Natalie's most recent recording, Blueprint, features several tunes she has written. She is very proud of having worked closely with Darol Anger to produce it, working with some of the finest bluegrass musicians in North America. She considers it amazing that the entire CD was recorded in just two weeks, only days after she and Donnell became engaged, and only a few months before their storybook wedding in the family's traditional white clapboard church in Cape Breton. The Blueprint recording includes a song composed by Natalie's uncle, Bob Quinn, which his daughter Kate sang at the wedding: My Love, Cape Breton and Me.
That 2002 recording marked the first time that the bluegrass musicians had ever worked with a Cape Breton fiddler. Blueprint, Natalie's title of choice, was completely apropos in a year when there would be so many new beginnings for her.
Natalie had a vision of a superbly clean musical sound for the Blueprint recording. "I wanted simple production, clear acoustic instruments and great players. Within two weeks in May, we got every musician we wanted. It was nothing short of a miracle that we were able to do it in that time period when all these players have their own careers."
The love that surrounded Natalie that year shines through in the clear sweetness of that recording. It is a fitting testament to Natalie's devotion to her family and her art.
Just as Natalie gives of herself to share her gifted playing with the world, her fans give back to her. Since her original three-quarter size instrument at age nine, Natalie has acquired "seven or eight" full size fiddles, but she has never had to go through the process of selecting one for herself. All of her fiddles have been gifts. As any fiddle player or aficionado will know, violins need to be played to retain and develop their tone. Natalie has been the fortunate recipient of gifts from admirers, including an elderly gentleman kilt maker from Barrie, Bill Burnett, who has given to Natalie three lovely instruments left to him by his friend Bill Crawford. Rather than hang them on a wall, he chose Natalie to be their owner, knowing they would be played. Such is the devotion of Natalie's fans.
"I always knew I wanted to fiddle," Natalie says. "I went to Nova Scotia Teachers College because I've always loved kids and I was thinking that maybe I could teach part time and travel with my fiddle in the other part of my life. I was playing weekends and summer holidays and I thought I might need a career as a teacher to enable me to play fiddle." As it turned out, Natalie never did need that day job.
Natalie first attended college full time, fitting in her music on the weekends, but more quickly than she imagined, her life changed. "I knew the music was taking over."
Natalie wanted to finish her degree, and so she studied part time in her fourth year, then finished her final courses by correspondence in her fifth year, in 1997. "Really, by my third year, I knew I was not going to be teaching at all."
Natalie adores her fans and is as devoted to them as they are to her. "I love my fans. I would not be fiddling for a career if it wasn't for the fans!" At a folk festival concert one summer, Natalie received a backstage gift from a fan in the audience, a large handful of pink roses. Tucking petals into her hair, she took to the stage to fiddle, to the complete delight of her admirer and the entire audience.
Natalie finds the time to go home to Cape Breton regularly every two months. "It's more than a connection or a tie. I'm stuck there, even though I now live in Ontario." Her brothers and parents still live in the village where she grew up and she loves that she can visit so often.
Natalie is supremely proud that she now owns a little piece of land back home. "There's nothing on it but trees, but I think, 'Yes! I own a piece of Cape Breton!' " Natalie's delight in her land is obvious. "No matter where I go in the world, a piece of me will always be in Cape Breton."
When she moved to Ontario, Natalie keenly felt the missing ocean for the first few months. "Maybe it's a type of claustrophobia! Where's the edge?!" She laughs in her delightful Cape Breton accent, describing her perception of the never-ending Central Ontario landscape. She recalls how no matter which direction you travel in Cape Breton, you soon fetch up on a shore with an ocean before you.
Natalie feels more and more appreciation these days. From appreciating her fans, who make her career possible, she also appreciates her family. "You don't know how good you've got it until you see and experience the rest of the world. I don't think I would have appreciated it as much if I had stayed home and never traveled."
Natalie also appreciates food. As a picky eater in childhood, her palate has now broadened. "Then," she says, "I ate to live. Now, I live to eat!" Twelve years spent on the road has led Natalie to enjoying even the most exotic cuisine. Thai food has been a recent discovery. It was a thrill for Natalie to be invited to learn from the Chef at Elmhirst's Resort, planning a dinner menu and experimenting with new ingredients. "How cool is it that I get to work with a top chef just because I play the fiddle?" she asks. "How in the heck did that happen?"
Natalie's down to earth charm is part of what endears her to her fans. Aside from being a brilliant musician, she is a delight to be with. That she enjoys life's unexpected moments was evident in her delighted reaction when a full team of sled dogs raced past the window at the Elmhirst's Resort, mushing over the sparkling snow covered Rice Lake. "Oh, my gosh! I've never seen that. That is so stunning…absolutely beautiful!"
For Natalie, cooking has been a recent passion enjoyed in her rare spare time at home with Donnell. "Now that I'm married, I have someone to cook for!" She loves experimenting with recipes and creating food for the musical parties she enjoys with friends and family. Like many performers, ever conscious of their stage appearance, Natalie is concerned with healthy eating, but also loves variety and different tastes.
Natalie looks to her future with enthusiasm. "Unlike many people in the music industry," she says, "I have not put together a plan. I have not sat down and figured - this is where I want to be in five years." She has found herself unable to really know where she wants to go and prefers to let life happen and to see where it takes her.
Natalie has dabbled in acting (Tim Horton's coffee commercials), has been a guest on the children's television show "Fred Penner's Place" and has even been the subject of a question in the Trivial Pursuit board game. "My career has taken me on a path that I never could have put down on paper."
Future plans do include designing and building a new home in the country with Donnell and perhaps children. "If it happens, great!" says Natalie, for whom family is everything.
"We're very open to whatever…"
Taking steps to change her name to Mrs. Leahy in her private life is one small, but very important step for this traditional lady. "It's not going to make a darn bit of difference," she says, "but I do like being called 'Mrs. Leahy!'"
One thing is for certain, Natalie will never give up keeping her family as her priority. Throughout her busy life, she is very aware of the sacrifices she has had to make to have a career as a performer. "Touring live is crucial to my maintaining a career… I love doing it…but what you give up is that precious time alone with family, friends and community, my husband and all of that." Donnell and Natalie of course try to be together as much as possible, but with their two separate bands touring regularly, their time together is immensely valued.
But sometimes, schedules are arranged so that Donnell can join Natalie on stage during the encore at the end of her show. With two unbelievably superb fiddlers doing their thing together with such passion, you might wonder how it is that there is still a roof over the theatre after the show is over.
Natalie says about playing with Donnell: "I'm looking at you on the stage that I've spent my life alone on and you're here with me, sharing it …my two passions in life, all together at once!" The light shining in Natalie's eyes says it all.
Will Natalie and Donnell do a CD together? Says Natalie: "It would be an absolute shame if we left this world and never recorded anything together. We'll definitely do something, sometime." Fans of both Natalie MacMaster and Leahy will be eagerly waiting. Says Natalie: "I don't plan too much. I just get out of the way and let the force go through!"
"When whatever this is (her fame and international career) runs up," she declares,
"I'll still be in my kitchen playing my fiddle!"
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.