Born in 1975 in Creignish, Nova Scotia, Ashley Dwayne MacIsaac picked up his first fiddle before his first rattle. Raised on traditional Celtic and east coast playing, he grew up in a musical family that includes his sister Lisa, and cousins Alexis and Wendy MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster. Like the rest of them, even as a child he grew up playing in front of audiences at various fairs and shows around the island. But as well as his proficiency in the traditional styles, he was also interested in other types of music, and he unlike the rest of the clan, he became known for his grunge style of hammering on the violin.
He released his independent debut album CLOSE TO THE FLOOR in 1992, filled with medleys of traditional Gaelic classics like “Irish Lassies,” Bonnie Anne Anderson,” and “Mist Over The Lauch,” as well as some Nova Scotia tunes like “Creignish Hills” and the ode to one of Canada’s most infamous battalions “74th Highlanders.”
A holiday album followed a year later, called A CAPE BRETON CHRISTMAS an eclectic mix of instrumental renditions of traditional yuletide standards like “T’was The Night Before Christmas,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” as well as a Celtic version of “Silent Night” (“Ciuin an Oidhach”).
He continued playing over 250 shows per year when an upsurge in interest in traditional east coast music got MacIsaac signed to A&M in 1995. They immediately went to work tooling him into the poster boy for the latest flavour, and the result was his biggest selling album, the double platinum (200,000 units in Canada) HI, HOW ARE YOU TODAY? “The Square Dance Song” and Sleepy Maggie” were both top 20 hits, and “The Devil’s Kitchen” and “Brenda Stubbert” were top 40. “Sleepy Maggie” even peaked as high as #29 on some American dance charts. The album peaked at #9 at home, and along Mary Jane Lamond’s Gaelic vocals on “Sleepy Maggie,” it featured cameos by the likes of Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, Graeme Kirkland, Chin Injeti, Ian Blurton, Gordie Sampson, and Chris Brown.
He followed it up with FINE – THANK YOU VERY MUCH in ’96, and was more of a return to his traditional roots than the last album, much to the label execs’ shagrin. No singles were released, and again spotlighted several ditties and jingles wrapped up into neatly packaged three to four-minute medleys, not particularly radio-friendly, including “The Rosebud of Allenvale,” “King George IV,” and “Traditional Jig.”
MacIsaac was on top of the igloo, having ridden the tidal wave all the way to the Juno Awards podium three times – for Best New Solo Artist, Best Instrumental Artist, and Best Roots & Traditional Album. He’d been featured on several major music and lifestyle magazines and was a media darling. While performing on “Late Nite With Conan O’Brien,” he kicked so high his bare manhood was showing under his kilt. Because the editors didn’t catch it during taping, TV audiences got to relive the extra show the studio audience received.
In 1996, his assumed sexual preferences got him in hot water with MacLean’s Magazine, who criticized and denounced his gay lifestyle and dropped him from their annual ‘honours list.’ Enough backlash ensued for the magazine that calls to the office flooded reception lines, but it caused a reverse effect on album sales, and the album was certified gold. Tour dates saw him across Canada and another trek thru the US, and marked his third straight summer of folk and roots festivals, and after a break from the road, he headed back to the studios, both for himself, as well as guesting on Bruce Hornsby’s top 40 Adult Contemporary single, “Great Divide.”
He also took some time off to try to break into the acting world, appearing in several low budget movies, including his role as a musician in “The Hanging Garden” and the romantic comedy “New Waterford Girl.” Once the acting bug was out of his system, he got back to the recording studio. But while working on material for his follow-up album, a difference in opinion on where the music should be headed spelled MacIsaac’s end with Universal in the summer of 1999, ties he’d been trying to sever for nearly two years.
He signed instead with one of the label’s low-level subsidiaries, Loggerhead Music, and HELTER CELTIC was in the stores before Christmas. The record also featured the fiddle talents of his older sister Lisa, and delivered what the title eluded to – 40+ minutes of traditional Gaelic tunes brought up to date with a frantic energy.
