By Steve Houk
One amazing fiddle virtuoso in the family is a cool enough thing.
But two? Out of this world.
And that’s what fiddling dynamos Donnell Leahy and his wife Natalie MacMaster have goin’ on. The pair are not only highly respected and successful fiddle players on their own, but together they encompass perhaps the most powerful fiddle duo of all time. And if you ask Leahy how it all came to be, he’ll tell you it’s really just a beautiful twist of fate.
“I like to think it was meant to be, and that the stars aligned at the right time. First, I’m a fan of Natalie’s since before I married her. And I love her taste in music. And she was a fan of what I did before we got married. So we dated for a couple years and did our own thing, and then the stars aligned, and this is the result.”
And what a fabulous supernova it is. After years of playing some of the best fiddle on the planet in their own careers — he with his internationally acclaimed family band Leahy and she with her own top shelf status– this dynamic pair have joined forces not only in matrimony (they’ve been married 12 years) and parenting (they have six children together) but they have also become what many in the genre call the “first couple of contemporary Celtic music,” melding their different styles into a rich cacophony of traditional and modern fiddle music. It has culminated in their exceptional first record together, One, that came out last fall, produced by legendary rock producer Bob Ezrin. Donnell, Natalie and their band grace the stage with their “Cape Breton and Beyond” at The Birchmere on October 29th.
This pair makes so much sense, it’s almost scary.
The Irish Leahy grew up in Ontario in a musical family where fiddling was a mainstay. Being the oldest boy in a family of 11, Leahy knew that the fiddle was going to be a part of his life from an early age. “As a young lad, you want to be like your Dad,” said Leahy. “And that’s the only instrument Dad played, so Dad and Mom bought me a fiddle when I was 3, and I just tried to be like Dad.”
As for his wife, who grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Leahy says even when she was in the womb, her mother introduced her to the comforting sounds of the fiddle and the die was cast. “Before she was even born, her mother would literally put the music on and put it up to her tummy. Natalie couldn’t go to bed unless she had fiddle music on. The day she picked up the fiddle she could play it because the sounds were so engrained in her. [Her family] never even thought of Natalie playing the fiddle until an uncle from Boston came home with a little fiddle. He said, ‘Does anyone want to play?’ He asked all the cousins, and Natalie jumped up and said, ‘I’d love it!’ and so she got the fiddle from her uncle, and she played two tunes that day. Almost like chance if you will, they had never even thought of getting her a fiddle.”
Given they grew up in different regions, Leahy and MacMaster drew on the different fiddling styles of their upbringing to learn and establish their own sounds.
“The differences in our sound is where we come from. Natalie is from Cape Breton and the tradition in Cape Breton is Scottish,” Leahy said. “I’m told that the Cape Breton fiddling is the purest form of Scottish traditional fiddling there is. Natalie listened to Cape Breton music as she grew up. I grew up listening to different things, my Dad was an Ontario fiddle player but I wasn’t from a big fiddle area. So I listened to my Dad, and I listened to the radio, country music and rock music and classical music. Whatever I heard I tried to play. I started when I was 3, and when I was was around 8, or 9, an Irish accordion player, a local guy who I’d listened to a little bit, he gave me four records (by famous fiddlers), and I played by ear and learned every note on those records.”
Leahy and MacMaster went on to have very successful fiddle-focused careers; Natalie is considered one of the world’s preeminent fiddle players, her collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma won a Grammy, and Donnell’s family band is one of Canada’s most beloved groups. They had been planning to record together for a while, but life kept getting in the way.
“As soon as we were engaged, we started thinking, wouldn’t it be great to play concerts together and record together, so it was always in our minds. But as life happens, Natalie had a record she was working on, and I had a project with Leahy, and then a baby would come along, and another one came along, and finally about two years ago, we said this is ridiculous, we have to make this record. We planned to do it last May, then we got delayed again, and so we wanted to get going last September but we met Bob Ezrin in August, so that changed our plans because Bob was not available in September. Another twist of fate you might say.”
Yes, that Bob Ezrin, the legendary producer who helmed such epic records as Alice Cooper‘s School’s Out, Pink Floyd‘s The Wall, A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell and Kiss‘ Destroyer among dozens of others. Leahy and MacMaster were stunned to not only meet Ezrin and talk music, but by the call they received soon after.
“Incredible, the day he called and said, ‘I know you’re doing a project and I’d love to be involved if you’d have me.’ That day was just unreal. Crazy that Bob Ezrin called us. We’re fiddle players, you know! He said he’d always wanted to do a Celtic record, and he had been given many opportunities and he just never really was drawn to one. And he somehow liked what we did and away we go. He said, ‘I want to hear the tunes you have in mind.’ So we went and we had about 18 ideas, tunes or ideas, and the first thing he said was, ‘This is your record, and we’re gonna make your record.’ Lovely thing to say right off the start. Just to watch him work, he’s so creative. It was great.”
And the experience of not only working with Ezrin, but with his own immensely talented wife? Two words sum it up, not only the musical but the personal aspects of the time they spent together making One.
“Real joyful. Some people think, oh you guys working together, you must be at each other all the time. We just loved it. I love what Natalie brings to a tune or to a project, not only the communicality, but the fresh ideas. Plus, we have six children now, that is our main focus, but when we made this record last October, we only had a week to get down to Nashville and do all the bed tracks, and it was just crazy. We made the decision we’re not taking the children with us. And it was like the first time in nine or ten years that we’d been away together without the children. Not to be negative, they were well taken care of by their grandparents, but we were guilt free. It was just an awesome week.”
Leahy and MacMaster’s sound is mostly traditional at its core, yet infused with a level of power, energy and passion rivaling that of any musical genre. So what do they want you to come away with after experiencing their music?
“I want people to come away knowing that we’re playing the music we love,” Leahy said. “We’re not seeking a sound or an audience, we’re playing the music we love. If people like it, we’re thrilled and honored. But everything we do is really honest and heartfelt.”
MacMaster and Leahy perform Thursday October 29th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA. For tickets click here.