Born in Troy, Nova Scotia, Natalie MacMaster grew up with music in her home, with both her parents playing in local bands and the niece of Cape Breton fiddle legend Billy MacMaster. By the age of nine she was taking formal lessons with her cousin and future fellow fiddle master Ashley MacIsaac, with whom she often performed with onstage early in life.
She was a sensation on the east coast while releasing a pair of self-produced independent cassettes on Astro Custom Records – FOUR ON THE FLOUR in 1989 and ROAD TO THE ISLE barely two years later at the tender age of 18. She caught the attention of executives at Rounder Records who released FIT AS A FIDDLE in 1993. Recorded at Halifax’s CBC Studio prior to her signing with Rounder, it was produced by Glenn Meisner and Dave MacIsaac, and featured a number of Nova Scotia’s most prominent musicians, including Tracey Dares and Howie MacDonald on piano and bagpipes extraordinaire Jamie MacInnis. Mostly sets of strathspeys and reels or jig sets with the occasional waltz thrown in for good measure, she received an East Coast Music Award (ECMA) as Best Roots/Traditional Album.
Her star was already shining so bright that she was the headliner for the US leg of Carlos Santana’s ’95 world tour, performing in front of as many as 80,000 people. The following year, Rounder assembled enough material from her first two independent cassettes to comprise A COMPILATION, which featured classic Cape Breton traditional tunes she’d learned from masters like her uncle Buddy MacMaster and Winston Fitzgerald, as well as a number of local area composers, including Dan R MacDonald and Jerry Holland. Her world tour included spending four weeks as the opening act for The Chieftains, and she also found herself doing jingle music for TV commercials for Tim Horton and General Motors.
In 1997, she signed a deal with Warner Brothers Canada that not only brought her into the limelight at home, but also began to expand her audience by introducing her to American and international audiences with the release of NO BOUNDARIES. She dedicated the album to the memory of her grandmother, who’d often sing Gaelic lyrics to the songs while she was learning to play the fiddle as a child. Although still traditional based, the album was more progressive and accessible than before, the album featured guest vocalists Bruce Guthro (“Fiddle and Bow”) and Cookie Rankin of The Rankins on “Drunken Piper.” Along with “Catharsis,” those two tracks made it to singles and videos were shot for all three. She earned her first Juno nomination the following year while the album went gold, and also hosted the ECMA, which she also won in the Female Artist of the Year, Roots/Traditional Artist of the Year, and Instrumental Artist of the Year categories, as well as Fiddler of the Year by the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA).
By this point MacMaster had become an acclaimed musician following several tours throughout North America and Europe, and had to turn down an invitation to appear in the Irish music and dance production of “Lord of the Dance.” She produced her next effort herself, 1998’s MY ROOTS ARE SHOWING. Divided into long sets of five to seven jigs, reels, strahspeys, and marches, it once again featured her uncle Buddy, as well as several other Island legends performing traditional Cape Breton music, complimented by piano and acoustic guitar, and featured the lead-off “Hey Johnny Cope!,” “Captain Keeler,” and “Queen of the West.” A year-long world tour was highlighted by her appearance at the Celtic Connections Festival in Scotland.
For IN MY HANDS, recorded in 1999, her fans saw an expanded Natalie MacMaster, performing an enhanced blend of the old and the new and highlighted by the jazz overtones of Holly Cole’s band. Produced by fellow Cape Bretoner Gordie Sampson and recorded over a six-month period in Nashville, Toronto, and Scotland, as well as at home, the album eventually peaked at #32 on the Canadian albums chart. Critics raved at her singing ability on the first single, the lead-off title track, which topped off on the Canadian chart at #18. The follow-up was her duet with Alison Krauss, “Get Me Through December” (written by Sampson), which peaked after cracking the top 40. The album also featured other duets like “The Olympic Reel” with Mark O’Connor, and “The Flamenco Fling” with acclaimed Canadian Spanish guitarist Jesse Cook. More shows around the world ensued, including her backing up Krauss and Faith Hill on several dates in the US.
Following her marriage to fellow Cape Bretoner Donnell Leahy (of Leahy fame), she took some time off but returned with her 2002 double live album, recorded at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, the same venue for which her nationally broadcasted TV special was taped, as well as the Glencoe Mills Hall near her home town of Troy on Cape Breton Island. It featured both full band compositions, as well as more intimate numbers with a stripped down backing ensemble, encompassing not only her take on the traditional favourites, but also more widely accessible numbers.
A year later BLUEPRINT was on the store shelves – more progressive than her earlier works though still following in her traditional roots upbringing. Partially fuelled by her working with Alison Krauss a few years earlier, and with some of the best the genre had to offer – including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Alison Brown, the album had a definitive bluegrass flavour. Although the only single, “Appropriate Dipstick” failed to chart, tracks like the five-part “A Blast” (of which MacMaster wrote three), Phil Cunningham’s “Eternal Friendship,” and “Touch of the Master’s Hand,” the album was full of Cape Breton meets Nashville – fiddle, whistles, and bagpipes meet banjo, dobro, and mandolin.
In 2005 she teamed up with her uncle Buddy MacMaster for their first official collaborative album. TRADITIONAL MUSIC FROM CAPE BRETON ISLAND was self-explanatory, and featured only the two fiddle legends, along with accompaniment from Betty Lou Beaton on piano and guitarist Dave MacIsaac, doing lengthy medleys of mostly standards from the Isle.
2006 saw the release of YOURS TRULY, co-produced with her husband Donnell Leahy and recorded over several months of sessions in Halifax, Kingston, Toronto, and Calgary. It featured a mix a mix of traditional and contemporary numbers such as “Danny Boy” with Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald on vocals and the clog favourite “Flea As A Bird,” as well as originals like “Julia’s Waltz,” “Mother Nature,” and “Farewell To Peter” – in homage to her late friend and journalism icon, Peter Jennings. As usual, it also featured MacMaster’s family members helping out, including her aunt Betty Lou Beaton on piano, among several other guest musicians from around the world.
The same year, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Niagara University in New York, and was also made a member of the Order of Canada. Her touring schedule in support of the album included her performance at the Celtic Colours International Festival in Port Hawkesbury, Cape Breton, which became the basis of her LIVE IN CAPE BRETON DVD a year later.
Other than performing at the odd festival and special appearance here and there, she took the next few years off to concentrate on her home life, and in 2010 saw her autobiography published, “Cape Breton Aire,” which highlighted her musical journey to stardom, as well as capturing her Cape Breton home – its land and its people in pictures.
She returned a year later with the aptly-titled CAPE BRETON GIRL, which returned her to her jigs and reels roots, and featured a plethora of guest musicians, including her cousins Dave and Matt MacIsaac, her sister in law Erin Leahy on “The Methlick Style,” and her brother Kevin’s guitar virtuosity on “My Brother Kevin,” and Jeff MacDonald on vocals on “Our Father/Ar n-Athair.”
Throughout her career, Natalie MacMaster has appeared on over a dozen compilation albums, and has also cameo’d on several other artists’ projects, including Yo-Yo Ma and Thomas Dolby.