It was a stunning day at the Elmhirst's Resort in Muskoka, Ontario. A bluer sky you'd be hard pressed to conjure; glistening Rice Lake was picture postcard pretty with its evergreen crowned islands bathed in brilliant sunlight. And into this setting of so much natural beauty came lively and beautiful Natalie, ready for anything, ready to take on the world with her blonde curls, burgundy blazer, tall glove leather boots and a poise which immediately pegged her as a star -unique and vivacious, yet somehow, still a warm and open country girl at heart, as unchanged and as constant as the waves off the shore of her birthplace in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Growing up in the village of Troy, on the southwest shore of Cape Breton Island, Natalie's home faced St. George's Bay. The sound of the ocean was never far away. After twelve short years of international touring, the sound of the waves is something she still misses and the first name for a body of water that comes to her mind is 'ocean'- whether it be salt or fresh water. Never mind that she now lives in a rural community in Ontario with her new husband and fellow fiddler Donnell Leahy (of the fiddle group, Leahy), if there is water, it is the ocean that first comes to mind.
For Natalie, the art of living includes laughter, love, faith and community. "Not necessarily in that order!" She laughs.
Perhaps it is community that is first. From the loving and extensive arms of her family- mother, father, brothers, her famous Uncle Buddy and countless cousins and relatives of all kinds- came the musical nursery in which she grew up. Hers was not the generation of fiddling kitchen parties for evening entertainment. That life belonged to her parents. Natalie recalls a childhood with television, movies and telephones that were foreign to her mother at the same age.
"It was a very typical Catholic Cape Breton upbringing," she says, "Out in the country, neighbours to play with, two older brothers picking on me and tormenting me! And me, loving it every minute!"
But Natalie's traditional upbringing, while on the surface seeming similar to every other Canadian child of the '70's, was markedly different. Her life was saturated by fiddle music. "Fiddle music was a part of living." She relates, "A lot of children came from the same type of home that I came from. Fiddle music was a part of living. It was in my community, in my school, in my home, in my blood." No wonder Cape Breton has produced such prodigious talents as Natalie as well as Ashley MacIsaac, Wendy MacIsaac, Richard Wood, Troy MacGillivray, the Rankin family and many others.
Heritage Day at school would see children in step dance shoes, playing fiddle or piano, music and movement so natural to them that it was just part of the norm. "It was definitely cool to be a fiddler," says Natalie. "Traditional music was so much a part of the youth. It wasn't just confined to the older people. There was absolutely no age barrier."
Natalie's Uncle Buddy MacMaster, a famous fiddler in his own right, would often drop by, sometimes with other relatives, playing tunes in the kitchen or in the basement family room where the family piano lived. "There was always music in the house," says Natalie, "And to this day, I still practice in the kitchen - it's the best room in the house other than the bathroom!" Fiddlers learn early about the superior acoustics of these rooms!
Natalie chose the fiddle for herself. Already an accomplished step dancer, she always knew she wanted to play the violin. Her chance came at age nine, when Grand-Uncle Charlie MacMaster from Boston sent a three-quarter size violin for the MacMaster clan's children. "Anyone who wanted to play it could keep it," says Natalie. "I said I liked it." And the rest is Canadian music history.
"That's why I started," says Natalie, "But if I hadn't got that fiddle, I'd have started somewhere. I was step dancing, singing Gaelic songs, playing piano, chording, jigging tunes, doing everything but the actual main thing. Once I had the fiddle, that was it!"
Performing came naturally to Natalie. From her first paid performance at age ten (she earned $30!), she progressed quickly to a polished and charismatic professional. A major trip to Boston at age twelve was surpassed by a gig at Expo 86 in Vancouver at age fourteen and followed by her first commercial recording: "Four on the Floor" in the pre-CD cassette tape format, at age sixteen.
But the most amazing thing for Natalie was her first East Coast Music Award at age 18. Completely unexpected and out of the blue, Natalie never imagined such an honour. She tells of the recording industry being "such an ocean in your mind." A music industry that was so huge and awe inspiring, she had not at all contemplated the possibility that she could even try for an ECMA award. Nominated for a Grammy and now with
Juno Awards (Canada's music industry awards), as well as several ECMA awards to her credit, she sees the music world as "getting smaller as you travel." She still very much appreciates each new award but recalls how in her eighteenth year, she was completely blown away by the unexpected recognition of her first ECMA.
Natalie's career was completely confirmed when in her early 20's she received a recording contract with Warner Music, in 1995.
That Cape Breton should produce talent of Natalie's caliber should surprise few who know about the musical history of the region. Talent is surely in the gene pool.
But, the breadth of Natalie's natural talent is all the more startling when you realize she has had relatively little formal musical training. From age 10 to 12, she studied fiddle regularly with teacher Stan Chapman, then took three or four lessons in how to read music from Kim Beaton when she was 14. After that, lessons were sporadic at best. "But don't tell the kids that!" she implores. "You're not supposed to tell that to kids who are just learning!"
Natalie still practices about an hour a day, just as she did when she was younger.
"It takes more hours of practicing, more dedication, more everything, to get just a little bit better. Can you imagine how good I'd be if I practiced eight hours a day?"
Perhaps there are other reasons too, that Natalie is a success. Her mother's collection of traditional music may be one. For decades, Minnie MacMaster has been collecting tapes of ceilidhs, kitchen parties, dances and both formal and informal events where fiddle music is played. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of tunes, some from old reel to reel recordings, grace the MacMaster basement. "These are my base and my foundation," says Natalie. "Scottish fiddle tunes - an unbelievable collection. There is no shortage and no end!"
But, there are many days when Natalie spends much more than an hour at her music.
"I don't want to just stay stagnant" says Natalie. "Preparing for a new CD, I spend five hours a day or more on just fiddle stuff - writing, notating, working out arrangements for my bandů" She is constantly on the lookout for new musical directions. From searching out new sounds to composing her own music, Natalie likes the serendipity of allowing new influences to come into her work.
Eight years ago, Natalie toured Norway and developed a connection with Annbjorg Lien, who plays the Hardanger fiddle - a traditional Norwegian fiddle-like instrument with nine strings, five of them producing sympathetic resonance. Natalie loved the brilliant silvery sound and the unusual melodies. She collaborated with Annbjorg on several projects, including performances with The String Sisters, a group of seven female fiddle players from different countries which have fiddling traditions.
More recently, Natalie has begun composing in response to her own need to broaden her music beyond the traditional tunes which were so much a part of her childhood. "I was looking for fiddle tunes that were really cool and didn't sound like fiddle tunes." Searching around in other traditions, such as Romanian or Hungarian fiddle music, saw her exploring some very classical traditions "which were way too hard!"
"I never wanted to write more fiddle tunes - I always thought the thousands of tunes I had access to, were better anyway, so why did I need to write more? But I wanted to do something different with the music. It got me to a place where I was very keen on writing and enjoying it, too."
Check www.nataliemacmaster.com for Natalie's live performance schedule.
Natalie's latest CD, 'Blueprint' is available in record stores now.
** At recent public appearances in July, 2005, Natalie announced her next phase - motherhood. She and Donnell are expecting their first child in December, 2005.
Elizabeth Szekeres, freelance writer, fiddler and songwriter, lives in Caledon, Ontario,Canada, with her husband and her four amazing children.
Elizabeth has co-written several songs for the Canadian folk band Tanglefoot and currently performs as dancer and musician with the Orange Peel Border Morris Dancers.