When two become ONE, musical magic happens. That is most certainly the case with this new album from Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy. These two award-winning fiddle virtuosos have each enjoyed phenomenally successful careers on their own, but ONE marks their recording debut as a duo.
To fans of fiddle music, Natalie MacMaster needs no introduction. Over a recording career now spanning 25 years, this Order of Canada recipient has released 11 albums that have notched sales of over 200,000 copies. She has won two JUNO and eleven East Coast Music Awards and been nominated for a Grammy, is in great demand as a charismatic performer, and has collaborated with artists as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma (on the Grammy-winning album Songs of Joy & Peace), Alison Krauss, Jesse Cook, and Bela Fleck. Though acknowledging that she can be “a musical chameleon,” Natalie stresses that, above all else, “I play Cape Breton fiddle.”
Her husband, Donnell Leahy, is no stranger to the awards podium himself. He is the oldest brother of the internationally-acclaimed family musical group Leahy, winners of three JUNO Awards. Widely recognized as one of the best Celtic fiddlers in the world, his high-energy playing style also makes him a highly popular performer.
They have previously performed together and appeared on each other’s record, but ONE is their official first full recording as a duo. “When we married in 2002, we felt there would be some recording project in our future, but we didn’t realize it wouldn’t happen until 2014!,” says Natalie. “Six children later, we’ve finally documented our musical growth together.”
And what a document ONE is. To be released internationally on Linus Entertainment on April 28, 2015, this is an album greater than the sum of its parts. When those individual parts are as talented as MacMaster and Leahy, that’s saying something. As Natalie explains, “this CD is a combination of the old and the new, the original and the traditional, the Cape Breton and the Ontario. It’s a musical reflection of us as individuals and as spouses, our influences over the years and our personal interpretations and tastes. We just wanted the right music. Whether it came from us or someone else, whether it came from Finland or Cape Breton, that didn’t matter. I’m always just ‘oh, I love that piece. I want to record it.'”
The diversity of ONE is a real strength. The Cape Breton-raised MacMaster and the Ontario born and bred Leahy grew up with different fiddle music traditions and they still utilize different techniques on their beloved instrument. While retaining their own individual styles, they have now learned to complement each other’s playing in a way only a married couple with such personal chemistry and a joint passion for music can.
A crucial component to ONE is the presence of superstar producer Bob Ezrin. The chain of events leading to his involvement is considered fate of the best kind by Donnell. “It was always assumed that Natalie and I would record and play together,” he explains. “As life happened, there were so many individual tours booked ahead of time and the little ones started to come. A couple of years ago we decided we were doing it. The project took a while to get going and then we had a few delays, with another baby coming and my tearing an achilles tendon. We were scheduled to record last May, but the baby delayed that. Two months later we met Bob.”
Natalie traces the origins of the Ezrin connection, recalling that “we were in Cape Breton visiting my family when I got a phone call from Bob, asking if I wanted to play fiddle on a [Canadian singing star] Johnny Reid track for one of his Christmas albums. I went to Nashville for that last July, and there I became a great admirer of both Johnny and Bob. I talked to Johnny about our delayed recording project, and he asked if he could share that information with Bob. Five minutes after I got home from Nashville, Bob called to say he enjoyed working with me and that maybe we could do it again. After Donnell and I met Bob and, through him, [album co-producer] Justin Cortelyou (Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, Alan Jackson), we all very quickly realized this project was meant to be a collective effort, a passion shared by all.”
The delightful result is ONE. The album includes the first recorded versions of the original material Natalie and Donnell have begun writing together, and these fit seamlessly alongside their refreshing reinterpretations of traditional and contemporary tunes they have discovered in their musical explorations. Songs from Finland, France, Scotland, Ireland, the U.S., and Cape Breton are featured here, with a clog medley, jigs, reels, waltz and polka styles all played with infectious enthusiasm and impeccable skill.
Some numbers have the evocative feel of a film soundtrack, as confirmed by the fact that “Hector The Hero” is already slated for insertion in an upcoming feature film biography of the legendary Walt Disney. An adventurous new MacMaster/Leahy composition, The Chase takes you on a journey the title suggests, while the vibrant “Tribute To Buddy” is dedicated by Natalie “to my uncle, the late, great Buddy MacMaster.” Widely regarded as the king of Cape Breton fiddle music, Buddy passed away last year. He is cited by both Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac as their greatest single musical influence.