During the subsequent promotional tour, MacIsaac stated during a press conference that he’d battled an addiction to crack cocaine, but was now clean. The label responded by issuing a press release distancing itself from the artist’s statements and actions – an issue MacIsaac took exception to. Negative press continued to pile up when it was reported that a multi-millionaire only a year earlier, he was now on the verge of bankruptcy. He retracted the statement within a few days, but then actually did file for bankruptcy a few months later.
Trying to get away from it all, he landed a bit roll in a movie project called “First Love,” where he played an Irishman who travels to Japan to meet his destined true love. He flew to Japan for filming and also performed music for the soundtrack. But although the movie was supposed to be released by the end of the decade in both Japan and North America, it still sits in the back of a closet shelf.
He started the new millennium teaming up with his sister Lisa again, for their first actual duet album, FIDDLE MUSIC 101, which featured a collection of traditional jigs and medleys. Other than some short stints on the road and music festivals, he laid low for the next couple of years, occasionally coming out to play the odd gig and festival here and there.
He published an autobiography, “Fiddling with Disaster,” in 2003, where he talked about the pitfalls of an instant rise to stardom and the subsequent pressures, the ways in which he hid his homosexuality and then came out of the closet, and his addictions. That same year, he got into more trouble for an alleged racist remark to an Asian woman in the audience of one of his concerts. When the Ottawa Citizen published the comment, he sued the paper for turning what was supposed to be a social comment into slander against his good name, painting him as a racist. The suit was eventually settled out of court.
He signed with Linux Entertainment in 2005, who celebrated the tenth anniversary of HI, HOW ARE YOU? by releasing a special enhanced version of the album, complete with four bonus remixes of “Sleepy Maggie,” and the song’s official music video.
The same year, PRIDE was released, a complete departure from anything he’d done before. For starts, he was singing, and to go along with the lyrics sheet was an explicit lyrics warning sticker. Songs like “Bitch” (of which there were two versions), “High Times Living,” and “Nights Wasted Away” were straight out angst-ridden mainstream rock with an eclectic flair. The upbeat “Revolution” was a departure from the abnorm, featuring slide guitar and a twangy back beat. Critics were baffled, only the die-hard fans got it and therefore sales were considerably lessthan expected, radio play was non-existent, and kids’ parents were outraged that the wholesome fiddle player from Cape Breton was trying to sway young listeners with rock and roll songs about sex and drugs.
In ’06 a three-year old show he did for Bravo! was re-released on DVD as part of the Much More Retro’s “Live at the Rehearsal Hall” series. Along with all his biggest hits performed live, the DVD also included three music videos previously unreleased. That same year, he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, and naturally denied it was a publicity stunt. Three months later he announced his withdrawal from the race.
His self-titled 2007 album was met with slightly more critical favour than its predecessor, toned down and a little more accessible. Songs like the lead-off “Cello Song” with its fiddle solo, “Mull of Kintyre,” and the Gaelic chorus on “To America We Go” had MacIsaac going back to his roots to a degree. But the record was still another attempt at the pop world, fusing traditional Maritime melodies with a more mainstream approach. “Lay Me Down” is power ballad that highlights his vocal stylings, as was the case with the power pounding “I Don’t Need This.”
THE BEST OF ASHLEY MACISAAC followed in ’08, and in 2010, MacIsaac wrote the single, “Dreams,” the proceeds of which were given to Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, the first Ghanaian athlete (skier) ever to compete in the Winter Olympics. Along with other supporting musicians, Nkrumah-Acheampong himself participated in the recording, playing traditional percussion from his native land. MacIsaac also performed it when he was on stage at the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Without a label, he formed his own So Plaid Music Group, and released his new album, CROSSOVER, in the fall of 2011. It was highlighted by a re-energized artist ready to return to his roots, albeit with a focus of gaining a bigger share of the mainstream audience in mind. “King Is Back” was filled with bar-room styled piano riffs, “Looking Glass,” “My CB Home,” and “D-Troi-D” were heralded by the critics for the fiddle worked in between the guitar solos, and the album was generally well-received, but still failed to reach the gold plateau.