This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 25, 1996
MacIsaac, Ashley (Profile)
The young man from the craggy island in the North is laying siege to the skyscrapered island to the south. He is set on conquering this fabled place where showbiz dreams can come true, or be dashed, in a New York minute. His weapons? A disarming "Hi, how ya doin'?" to interviewers, club-goers, taxi drivers, busboys, cameramen, hotel clerks, chauffeurs, even strangers on the street - and a devilish virtuosity on the fiddle. At 21, CAPE BRETON's Ashley MacIsaac is already a bona fide star in Canada. Now, having racked up sales of 200,000, plus two JUNO AWARDS, for his year-old album, Hi, How Are You Today?, he is taking Manhattan.
In less than two years, with the support of such Canadian icons as Peter GZOWSKI, MacIsaac surged from local fame in the rich musical culture of Cape Breton to national prominence. Hi, How Are You Today?, which grafts traditional Celtic songs onto a base of rock and dance rhythms, clinched his celebrity in Canada, yielding the Top 10 radio hit Sleepy Maggie. Such is MacIsaac's stature that Eaton's has cast him in a TV commercial as part of the retail chain's efforts to rejuvenate itself. But behind that success is an artist whose penchant for unconventional sex acts - and candor about it - clash resoundingly with his marketable image as a down-home, if outlandishly dressed, Canadian boy-hero.
During his visit to New York City last week - part of a one-month tour as warm-up act for the Crash Test Dummies - things were looking auspicious for MacIsaac's U.S. breakthrough. He was on the cover of Billboard, the influential music-industry weekly (for an article on CD prices). He cavorted for a Harper's Bazaar photo shoot, which will be part of a feature on the current rage for Celtic culture. He played ferociously, accompanied by his five-piece band, for an enthusiastic crowd of about 700 at The Supper Club in midtown. He fiddled and step-danced for a brief spot on the tabloid-television program American Journal, causing host Nancy Glass to practically swoon with delight. But the openly gay MacIsaac's comments following the American Journal shoot suggested that he is at least as interested in being a provocateur as he is in being a star. He expressed the desire to be on the show again in a more tabloid-oriented feature about the racier aspects of his private life. "That young man in plaid really likes to hang out in New York," he said in a joking parody of a tabloid-TV script.
MacIsaac displays a stunning recklessness about his image. There was a certain bravery in his decision to go public about his sexual preference earlier this year. But the musician seems driven to put every aspect of his private life on display. In a lengthy, tape-recorded interview with Maclean's last week in a downtown New York club, he noted that he had recently had a revealing, four-hour conversation with the Los Angeles-based gay magazine The Advocate. Among other things, the fiddler recalled having told The Advocate about his fondness for sex involving urination. "I talked about particular things that I like to do sexually, and why I like to do them, basically covering the angle of drawing energy from people and [being] almost like a vampire."
Questions arise: Can Ashley MacIsaac handle fame? Does he know where to draw the line between self-expression and self-destruction? MacIsaac is notorious in music-industry circles for his propensity to spout off in a hyperbolic manner. "He's an attention-getter," said one insider who has worked with him. "He's smart, but he's immature. He just might be that kind of guy - or he might just be leaving a false identity." Discussing his sexual preference, MacIsaac, who says he has a 16-year-old boyfriend, tacked back and forth bewilderingly. Drawing on a Marlboro Light, he declared, "Why a lot of people are gay is in my mind very directly related to Sodom and Gomorrah - it's, like, the root of all evil. I only believe in reproduction." Then, he added, "Right now, I'm still going with it, doing all kinds of things that would be considered bad. I've learned to like my lifestyle." Later on, he said: "I consider myself actually quite straight. And I want to go out and sleep with all kinds of girls and have all kinds of kids. I always have."
In a subsequent phone interview, MacIsaac flinched at the prospect that some of his comments about his sexuality would become part of a Maclean's article, but added: "I don't disagree with what I said. Those are all things that if anybody asks me personally, I tell them. I try and make myself personally as forward as possible. And when it comes to a situation when I can be personal about certain elements of my life, because I feel I already have with another magazine, then I go and I become very personal, and that's how I sat and talked to you about doing the Advocate article, so write whatever you like."
Yet MacIsaac says that he worries about his parents and how they worry about him. He recalls that his mother was very distressed when he told her about his homosexuality, and when the satirical magazine Frank more or less outed him in the fall of 1995.
MacIsaac's indiscretion is perhaps rooted in his young age and the fact that he has done a lot of his growing up on the road. A step-dancer since the age of 8 who soon after learned to play the fiddle - first from his father, Angus, an electrician at a paper mill, and then from Inverness County teacher Stan Chapman - he began playing at square dances when he was 13. New York theatre director JoAnne Akalaitis discovered the 17-year-old MacIsaac while she was visiting her summer retreat on Cape Breton. When she hired him to perform in her upcoming Manhattan production of the play Woyzeck, MacIsaac began his abrupt passage from a protective, Roman Catholic, small-town environment to the world stage.
There have been several British, European and American tours in the past few years, and recording-studio sessions to play back-up for U.S. singer Edie Brickell, and more recently, ex-Talking Head David Byrne. In all, the musician has been on the road for most of the past three years, with no permanent residence other than his parents' home in the town of Creignish on Cape Breton's south coast. MacIsaac has, however, recently begun the construction of a home in Belle Côte, on the island's northwest side.
The fiddler conceded that his peripatetic life gets the better of him sometimes. "You get completely disconnected with everything," he said, "so you're just like into the most bizarre headspace, 'cause you don't know what you're doing. And it's like you don't think you have control over situations because you're not in any one place for a particular amount of time. Those are the times that create the most chaos."
The stress isn't likely to abate in the near future. MacIsaac has gigs on both sides of the Atlantic in the next few months, including the BBC's broadcast from Edinburgh on New Year's Eve, Hogmanay. Next year, he goes into the recording studio to make his first major-label album (with A&M). The musician says he tries to conjure up his Cape Breton home when he feels depleted, picking up his "security blanket" - his fiddle. MacIsaac sees himself as a sort of pied-piper-with-a-fiddle, a goodwill ambassador from Cape Breton who can teach the world some precious lessons from his birthplace. "I'm trying to make a connection to people to where I'm from," he says. "Then they might take a look at their own roots and say, 'Hi, how are you today?' a little more often to their neighbors." Candor, too, is one of the birthrights that Ashley MacIsaac wants to bring to the world. But he doesn't seem to recognize where candor ends and folly begins.
Maclean's November 25, 1996