Seamlessly blending classic and contemporary melodies, Cape Breton’s first and finest musical family the Barra MacNeil’s adhere to the ages-old adage if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…
That maxim is more than evident on their most recent recording, On the Bright Side, where older Celtic fiddle songs and Gaelic ballads easily mix with modern, up-tempo tunes.
It is precisely what listeners have come to expect from the multi-talented siblings, who take their band’s name from the family’s ancestral home off the west coast of the Scottish Highlands.
Born and bred in Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, the east-coast quintet has held true to its regional roots; Cape Breton has long been a hotbed of Celtic culture, renowned for its kitchen parties, ceilidhs, music festivals, step-dancing, and more. And though classically trained, the ‘Barras’ are masters on the instruments of their ancestors, including fiddle, piano, guitar, mandolin, whistles and bodhran.
That talent shines with On The Bright Side, perhaps most notably on the first single, Living the Dream. Written by lead vocalist Stewart MacNeil, the song is as rich in imagery as it is in sound.
“It is a bit of a rap with a hypnotic groove and a big chorus,” he shares over the phone from his Cape Breton home.
Lyrically, the tune is, by turns, both light and dark.
It’s a sandy beach
It’s a hole in one
Taking a stroll in the midnight sun
There’s peace of mind
When you are jiggin’ the line
You’re feeling happy and you don’t know why.
Later verses tell a strikingly different story.
But the word in the street
Is all that matters
Wave a gun in the air
And watch them scatter
Two bits to watch a high diving act
Too young to die
And all that crap
“That’s the disguise of it,” notes Stewart. “There are different levels in the lyrics, as there are in many songs. It is about what it takes to be happy, but also about inequality and about violence overtaking society. Thematically, the song is about the simple things in life bringing happiness. The trouble, however, is that we are all trying to get ahead in our own minds, to move up the food chain, to never go back down so we are feeling chased.”
We’re all on the take
We hunt and we gather
Shop ‘til you drop
What does it matter
When the dole is spent
The landlady comes knock, knock, knockin’
For last month’s rent
People may have their “own little dream of livin’ in the land of milk and honey” – but it is one that is too-often built at great expense.
Everybody needs a place to call their own
A basic shelter that they call home
A satellite dish and a couple of cats
Security system and a welcome mat
The new album, says Stewart, has been a long time coming.
“It was definitely in the works longer than most. We booked a studio for a month – four summers ago – and thought we would have it out in no time. However, our mother became sick and that changed everything. We postponed the recording sessions, cancelled tours…so we have had some catching up to do.”
Comprised of four brothers – Stewart, Sheumas, Kyle and Boyd – and sister Lucy, the Barras find themselves in full family accord whether on stage or in the studio.
“We have the shared music that has been with us all our lives, at home and at our grandmother’s home,” reflects Stewart.
“We have always been in it together and somewhere through the years we must have learned to get along.”
“It takes us less time to come to a consensus now than it might have in the early days. We all bring something to the table, and then we see how it will all work together. We usually have a surplus of have good songs that we start with, so some may be put aside for a future album.”
As far back as they can remember, music has been a source of joyful memories and good times for the family; various members performed across Cape Breton from an early age, and they began touring together during summers while still in school. In 1986, the band independently recorded and released their self-titled debut. National attention came in 1993, when they earned popular and critical acclaim – and gold album status – for Closer to Paradise.
The big single from that album, Darling Be Home Soon, helped bring Celtic music in the Canadian mainstream musical market.
“We have always been, first and foremost, a Celtic band,” explains Stewart, “but we were never shy to try new things, new sounds that suited us, and we have kept with that formula ever since. One of the tracks on the new record, Clouds Under My Feet, is like that; maybe defying what people might expect of us.”
Tradition, however, remains at the heart and soul of the band’s identity.
On the Bright Side’s opening cut, Welcome to Boston, recalls a warm, wintry welcome the band received during a tour a few years ago. The Jug of Punch, a song that commemorates the rites of an Irish wake, harkens back to legendary Irish singers such as The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
“It is a version done by Dermot O’Reilly and Fergus O’Byrne. We sometimes sing another version at parties but we chose this one, with Kyle on vocals, for the album.”
A grandson of fluent Gaelic speakers, Stewart has taken to studying the language in recent years
“I have been around the melodies for so long that I eventually became interested in learning the language. It is both very beautiful and emotional, and you can hear that on the new recording when Lucy sings Ribhinn Donn (Brown Haired Girl).”
His sister also shines with Daisy, a heart-warming melody by Scottish songwriter Karine Palwart, in which an older woman attempts to warn someone younger about the pitfalls of adulthood.
“Every time I hear it, I can see Lucy singing to her young daughters who are growing up very quickly.”
Another track, Mademoiselle Gallant, brings together old-world elements.
“It is a waltz – almost Viennese or gypsy – that moves to jig time at the end. You can’t help but be carried along by all the changing gears.”
The album also features the Abba hit, The Way Old Friends Do.
“A fan in Chicago actually sent us a tape of some cover songs he thought matched our style of family vocals, including this song. He was certainly spot on with The Way Old Friends Do.”
During 2015’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton, the MacNeil brothers performed Stewart’s The Underachiever a capella. It went over so well with the audience that it was a must for the new recording.
“It is a song for everyman, for everyone who has fallen short of what they set out to do from time to time.”
Well I’m turning in my uniform
My membership expired
I’ve been slow to meet the image that’s required
Stewart sings of “pulling on the push door” and Kyle, Sheumas and Boyd join in on the chorus.
Well it’s a shame I’ve been sinning
It’s a testament of living
I’m no perfect resurrection from the dead
So please keep your distance
I’ll be of no assistance
I’m just someone who couldn’t get ahead.
Unlike those lyrics, the Barras keep moving forward; currently on the road in support of On the Bright Side, the band will break in November to begin their annual cross-country Christmas extravaganza.
“So far, the tour has been very well received, but we never take anything for granted. We still have lots of songs and stories to share.”