Natalie MacMaster Releases First Solo Album in 8 Years

By Greg Cahill | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

Cape Breton, an island on the northeast end of Nova Scotia, Canada, is one of the most remote regions on the planet. But it boasts some of the liveliest music around, and few have mastered it as well as Celtic-music superstar Natalie MacMaster. Over the years, she has received an abundance of nominations and award wins, including a Grammy Award and nomination, a JUNO Award and seven nominations, 19 East Coast Music Association awards, and five Canadian Country Music Association “Fiddler of the Year” nods, as well as three honorary doctorates, an induction into the Casino Nova Scotia Music Hall of Fame, and a membership in the Order of Canada. 

But the music world has heard little from her of late—until now.

Sketches, her first solo album in eight years, draws on a lifetime of inspiration. “It is a moment during my 47th year of life, my 37th year of fiddling, my 16th year of marriage, and my 13th year of parenting,” MacMaster says, adding that the album is “a moment of joyous appreciation inspired by years of parenting, marriage, friendships, music, and life.”

The tunes range from Irish and Cape Breton–style fiddling to pop. Strings asked MacMaster to discuss the album and challenges of these fiddle styles. 

This is your first solo album in eight years. What led to your decision to record at this time?

My husband [fiddler Donnell Leahy] and I have had four children in those years and made two recordings as a duo. Now, recording my 12th solo album was a simple, but determined urge started five years ago when [guitarist and accordionist] Tim Edey and I played some tunes together at my home. I loved playing music in his style so much that I promised him we had to do a whole recording together—just guitar and fiddle. Sketches is the result of that promise.

So you’ve been busy.

I am getting a lot of questions like, “What have you been doing these last eight years?” Answer: playing music, touring, writing, recording, releasing a Christmas special in Canada and the States, starting a Celtic folk fest, collaborating, mothering, wife-ing. . . .Life has been full and rich with music and love!

I counted 33 tunes, including originals and parts of medleys, on the album. How did you select the repertoire for this project?

Selecting the repertoire was a joy. I would take a few hours everyday to go through my precious voice memos on my iPhone. On here are bits of melodies and musical ideas randomly thought of over the last four years. Some are reminders of old gems and others are starts of new tunes. After I compiled lots of favorites and finished writing some of the tune ideas, I just kept [refining]my choices until I ended up with about 20 pieces—some medleys, some stand-alones. I then brought all that to Tim and we played through them and picked the best 12.


That’s a lot of music to tackle. What were the challenges?

There were none! It was a real delight to work on, and challenge, for me, is the fun of music. It’s like putting together a puzzle. You know you can do it; all the pieces are there—it’s just getting them to fit.

There’s a wide range of styles and influences, from Irish to French, Quebecois to Cape Breton. Each requires its own technique. How do you keep them all straight in your head?

If each of them requires its own technique, I am not thinking about it. For me, I just feel and play. Lots of those other colors come from Tim and his guitar accompaniment.

How is your own interpretative skill integrated into the music?

Playing tunes from different genres gives me a chance to feel a fresh musicality. My husband always says, “The music dictates.” It’s true. When you play a new piece of music, it really brings its own story. Being able to channel it creates the deeper beauty. Sometimes this will happen easily and other times not so much. I usually don’t force it—I accept and then go on to another piece.

You mention that the melody of “Morning Galliano” didn’t gel until you heard Tim Edey play it on accordion. How did that connection work for you?

For sure, I feed off my musical environment and am completely affected by my accompaniment. For “Morning Galliano,” deep down I believed in the piece, even though I was not confident. But for those I played it for, they were not convinced. Then, when Tim played it for the first time, it was as if he put salt on it. All of a sudden the potential flavors were tasted! It was so satisfying and so instant.

You also included “Patricia Kelso’s,” one of only two slip jigs you’ve written, the other having been recorded by Yo-Yo Ma on his Grammy-winning CD Songs of Joy and Peace. 


For us Cape Bretoners, we did not grow up with slip jigs. So I feel ultra-cool having written one and now two! They are typically Irish, thus the sweet added color from Michael McGoldrick on flute.

“Fill ’er Up for a Set” is inspired by the Cape Breton square-dance tradition. I know you are a dancer—how does that tradition inspire you?

I could play jigs forever. They never tire me physically or mentally. They are running through my blood and they comfort me like a big warm mama hug. This is my culture that raised me.

Always nice to hear a tune by the Irish bard Turlough O’Carolan, “Planxty Hewlett.” How would you describe your relationship to his music?

O’Carolan had that classical sound, so I feel very sophisticated when I play his pieces. They appeal to another side of me. His tunes are completely unique and distinct and because of this, a very important part of the Irish repertoire 

You included “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” a pop hit for Bonnie Raitt. In the liner notes, you invite her to reach out to join you in song. Obviously, you’re a fan.


Isn’t she just the best? Who couldn’t love her? That song is dripping with feel and space and gives the listener time to process. It’s an absolute gem and one of my all-time faves. I’m so glad to have recorded it. 

How do you feel overall about the album?

I am really satisfied with the recording. It is what I had hoped for and more. I feel it is a good documentation of quality Celtic music in a simple form in which the instruments and playing are totally the focus. 

Is there anything you wanted to include, but couldn’t fit in?

Oh, yeah! Lots of music left for our rehearsals and future recording sessions.

Can you offer a tip for a fiddler who wants to play these tunes? What technique is required? What’s a good entry point?

If you want to learn this music, the most important way is to listen, listen, listen—I believe much of it will go in through osmosis. It’s all about the feel. Technique is always important, but not the highlight of this music. It’s groove, timing, and lilt.