Photos Credit Rebekah Littlejohn
A blank canvas is full of possibilities—much like the partnership of Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, whose new album Canvas comes out on March 17, 2023.
They are two of the world’s top Celtic fiddlers: she is a renowned, award-winning solo artist from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; he is from the legendary Leahy family of Ontario, an intergenerational musical act that toured the world. They were married in 2002, and their cumulative album sales topped one million. A power couple was born.
Canvas is only their third album together. They approached it as a blank canvas, not bound by easy patterns or habits. “Creativity comes when there is space for it,” says MacMaster. “One thing Donnell and I were given in 2020 was the space and time to be creative, think and focus, and find what was inside us. Like an empty canvas, our minds were clear, open for the music that was about to flow.
There were no restrictions, rules, agendas, or considerations. As Donnell often said, ‘Let the music decide.’ So, we indulged in full musical freedom, throwing patterns of the past aside. With a few challenges along the way, it was a delight from beginning to end.”
Rock, pop, Latin and classical influences come to the fore on the new material of mostly original melodies. Guests include Rhiannon Giddens (“Woman of the House”), Yo-Yo Ma (“So You Love”) Brian Finnegan (“Colour Theory”)—and, on “Choo Choo,” their 17-year-old daughter Mary Frances Leahy.
All seven of their children have become essential components of the live show, which sells out performing arts centres across North America—especially leading up to the Christmas holidays. “Initially, we were reluctant to let the kids perform. We worried the expectations might be too much,” Leahy says. “But then one night, we put Mary Frances on stage. Soon after that, Michael wanted to play. When I was a kid, I played the fiddle for my parents, brothers, and sisters. But you need to get into the game at some point. For me, the game was playing house parties. Our kids are practicing, and when they come out on stage and do their little number, it’s their reward. They feel like a part of the tour and that provides amazing gratification.”
“I was so in awe of Donnell’s family,” says MacMaster, “of 11 siblings who could play and had a family band. And here I am now doing almost exactly the same thing. Well, kind of.”
Like any great marriage or artistic collaboration, MacMaster and Leahy have learned how to bring out the best in each other. “With Donnell, I had to listen more deeply to subtleties in his music so that I wouldn’t muscle over them,” MacMaster says. “I also had to try and roll with his rhythm. Having said that, I still play in my Cape Breton style. Only about 40 percent of our show is us playing together. The other 60 percent is arrangements where we each take turns or are playing alone.” “I think the thing I’m most proud of is Natalie,” says Leahy. “She’s a musical star but her commitment to her family and to me is a side nobody gets to see. She’s so giving. It’s never ‘no’ with her.”
Listening to Canvas, the average listener might not be able to discern the difference in their two styles — and it doesn’t matter because either way, you’re listening to two of the best fiddlers on the planet. MacMaster and Leahy are as dynamic working together as they were working apart, which is why they have fans like Shania Twain and the Chieftains, an audience that stretches from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Sydney, Australia.
True-life stories in the entertainment world (or anywhere) aren’t more remarkable than that.