MacMaster and Leahy on Love
By Craig Manning | Feb. 3, 2018
Canada’s favorite Celtic super duo — and love story — are returning to Traverse City this month. The Northern Express grills MacMaster about their musical life, what it’s like being married to your work, and touring the country with their (nearly) seven kids in tow.
MacMaster and Donnell Leahy are no strangers to Traverse City.
The Canadian Celtic super-duo — made up of two of the world’s deftest fiddle players — graced the City Opera House stage back in November 2013, and then again in November 2015. On Saturday, Feb. 10, they’ll be back by popular demand.
Both MacMaster and Leahy have long histories of musical excellence. MacMaster was born and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia — an area known for its deep Scottish roots and distinct fiddling style. The region is also home to the world’s largest fiddle, constructed in 2005.
Donnell Leahy, meanwhile, was born into an extremely musical family in Lakeland, Ontario. In the 1980s, Donnell and his 10 siblings started a folk band together, called The Leahy Band. The group, later renamed Leahy, went on to win several Juno Awards (Canada’s most prestigious music prize) and open shows for country music starlet Shania Twain.
Needless to say, it was big news in the world of Canadian music when MacMaster and Leahy finally met one another. Rather than beginning their relationship as a musical duo, though, the two fell in love and started a family.
“We married in 2002, and I would say it took at least five years before we did a show together,” MacMaster said. “We didn’t do much music together in our first 10 years of marriage. It’s more been the past five years that we’ve done more serious touring together."
The way MacMaster tells the story, Donnell heard a recording of her fiddle playing and was seized by the urge to meet the woman who had created such a beautiful sound.
“Donnell made a trip to Nova Scotia and found me,” she said. “He was specifically trying to seek me out.”
Today, MacMaster and Leahy balance busy schedules filled with both solo and duo shows. For years, the two dealt with what is a common problem for music industry families: being apart because of touring. The fact that they were both touring, often with alternating schedules, meant that they spent a lot of nights apart. It wasn’t until the two started a family that playing and touring together presented itself as a solution to their problem.
“When children came along, it suddenly made a lot more sense to play music together, so we wouldn’t have to be apart,” MacMaster said. “It was just obvious. We’re both fiddlers! It’s not like we’re going to spend our whole lives never playing fiddle together.”
These days, MacMaster and Leahy not only do most of their gigs together but also are in the process of building their own family band. The two have six children between the ages of three and 12, and are currently expecting their seventh. (“I will be very much with child when you see me on the 10th,” MacMaster said.) The kids are a part of the show, making heartwarming appearances between the more virtuosic showcases of MacMaster and Leahy’s talents.
With Valentine’s Day coming just a few days after MacMaster and Leahy’s show at the City Opera House, we asked about the challenges of being romantically and professionally involved with the same person — especially given the extra strain that a grueling tour schedule can have.
In MacMaster’s view, there is very little disagreement between her and her husband. She said they both have the same philosophies on life, music, and children, which makes everything easier. In fact, the biggest source of friction between the pair is their differing viewpoints on what constitutes “timeliness.”
“When sound-check time comes around [on tour], I’m usually a few minutes late, and Donnell is always a few minutes early,” MacMaster said. “So sometimes we have discussions, and he says, ‘How come you can’t be on time?’ I always say, ‘Why can’t you chill out?’”
“You have to have the basics,” she continued, explaining why her personal and professional relationships with Donnell work as well as they do. “What is your philosophy on life? How do you want to grow in life? If there are two different stories there, you probably shouldn’t marry that person, and you probably shouldn’t be playing music with them either.”
As far as playing music together goes, MacMaster and Leahy have made two albums as a duo: 2015’s One and 2016’s A Celtic Family Christmas. The latter made the pair a popular act on the seasonal touring circuit. On December 22, they finished up a Christmas-themed tour that crisscrossed much of the northern United States.
The new tour, which starts Feb. 8 in East Lansing, will be a different beast. MacMaster said that upcoming shows will capture both sides of the coin that is Celtic music
“Celtic music can sometimes be misconstrued as ‘beer drinkin’ bar music,’” she said. “It has some elements and qualities of that, which I love, but it also has a lot of refinement too, and a lot of depth. So it’s a very exciting show. We tend to get lots of standing ovations and rowdy crowds, but there’s some very beautiful moments, too.”
Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy will take the stage at the City Opera House in Traverse City on February 10. The concert is set to begin at 8:00 p.m. Standard tickets are priced at $45.50 and $30.50, depending on the seats, with students enjoying a discounted price of $15. Group bookings are also available, with 10 percent discounts for all groups of 10 people or more. For tickets or additional information, call 231.941.8082 or visit cityoperahouse.org.