There’s a lovely story behind “Wedding Day Jig,” the duo’s first joint original tune. “Natalie and I wrote that when we were getting married,” says Donnell. “We wanted it to give as gift to our guests, on cassette. Bob loved the tune and we decided to record it for the CD. Bob laughed about the electric guitar bit we put on there, saying ‘I like it, but they [the purists] are going to blame me for this!'”
Another notable first on ONE is Natalie MacMaster’s recording debut as a vocalist on the album’s only non-instrumental track “Cagaran Gaolach,” a beautiful lullabye. Donnell recalls that “Bob wanted the record to end with a lullabye, so he said ‘Natalie you have to sing one.’ She laughed and said ‘I don’t sing,’ but he insisted.” The lovely result confirms this as another winning Ezrin idea.
Though Leahy and MacMaster had assembled most of the material on ONE prior to Ezrin entering the picture, the producer did play a key role in selecting and arranging much of the material. For the recording, MacMaster and Leahy put together a small group of their favourite musicians, from both Canada and across the Atlantic. This list comprised Mark Kelso (drums), Mac Morin (piano), Tim Edey (guitar), Jamie Gatti (Bass), Rachel Aucoin (piano), and Sabin Jacques (Accordion). On hand to co-produce the sessions at Lakewind Studios were Bob Ezrin and Justin Cortelyou.
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It was Ezrin’s idea to record this album in Cape Breton, the region that has had such a crucial impact on MacMaster’s life and music. “Making this record in Cape Breton was seamless and fun and exciting,” recalls Donnell. “Near the studio we found this old mansion that was a bed and breakfast place and we had that to ourselves. For the first time ever we didn’t take the kids with us, and it was great to see Natalie relaxed. It was a special moment for us, just being there, playing the music and being silly together.”
The presence of an outside producer also eased the pressure of recording. “For the most part, we’ve made our records by ourselves, and then you’re charged with the responsibility for everything,” says Donnell. “To have someone of the calibre of Bob, and also Justin, come in and take a whole bunch of things away from us was great. We’ve had lots of records done the way we wanted, but this was an opportunity to share and be involved with a musical mind like that. When Bob walks in the room, everyone picks it up. You feel challenged to give your best. There is a real intense vibe and a live feeling on the record, with everyone just going for it.”
Natalie adds that “It is not very easy for us to trust someone else with our music, and we totally trust Bob. To me, he is like a cleansing filter. He lets the music become clear so it can shine. If you look at his projects, you see he doesn’t go in with an agenda. He was able to translate things from my or Donnell’s heart.”
That is exactly what has been accomplished on ONE, an album with the A-level production sound that material and playing of this quality so richly deserves. The fact that ONE is produced by Ezrin, a genuine record industry superstar, is guaranteed to help bring attention to the record. It may possibly raise eyebrows too, given that the name of this legendary veteran (and Canadian Music Hall of Famer) is most often associated with such classic rock artists as Alice Cooper, KISS, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, and, of course Pink Floyd (The Wall).
Ezrin’s diverse discography had not previously included a fiddle-based record, but he relished the challenge. “I love Celtic music. That’s where it starts. Also, there’s a deep Celtic underpinning to Canadian folk music and I played folk for many years. I love all the instruments of that tradition but the one that intimidates me the most is the fiddle. To me it’s some kind of voodoo stick that can only be played properly by shamans schooled in an obscure and mysterious knowledge that allows them alone to take a hunk of wood, four plastic strings and some horse hair and make magnificent music out of them! Being a guy who likes to confront his fears head on, I decided to dive into a fiddle project and see if I could survive.” That he did!
MacMaster and Leahy’s admiration for Ezrin is reciprocated. “There is very little that is as exciting as working with people who are masters at their craft,” explains Bob. “Both Natalie and Donnell are truly brilliant musicians whose instruments have become a natural extension of their bodies. They are such accomplished players that whatever they think of they can produce on their violins. It’s absolutely magical! Aside from that, they are among the kindest and finest people I know.”
Donnell is aware that Ezrin’s name on the record will attract interest. “His endorsement of ONE will give it more notoriety. I see fiddle music as not being very mainstream. To people that are not purists, it’s intriguing when a star from the rock world is involved with a fiddle record. I know I’d be curious to hear what it sounded like.”
Committed Leahy and MacMaster fans and the curious alike will surely be charmed by ONE, an album that is truly one of a kind.