Natalie MacMaster on her new album, her Cranbrook show, and the power of Cape Breton music

Natalie MacMaster, one of Canada’s top fiddlers — and an old friend of Cranbrook — returns to the Key City Theatre this weekend for an intimate, acoustic concert, showcasing a new album that is achieving great acclaim, in spite of the artist’s quiet intentions for it.

“Sketches,” a mix of traditional tunes and original compositions, is MacMaster’s first solo album since 2011. As she told the Townsman in a phone interview, it wasn’t intended to make the splash it has made.

“‘Sketches’ was not meant to make much for waves in the industry world, really,” she said. “To be quite honest I was making it for myself and for fiddle enthusiasts.”

Several years ago, while working on an album with her husband Donnell Leahy, MacMaster was sitting around with a longtime collaborator, guitarist Tim Edey.

“We started playing some tunes, and a lightbulb went off in my head. Just two instruments — guitar and the fiddle. You see, my whole life, every record — 11 recordings — they’re all with piano accompaniment. Here it just hit me differently. I really enjoyed the sparseness, and how the musicality really shone through — the styles of what we were doing. And Tim’s an incredible guitar player, and he just pulled a different musicality out of me. And I said to him that day ‘some day in my life, I’m making a record with just you, Tim.’

“And so last year, I came to a time in my life that just seemed like the right time to do it, and pushed myself to do it. An absolute wonderful project to do.”

MacMaster is a globally renowned player— one of the top fiddlers in the world. “Sketches,” intended as more of a personal project, took her by surprise with the impact it made upon release.

“A lot of times when you’re running a career, you have kind of quiet deadlines,” she said. “You get a record out, it creates a bit of a buzz, you go out on tour, and it leads to awards, and garners attention and all that.

“As a professional musician you know you need to keep refreshing your music, and there’s that business side of it — to keep things rolling along you have to keep current and fresh, and so there’s a proper time limit for that, and it’s ticking in your mind all the time.

“And this was independent of that. It was truly just something I wanted to do, and I had to get it out of me.

“And now it’s up for awards, and its garnered lots of great reviews, and making a mark in the charts, which is really super cool to me, because I never planned on that, or thought about that, or intended that.”

And so MacMaster is on the road — with an intimate acoustic show showcasing ‘Sketches’, set for the Key City Theatre Sunday, March 8. Tim Edey himself was booked to accompany MacMaster, but a family crisis compelled his withdrawal from the tour.

Instead, MacMaster’s longtime pianist Mac Morin will join her on tour, as well as MacMaster’s daughter, an accomplished dancer, fiddler and pianist in her own right.

“I will share with the crowd lots of little anecdotes, my personality, my life.”

MacMaster is one a great many renowned players who exemplify the music and culture of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which has had a profound musical influence not just in Canada but in the world. “Cape Breton is a beautiful place in the world to grow up in, it remains a beautiful place in the world,” MacMaster said. “Largely because of its music, which has shaped the people in a certain way. And it’s kept many of them close to simplicity and beauty, and the land. A great sense of humour is part of it.

“In the beginning, when the Scots came over to Cape Breton, there was a lot of hardship. They had to put their roots down on new soil. And everything was new. They had their music with them, their instruments, their step-dancing and their Gaelic language. And that became a source of comfort, and a reminder of the beautiful land they came from that they had to leave, and their joy in life.

“They must have had a great sense of humour to look a life lightly enough to get them through that — and the importance of the music, and the fiddle in particular. And that carried on through the years.”

And so the music of Cape Breton is descended in a direct line from the music of Scotland.

“All music evolves,” MacMaster said. “We’re told that the music of Cape Breton is closest in sound to the old style Scottish music. Even more so than the music in Scotland today. That’s why there’s a lot of connect between ourselves and the people in Scotland. They see in the Cape Breton music the kind of sound and style that’s not in existence any more in Scotland.”

There is a strong connection and interchange, musically speaking, between Scotland and Cape Breton.

“I think there’s even a kind of Cape Breton thing — a style — going on in Scotland now. There are people over there who really value the Cape Breton style. Of course, Scottish music is beautiful in itself. It’s evolved into more classical overtones.”

Natalie MacMaster, “Up Close And Personal,” is at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook on Sunday, March 8. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

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