Black Music Matters Festival

Natalie MacMaster keeps her ground

By Rick Bell, January 2004

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"There are several others besides myself who are making careers out of music," she says. "Before my time, it was mostly men, but there are many more women playing now. I know about 60 to 70 women who play. There are a dozen or so in Cape Breton. Most of the rest play for fun ."

Like her uncle before her, Natalie MacMaster is among the leaders of Cape Breton's shifting musical landscape .

That may be among the most notable ironies in MacMaster's latest album, "Blueprint," which contains a number of bluegrass songs .

While the title may not intentionally refer to Cape Breton's musical future, it at times wanders a great distance from the traditional music that defines Nova Scotia's rocky, weathered coast. MacMaster spent much of the second half of 2003 on the road in support "Blueprint," recorded in the spring of 2002 in Nashville .

"We planned to record it in Canada, but 70 percent of the people on the album live in Nashville," she says of "Blueprint," which finally was released last September. "It was easier for me to go to them. I loved Nashville; I'd been there before, but never recorded there ."

Produced by Darol Anger, an innovative string virtuoso in his own right, the album is a "Who's Who" of A-list pickers - Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Viktor Krauss and Edgar Meyer among the most notable. Singer John Cowan even joins his ex-New Grass Revival mates Bush and Fleck on one song .

With such a wealth of talent and a diversity of styles, MacMaster nonetheless thinks the album very much retains her vision .

"It was nothing short of amazing," she says of the two weeks' worth of sessions. "I wanted it simple in production - it was traditional in that sense - but very worldly. I wanted to feature musicians making music in a new way ."

MacMaster had never played with any of her fellow musicians, nor had she ever recorded with a Dobro or banjo. She compiled the tunes, while Anger organized the sessions and suggested the treatments. Because MacMaster was between record deals, there was a lapse between recording the album's 12 tracks and the release of "Blueprint ."

The time in between allowed for plenty of post-production work, but it also allowed for something even more personal - her Oct. 5, 2002, marriage to Donnell Leahy, whose family band exploded onto the Celtic music scene in 1997 with the song "The Call to Dance." They went on to win several music awards, crack world music charts and tour with Shania Twain .

"Luckily he proposed May 3rd, and we finished up the album a couple weeks later," she says .

Despite the heavyweight lineup, as well as her pending nuptials, MacMaster was able to maintain her focus .

"I was excited, not nervous," she says. "I was used to playing with people, used to being in a recording environment, and I kept telling myself I had something to offer too. I had to gain confidence. I told myself that I play a tradition they never played before - Cape Breton fiddle music ."

When the sessions started, any veil of competition immediately lifted .

"Once I met those guys, all that went away," she says. "They were so generous with their compliments, and that's important when you record. They can all pick and choose whom they want to play with. I was blown away by their kindness. They made serious musical dreams come true for me. And the thing is, they are so darn good and they want to be better ."

Meyer recently agreed to perform with MacMaster in a video shoot for the song "Appropriate Dipstick" from the new record. Because it had been some time since the classical bassist had performed the piece, he felt the need to revisit it .

"He wanted to get it perfect," she says. "We were in makeup and wardrobe, and he's out there practicing. Most people wouldn't do that. Most people would say it's just a video, that you don't need to do it perfectly. It took such diligence and dedication to do that ."

She has similar "above and beyond" stories about banjo master Fleck, who took four hours out of a day on the road to record a part, and Douglas, the Dobro virtuoso who on a day off had to search out a studio to re-record a part for MacMaster's album .

"There are countless episodes of these guys doing this just for the sake of the music," she says .

While "Blueprint" may have been the culmination of a musical dream, it's not a peak by any means .

"You don't try to top it; how can you?" she says. "You just go on to the next one. I already have 15 tracks, and I'll pick 10 from that for a new record. I'm totally ready to go on it ."

MacMaster is projecting an early 2005 release for the new album, which she intends to record with her band .

"It's going to be different, that's all I can say," she says .

In fact, MacMaster says she has three more CDs in mind. She stopped herself short and asked aloud, "But what is the future of CDs? At what point will artists stop making money and start severely losing money on CDs?"A self-avowed technophobe - as is her husband - MacMaster doesn't own a computer, doesn't do e-mail (she has a secretary for such tasks) and has never downloaded a song .

"I'm not a techie-type girl," she admits. "Mine's to make music. But I can understand downloading. If I had a computer, and there was great music there for free, and I love this one song..." her voice trailed off. "It's a difficult decision ."

Because of the big financial commitment on the part of an artist, there's a danger that some music may never be recorded based on finances rather than creativity, she says .

"Things are changing in this industry. Musicians need to be motivated to record music," MacMaster says. "You can't go and invest $100,000 and not get your money back. They pour all their time and energy into that thing. Otherwise we'd be in the poor house ."

"The point is, musicians need to keep being inspired to record - financially. We can't let people stop recording because they can't afford to record. We've got to be able to record and have it pay for itself .

"I'd record the rest of my life if I knew I'd just break even ."