You won’t find a more genuine or family oriented couple in show business then the fiddling duo of Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy. With over ten years of marriage under their belt and six children, the couple has been finding their way as they raise their family while performing and travelling together across various continents. The pair released their first album together earlier in the year and will end 2015 off with a spectacular Christmas performance at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre that combines their talent and diverse fiddling sounds in one show guaranteed to please all age categories.
With six children between the ages of eighteen months and nine years it can be a challenge for the family to schedule approximately 100 musical performances a year around life’s events. Both Leahy and MacMaster admit that being on the road with their family has its ups and downs, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. MacMaster and Leahy recognize the many hats working parents have to wear. “We travel together, so one minute I am on stage and the next I am disciplining,” says MacMaster.
“It’s a real challenge for us as we are often booking a year and a half in advance and then sometimes when the performance date finally arrives our lives are different. Maybe there are hockey playoffs or we’ve had another baby. We always question if we should take the tour or not,” says Leahy.
The couple truly enjoys the times when they are not on the road and being at home on their farm in Ontario, Canada. “It is such a great out for us to be able to go to hockey and get a break,” says Leahy. “Farming is a big part of our lives and a wonderful place to raise our children.”
Both Leahy and MacMaster come from highly musical families. MacMaster’s uncle, the late great Cape Breton fiddler, Buddy MacMaster, and her cousins Ashley MacIsaac and Andrea Beaton have had a positive influence on her musical career. Leahy has previously performed for over 20 years with eight of his 10 siblings in the Juno Award winning Canadian folk group, “Leahy.” The band was Shania Twain’s opening act for her 1998 Come on Over tour. “When we started performing we were all single. Then one of us got married then a bunch of us got married and then the little ones started coming,” explains Leahy. “My mom and dad have over 35 grandchildren.” Leahy and his siblings recognized that with such a large group and with each band member at a different stage in life it was becoming increasingly difficult to schedule events. “My siblings are still performing and playing music, just not as a group,” he explains. “Performing with Natalie and travelling as a family is what is important right now.”
What is most impressive about Leahy is that he is a self-taught musician. In the modern age of the internet this is becoming increasingly more common, however at the time when Leahy picked up a fiddle he was three years of age and living on a farm in Ontario with no television let alone a You Tube video to guide him through it – as our youth today have at their fingertips. “I wasn’t around fiddle players very much. Our area is a hockey area and it’s not like Cape Breton where my mom grew up,” states Leahy. “I think it was very important that I was interested in it. I learned to play by ear by trying to play everything I heard from “Happy Birthday” to the standard fiddle tune “’Big John MacNiel.” I developed my own style and then I was given four records of other fiddle players: Graham Townsend, Ti-Jean Carignan, Jerry Holland, and Sean McGuire,” he says. Receiving these four albums was a pinnacle moment in his self-taught musical journey as it motivated him to learn four additional and different styles. “I was blessed to be around a lot of great music.”
MacMaster admits that when she and Leahy began playing together was a bit of an adjustment, but it didn’t take long for them to find their groove. “It was cute we would both shy away from the lime light to be respectful of the other person. We realized we were not performing as well visually as we would if we were on our own shows. Neither of us wanted to hog the stage, so we have had to learn that fine line of giving the audience who they want to know and who they came to see. We have found a balance,” states MacMaster.
MacMaster has found a new solace playing with her husband and children. “When I watch Donnell play or perform with him, I am elated because of who is beside me – my husband, my best friend, and the father of my children,” says MacMaster.
“Every show we do I have moments when I am completely moved, especially when I am backstage watching my kids perform,” explains MacMaster. “And then my three year old tugs on my sleeve,” she laughs.
MacMaster and Leahy’s individual styles and immense talent flow together in one performance that showcases not only a mixture of their styles, but their children’s talent as well. Although MacMaster and Leahy are committed to supporting their children’s musical interests and thoroughly enjoy watching them perform, they aren’t sold on the idea of having their children perform with them on a full-time basis. “Like most parents we want what is best for our children,” says Leahy. “You keep going and try to make the right decisions all the time.”
“We are building a show and who knows what the future holds. They have hockey and other things they like to do,” adds MacMaster. “We always feel we have to re-evaluate for our family. I would quit all of this tomorrow if it was a negative,” says MacMaster.
MacMaster acknowledges how hard it can be to perform an instrument that gets very little radio air time. “People don’t realize how hip the fiddle can be,” states MacMaster. Multi-talented musical performer Elton Lammie, who sings and plays instruments in four different genres of music, can attest to the struggles musicians face when combining a mixture of styles in one show. “Natalie is brilliant at Cape Breton style fiddling and Donnell can do anything on a fiddle. He is also a violin master; one who is well rounded and can play traditional Irish fiddling one minute and improv a Cajun style the next. Her style is fun and beautiful and Donnell’s is fire meets honey,” says Lammie.
The release of their first album together titled One is a combination of their flair. “We are really pleased with the finished product. It was produced by Canadian Music Producer, Bob Ezrin, who co-produced Pink Floyd’s The Wall and has worked with Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel to get them on the map. It was cool that he wanted to do a fiddle record,” says Leahy.
“One was co-produced by Justin Cortelyou who has worked with Taylor Swift and Alan Jackson. On the album we definitely honour our tradition, but we also embrace the music of today and that comes out in our final project. That is the way Donnell and I are; there is always a blend of the past, present and future,” says MacMaster.
The Niagara Region is blessed to have MacMaster and Leahy on the events schedule at the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines, ON for two shows on Saturday December 5, 2015. “Christmas is a time we treasure and we are a very traditional Christmas spirited family and it becomes more valuable to us as we age in this world of ours,” states MacMaster. Their Christmas show will include a mixture of old and new Christmas melodies designed to take you on a journey of song and dance. “The old fashioned spirit of Christmas needs to be kept alive,” says MacMaster.
Whether you are looking for a fun and relaxing afternoon or an eclectic evening to get you into the Christmas spirit, MacMaster and Leahy’s Christmas performance is guaranteed to entertain and warm hearts. For tickets or more information visit natalieanddonnell.com or nataliemacmaster.com