Canadian fiddler extraordinaire Natalie Macmaster is no stranger to long-time readers of Celtic Life International, having graced our pages on a number of occasions over the last decade. Recently, we caught up with the multi award-winning musician to chat about her latest effort, Canvas, and the perks and perils of her profession.

How was COVID-19 for you and your family?
Gosh. What a couple of years, right? We were heading out on tour when the pandemic hit, and there was a lot of confusion at first. Is the virus here in Canada? Should we be doing this? And we did four or five shows I believe before the venues started limiting capacity to, like, 250 people or less, and we kept hearing how the infection numbers were going up significantly every day, so, at that point, we just went home. And we managed to get through these last couple of years without it having that big of an impact upon our children. Yes, things were different for them but there was no heaviness to it at all like there was for some people. All you seemed to hear about was the end of the world, so we felt it was our responsibility in our little corner of the globe to keep things fun and interesting. And I stayed as positive and upbeat as I could – playing my fiddle and trusting that the truth would prevail, and that the world would continue to spin on its axis.

And the new recording was born of this time?
Yes. We bought studio equipment – which is something that we said we would never do – and spent the better part of two years recording Canvas.

How is it different from past recordings?
It is definitely a unique project in that I didn’t feel the weight or the burden or the sense of responsibility to carry the torch of tradition or cultural heritage that I have in the past. There was more freedom for me to stretch out and just play without having to adhere to set forms or structures or styles. My husband Donnell felt the same way. In fact, during the process he often said, “let the music decide”. Don’t get me wrong – I know where I come from, and I am very aware of my roots and what we do as a musical family – but I am an artist first and foremost, and my art compels me to evolve. It dictates that I discover new ways and means of expression. As an artist that is very exciting. So, in that sense, the opportunity for us to explore new musical possibilities was simply impossible to resist. And having a home studio was a bit of a revelation, as we suddenly weren’t working on someone else’s clock – we could record anytime we felt the iron was hot. Of course, working at home in your pyjamas has its own set of challenges.

What has the response been like so far?
Oh, it has been really, really positive. We have had some very strong reviews from critics, and fans have been quite outspoken in their support. And to be honest, that came as a bit of a relief to both Donnell and me, as we had no idea how people would take to the album. We are fortunate that way – our audience has always come with us whenever we have taken some creative liberties. Sadly, that isn’t always the case with other artists.

Does that critical and/or public support matter to you?
Yes and no. I mean, yes – I always want people to like and appreciate what we do and how hard we work, no different from anyone else in any profession. And no, in that I have to do what I love in the end, or I will stagnate both as an artist and as a person. Ultimately, at this stage of my life and career, I feel that I have worked hard to get to where I am and that I have only myself to answer to musically. And there is a great and wonderful freedom in that, but also tremendous responsibility to step up and produce something great.

Is being in the studio still rewarding for you?
Yes, it is very exciting. I love variety, and between recording and playing live there is enough diversity that I don’t get bored or burned out. The mix, the balance, of our professional lives and our personal lives keeps everything fresh, and certainly keeps me on my toes. I did slow down musically during the childbearing years and felt like I was maybe coasting a bit at times. However, given the circumstances, I think I could be forgiven for that.

With all those children you have your hands full.
That’s putting it mildly, yes. That’s an entirely different discussion.

Tell me about your creative process.
When I am tapped into that power greater than myself and I can feel that flow of that energy, there is nothing like it in the world. The only thing that equals it is having children. Like music, being a parent requires a tremendous amount of love and sacrifice. Like children, music is, something that is born through us, but not necessarily of us. Both are magical experiences. You know, for me, music has always been about following my muse. Think about those two words for a moment – muse and music. There is a reason that they have the same root.

Of course, the music industry has changed significantly during the course of your career.
OMG, yes – it is an entirely different industry now. All you need is a laptop and some sort of digital recording program like ProTools and you can write, record, mix, and master an entire album in your kitchen, at a fraction of the cost of going into the studio. That’s great, because on the one hand anyone with any kind of creative spirit can express themselves. On the other hand, you no longer have to be an actual musician to make music. It’s interesting; a friend of mine asked me recently how I now get paid for my work and, to be honest, aside from live shows, I am not really sure anymore. The world of online music – Spotify and YouTube – doesn’t really pay the bills, yet. Honestly, sometimes it is challenging to keep up with all of that stuff.

So, what advice might you have for younger people looking to carve out a career in music today?
You know, my eldest daughter has shown an interest in being a full-time musician, and certainly she has more than enough talent to do that. I would tell other young people the same thing I have told her; follow your bliss and your dreams but remember to pay the bills. If that means working a day job to support your real job – the job of making music, which isn’t really a job at all – then go do that. I have a teaching degree, so if things hadn’t worked out for me, I still had something solid to fall back on. Thankfully, my musical career took off at the right time.

You are also writing a book these days?
Yes. I won’t get into the details at this point, but I am loving the process. To be honest, I was quite nervous about putting pen to paper at first, and I wasn’t even sure I had anything to say as I do all my talking with the fiddle. However, with some encouragement from a writing coach I started to jot a few things down here and there and it has worked like a charm so far. Once that door opened, I just walked right in and made myself comfortable. It is scheduled to be published early next year.

How is it different from writing music?
It requires a lot more discipline. With music, inspiration can strike anytime – on the stage, in the studio, during rehearsal, or even just putzing around the house. I simply pick up the instrument and go. Writing the book, I have set times that I sit down and pick up where I left off the day before. I suppose, ultimately, that both creative acts come from the same place.

Where, or what, is that place?
Ha. That’s the big mystery, right? When I get there, I will let you know.

What’s next on your musical agenda?
Well, I suppose we do what we do and bring it around the world; we will be touring through the summer – mostly festivals across Canada and the USA. And we are off to Ireland at some point also. In the fall we have a massive tour of the U.S. planned – these are our own shows. Usually, we do a series of family Christmas concerts in Canada at the end of the year also, which wraps things up nicely as we can be home for the holidays. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be able to do this with my family – it brings so much colour to the canvas of my life.
Photos by Rebekah Littlejohn