Cape Breton fiddling virtuoso Natalie MacMaster wants it known that she's no goody two-shoes. Sure, she goes to mass every week and calls her mom back in tiny Troy, N.S., every couple of days - no matter whether she's touring in Europe or cutting an album in Toronto. But MacMaster has her demons too. When pressed by an interviewer for details, Canada's Celtic darling hems and haws, then comes right out with the awful truth. The 27-year-old gets impatient when driving behind someone slow. Sometimes, she says things she doesn't really mean to people she cares about. Occasionally, she gets a little weary of having to do her trademark step dancing while playing the fiddle. MacMaster, who, up close, has a flawless complexion to go with her cascading blond curls, even used to pick the skin around her cuticles until her fingers bled. "But I stopped that at Christmas," she says. "It was so gross - I'd be signing autographs and my frigging thumb would be bleeding. So no more."
It may have seemed, with the headline-grabbing antics of Ashley MacIsaac, that gifted Cape Breton fiddlers had to have a dark side. But MacMaster is doing just fine as the embodiment of sweetness and light. These days, she's everywhere - touring Canada, flogging Tim Hortons doughnuts, performing at the Juno Awards in Toronto on March 12, and co-hosting the recent East Coast Music Awards in Sydney, N.S., where she won the prizes for female artist of the year and roots/traditional artist of the year. If she is big in Canada, MacMaster is even bigger in other countries, where the critics are entranced and her tours sell out. MacMaster's latest album, In My Hands, which has sold a respectable 40,000 copies south of the border since its release there in October, is getting airplay on some 50 American radio stations. Recently, she was invited to open for the chart-topping Dixie Chicks on their North American tour. "I don't even like to look at my itinerary," MacMaster says over a breakfast of eggs, bacon and home fries in Halifax. "It's just tooooo overwhelming."
She has brought it on herself. Not only is she a prodigiously talented fiddler, but onstage she manages to combine fashion-runway flash with an endearing down-home style that appeals to all kinds of audiences. "In crass commercial terms, she has the whole package," says Martin Melhuish, a Toronto-based music journalist and author. "She has the potential to become the world's next big Celtic star."
The East Coast music scene needs a new champion. The talent pool is as deep as ever - a fact underscored by the roster of artists appearing on the Nova Scotia Kitchen Party, CBC-Radio's new national Saturday afternoon musical variety show broadcast from Halifax). But commercial tastes have shifted, causing the musical wave that made groups like The Rankin Family of Mabou, N.S., rich and famous throughout the 1990s to subside. "We're no longer the flavour of the month," says Sherry Jones, who manages a number of Halifax-based Celtic and alternative acts. Last November, the Rankins, who had sold two million records, split up. Lately, there's been a spate of even worse news - the freak death of John Morris Rankin in a car accident on Jan. 16 and the bizarre behaviour of Ashley MacIsaac, the punk fiddler from Creignish, N.S., with the penchant for dyed hair and crack cocaine.
MacMaster's ascent could not have come at a better time. The third child of a retired pulp-mill worker and a Sears outlet clerk, she has the right lineage - her uncle, Buddy MacMaster, is the acknowledged dean of traditional Cape Breton fiddlers. She was just 9 when she received her first fiddle from another uncle living in the United States and began serving her apprenticeship in kitchens and church halls around the island. By 16, she was a seasoned performer who used part of her concert earnings to make her first album. Four years later, she had two more recordings under her belt, but was unsure enough about her future that she enrolled in the Nova Scotia Teacher's College in Truro in case music failed to pan out (she graduated in 1997). The doubts disappeared in 1996 when Warner Music Canada signed a distribution deal and produced No Boundaries, her first recording for a major label. "There's always been a strategy, but not as much of a strategy as it appears," MacMaster says of her career path. "We've tried to approach things step-by-step. But a lot of things have just fallen into place."
Not without some steely will to go with the sweet demeanour. MacMaster knows she is on the cusp of something big. But, she declares, "I'm not going to try to be something I'm not comfortable with." That means not using sex to sell her music videos and concerts. And, despite advice from marketing executives to lose her island accent, she still sounds unmistakably like someone from Cape Breton. Her latest CD, In My Hands, which features Toronto-based flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook and American bluegrass star Alison Kraus, pushes the boundaries of Cape Breton music into new territory. Next time MacMaster steps into the recording booth, she intends to return to her roots with an album of traditional Celtic jigs and reels - even though she someday hopes to add an album backed by a symphony and a collection of duets with other performers to her list of recordings.
Finding time for all her grand plans is the problem. Known for her backbreaking touring schedule, MacMaster plans to spend the bulk of this year on the road, pushing the new album in the United States. Her personal life suffers from the gruelling pace: she has no boyfriend, no time for hobbies and can hardly remember what her small Halifax apartment looks like. But who's complaining? "You never know when the phone will stop ringing," she says. "So, here it is right now and I'm going with it."
Maclean's March 6, 2000