the planning kind of people. We don’t work by the world’s standards, in any regard, really,” MacMaster says. “We’re just accepting and open to what God gives you.”
It’s all a part of a lifestyle that can weigh heavily on the 41-year-old, but one that came together smoothly nonetheless, helped along by good health and the ability to hire help when they need it.
“We’re not overly controlling of things, the big picture,” says MacMaster, who also holds an honorary doctorate of divinity degree from Atlantic school of Theology and speaks pragmatically about both her faith and her fiddle. “We have direction and focus. If factors come into view, we consider those and never force something.”
Their choice to raise children on the farm was one of those easy decisions for MacMaster. She had an apartment in Halifax when the two were married 11 years ago. Leahy was already established on the farm, with cattle and the house at the time. It confirmed a feeling that MacMaster had harboured from a young age, that despite a love for Cape Breton, she wouldn’t settle there.
“When my kids hit four and five years old, I realized there are things I want to give them that I can’t give them here. The things I grew up with, you can only get them in Cape Breton and they’re not going to have that. The East Coast atmosphere, the way of life, the attitude: it’s so easy going,” says MacMaster, with her warm maritime twang bubbling through each line. “If you want to go hear music, go hear it. You can drive around the island and there’ll be a square dance on or the Red Shoe will have somebody playing. If you want to hear live music in the tradition, you’ll find it.”
In Douro, a community of just over 6,000, MacMaster and Leahy are responsible for bringing some of that traditional East Coast flavour to town, when they host their own shows. The couple also aims to imbue the next generation with some of that tradition, through their work at Camp Leahy in Leahy’s hometown of Lakefield, Ont. The week-long music camp founded by the Leahy family is a place where children are encouraged to meet, play and perform. Then it’s back out on the road.
A practical risk of such a nonstop schedule? Perhaps the ol’ address-the-wrong-city-onstage move. Even conscientious East Coasters aren’t immune to the classic rock star gaffe.
“I was playing in Columbus and I said Cleveland,” MacMaster says in a tone all too sombre. “It was awful. They hollered out what it was. It was the encore, so it was too late for anyone to get angry.”
When the slight woman dances across the stage, fiddle in hand and a bun in the oven, backed by the Victoria Symphony on Dec. 21, it will be as a rare opportunity to connect with a new audience – a time when she’s able to “pull the kid out” of the symphony fans, she says.
“It’s definitely Natalie MacMaster, but there’s a touch of refinement. I can just play my thing and there’s this sound coming behind me that has so much colour and power and sweetness. It’s just great to be standing in the middle of it, to feel it and deliver that to the crowd.”
She’ll also share the experience with all her kids in tow. Naturally, when you call yourself a “stay-at-home mom on the road.”
“I wish I was a stay-at-home mom. I think that’s the greatest occupation. These moms who drop their careers and give up their lives to stay home and raise the family, I really believe in that. But I know that this is a different day and age and that’s not possible for a lot of women out there. I’m very understanding of different sets of circumstances – certainly I’m in one of them.”
Join Natalie MacMaster for a Celtic Christmas at 8pm at the Royal Theatre. Go to rmts.bc.ca for ticket information