Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fit as a fiddle

Cape Breton's Natalie MacMaster is living a happy life as a mom and musician, touring with her husband and their growing family

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A baby is crying in the background when Natalie MacMaster answers her cellphone.

"This isn't for radio, is it?" she asks in her Cape Breton brogue. "I'm on a tour bus with five kids and 10 adults."

It's a glimpse into the day-to-day life of the Grammy-winning fiddle star. MacMaster, 41, tours with her husband, fellow fiddler Donnell Leahy, and their five kids, who range in age from 16 months to seven years old.

And there's another one on the way; MacMaster is expecting her sixth in April.

"Yes, I'll be nice and round in the belly when I get to Winnipeg," she says with laugh.

MacMaster is playing a trio of shows this weekend with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The symphony shows are always a treat for her.

"They're very different from what I normally do," she says. "With the band, it's like a being in a speedboat, and the symphony is like being on a luxury cruise. Being on a speedboat is fun, but the luxury cruise has all the bells and whistles. You get to have this beautiful sound all around you. It's so big and rich."

MacMaster will be performing a repertoire of beautifully arranged traditional Cape Breton tunes with the WSO as well as a few holiday standards -- although, for her, Cape Breton music is Christmas music. "Christmas and music for me meant house parties where people would gather around and listen to Cape Breton music," she says. "It's not necessarily Christmas music on a fiddle."

In that moment, an impromptu singalong breaks out on the bus. MacMaster cracks up. "Are you hearing that? She can hear you," she calls over to her kids. Laughter erupts.

MacMaster, who has a teaching degree, home-schools the older children on the couple's cattle farm in Douro, Ont. That wasn't exactly the plan, but MacMaster felt her options were limited by her lifestyle.

"I couldn't put them in schools. When my oldest, Mary Frances, was three or four, I knew I had to try (home-schooling). We had shows booked and there was no way I was leaving her. Now that I've been at it for four years, I couldn't so anything else. It allows us to do so much."

Mornings are dedicated to reading, writing and arithmetic. Afternoons are for music. And then there's the farm, which offers all kinds of educational opportunities. "It's really healthy for them to be outside," she says.

Still, making time for her own music remains a priority for MacMaster. She released her 11th full-length, Cape Breton Girl, in 2011 on her own MacMaster Music and she and Leahy are planning to record an album together in the new year.

"After 11 years of marriage and five years of touring together, we're finally doing it," she says with a laugh. "It's been something we've wanted to do for a long time, but then babies come and we kept putting it off. You know, Donnell and I have a unique thing together. I'm Cape Breton and he's more worldly. He's Ontario-rooted. When we make music together, it's got a different feel."

Though initially, "different" didn't necessarily mean "good," she says.

"I remember the first time someone recorded us casually, we were playing at a party. I listened to it later and I couldn't believe how bad it was. We were covering up what each other did.

"We've finally figured out how to play together in a way that still allows us to shine individually."

With another album and another baby on the way, MacMaster has had to become a master of the balancing act. She doesn't pretend it's easy.

"I don't know how I do it," she admits. "I always think to myself that every set of gifts every individual receives dictates their environment. It's where we've been led. We're open to it. It's not for everyone, but it's for us. It's really hard, but it's really great. It's a great life."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2013 C9

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