Ashley MacIsaac: Never A Dull Moment

Ashley MacIsaac has a problem to ponder as he prepares for his annual interview with the Cape Breton Post. “For the past seven years or so, I have done this interview to continually update my story. But now the problem is how am  I going to get those coffee lips wagging on Tuesday morning when they read their local newspaper,” exclaimed MacIsaac from his Windsor Ontario residence.

This year’s feature story has a built-in point of discussion as MacIsaac will celebrate his 40th birthday with a concert performance on Tuesday at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. “Yes I could have celebrated my birthday back home in Cape Breton but some of my most loyal fans are in the Toronto area and I’ve played Hugh’s Room many times and their staff has always treated me well, “noted MacIsaac.

“When you take into account all the injuries to my hips and knees, I am still working away purposefully; my prime objective is still to make money and to create music that reflects current trends,” explained the Creignish, Nova Scotia fiddle player whose colourful exploits in the past have provided the Cape Breton Post and many other media with plenty of outrageous prose in past years.

An openly Gay fiddle-playing protégé whose debut record, `Hi How Are You’, released by A&M Records in 1995 chalked up over 300,000 copies in domestic sales. MacIsaac shattered the staid Celtic stereotype of Maritime musicians with a record that melded traditional Maritime music with an edgy rock live performance. That one album threatened to introduce a new music trend to contemporary music, gleaning two Juno awards for that debut release, Best New Solo Artist and Best New Instrumental Artist. “Sleepy Maggie”, the record’s debut single which combined fiddle instrumentals with Mary Jane Lamond’s  Gaelic vocals even earned airplay on Toronto’s Q-107, home of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.”

Along with fame though came  the trappings of success.  MacIsaac began an association with the likes of New York minimalist musician, Philip Glass, also connecting with iconic artist Paul Simon and his wife Edie Brickell which led to MacIsaac appearing for the first time at New York’s celebrated Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately, MacIsaac’s edgy, sometimes controversial live performances and rumours of drug abuse resulted in a media backlash, stories which MacIsaac claims are mostly untrue or taken out of context.

“Obviously now that I’m hitting 40 I am concentrating more on my music than on the business itself,” MacIsaac noted. “I probably went through a period in my twenties when I didn’t even pick up a bow and fiddle to practice. Then it was all about running the business, performing concerts and selling records, I just didn’t have time to practice.”

Troll through any biographical coverage of MacIsaac and you’ll read stories about his 2000 New Year’s Eve rave concert in Halifax which he reportedly swore obscenities at the crowd or the story of his bust up with long-time manager Sherri Jones after a concert at the Festival of Friends fevent in Fort Erie where he reportedly swore at the crowd – and then there’s his infamous  1997 appearance on the Conan O’Brien  Show where, during a performance of “Sleepy Maggie”, he showed the TV cameras and live audience what a true Scotsman does (or more accurately doesn’t) wear under his kilt.[quote]Every one of those stories go back to a very early stage in my career when people read the papers and assumed from the media that because I smoked pot and was Gay, that I was a dangerous performer which is a very dangerous assumption to make[/quote]

“Every one of those stories go back to a very early stage in my career when people read the papers and assumed from the media that because I smoked pot and was Gay, that I was a dangerous performer which is a very dangerous assumption to make,” protested MacIsaac.  “Yes I may have stirred things up a few times to drum up ticket sales, and yes that incident on Conan O’Brien’s show was meant to create some controversy, but I am not crazy enough to alienate my audience.

“That incident at Fort Erie was typical of some of the crap I had to deal with,” said MacIssac becoming more animated in the conversation. “What that really boiled down to was  I had a fight in my trailer with my long-time tour manager, who is my manager’s husband – I almost put him through the wall of the trailer. And then it gets reported that I swore at the crowd, when really what I did was say the f-word once during one of my song lyrics. Next thing I know, the word is out that I swore at the crowd, future concert dates got cancelled and promoters who owed me monies wouldn’t pay up”.

Controversy also followed McIsaac through dealings with his record companies. A positive relationship with A&M Records’ president Joe Summers helped get his  1995 debut `Hi How Are You Today and 1996 follow up Fine, Thank You Very Much” off to a promising start. However he ran into problems when A&M first merged with Polygram and then was bought out by Universal in 1998. An initial meeting between the Cape Bretoner and label president Randy Lennox was anything but fruitful. “Some artists spend months or years, getting out of their contracts; I was out of mine by the end of that day.”

A record, MacIsaac was working on at the time; `Helter Celtic’ was picked up by (McCain Foods founder) Andrew McCain for his fledgling Loggerhead Records’ label but although MacIsaac was happy to take a healthy fee to launch his record with the new indie label, that relationship fell apart when  McCain reacted negatively to the media criticism MacIsaac was receiving.

“They actually went to Much Music and told them to pull my videos because they were disassociating themselves from me,”bemoaned MacIsaac. “Coming from the label that was supposed to be representing me, how screwed up is that!”[youtube width=”600″ height=”400″ video_id=”0JcWWFilvxg”]

Despite media criticism, no one could ever say MacIsaac isn’t talented. Coming from an extended musical family that also includes fiddle-playing sisters, Wendy MacIsaac, Alexis MacIsaac and cousin Natalie MacMaster, MacIsaac has toured the U.S with The Chieftains, opened for The White Stripes (the group’s lead vocalist Jack White is a distant cousin),  performed during the opening segment of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and on March 5th will perform a Tibet House Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall  in New York City with an all-star cast which will includes Laurie Anderson, The Flaming Lips, Paul Simon, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith.[quote]When I die, I also wanted to be cremated but I want my ashes to be put on little bars of rosin[/quote]

“People think I’m either fine or misunderstood on one side or on the other side think I am an asshole who should be shot,” cracks MacIsaac. “But I can’t be all that bad if I’m playing Carnegie Hall or opening the 2010 Olympics. My favourite situation was when I performed before Queen Elizabeth in Victoria B.C  one day and the next day performed at a strip club in the same city. That just about sums up my life.”

Having also signed for the likes of Decca and Linus, recording four other indie records in the process, MacIsaac is currently formulating for an electronic record that incorporates fiddle music. “I’ve had this idea for ages but I needed to find the right producer. I still think I’m relevant and I know my music can work with what the kids are listening to now,”

And yes, the Ashley MacIsaac that is appearing at Hugh’s Room on Tuesday, celebrating his 40th birthday is a lot more focused on his music  than creating controversy,  although he’s still a tough cookie to negotiate with. “In many way’s I am just like fellow Cape Bretoner, Rita MacNeill, if Rita didn’t want to do something, she would just say no, I’m not doing it. And she was 40 when she started getting famous.”

Unfortunately, Rita MacNeill died in  April 2013 and her cremated ashes are kept in a tea pot and displayed at her tea room in Big Pond, Nova Scotia. Which brings Ashley MacIsaac to his own unique marketing scheme.

“When I die, I also wanted to be cremated but I want my ashes to be put on little bars of rosin,” he explained. “Then I would arrange to sell these little gold-coloured bars of rosin with speckles of me on them. Might pay for my funeral and at the very least, fiddle players of the future would be rubbing their bows all over me for the rest of their lives.

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