Wendy MacIsaac grew up on the western side of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, along the bonny St. George’s Bay coast in Creignish, a stone’s throw away from cousin Ashley MacIsaac. The two-lane that snakes through Creignish and up the coastline connects the villages of Troy, where Natalie MacMaster grew up, and Judique, where Natalie’s uncle Buddy MacMaster lives, and then continues up north through Mabou, from where the Rankin Family hails. It is called the Ceilidh Trail, a name that derives from the Scottish term ceilidh, which means “kitchen party.” You can almost hear the strathspeys and reels and feel the wooden floors of the dance halls -- and kitchens -- vibrating as you drive up the coast. Stop in any town along the way, and you just might be greeted by the real thing, or as the title of MacIsaac’s first CD states, The Reel Thing.
MacIsaac moved to Halifax several years ago, but gets back to Cape Breton island frequently, for she is still in demand as a fiddler for the popular square dances, collaborates with many musicians, and enjoys visiting with family and friends. She is known throughout the world as one of Cape Breton’s finest fiddlers. She has three solo recordings, and is planning to release a live solo CD in summer 2005. Timeline, released in 2003, was nominated for an ECMA (East Coast Music Award) last year. Her band, Beòlach, has recorded two ECMA-nominated CDs and tours extensively. (The band consists of Mairi Rankin on fiddle, Ryan MacNeil on pipes and whistles, Patrick Gillis on guitar, and Mac Morin on piano.) For ten years she toured and recorded with the popular Cape Breton Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond, and was featured in 1999 with Lamond on the Chieftains-produced compilation CD Fire in the Kitchen. She has been included on several other compilations as well. In addition to fiddle, she plays piano and banjo and step dances. However, a certain physical condition has prevented her from step dancing in 2005: she and her husband, Beòlach soundman Stephen (Steevo) Moore, are expecting their first baby in July! She was touring in the eastern U.S. with two members of her band and her husband when she agreed to this interview.
It’s almost impossible to introduce any Cape Breton fiddler without mentioning the connections to other well-known Cape Breton fiddlers, without bringing up the influence of your Scottish roots, and the emphasis on family traditions because they are so interrelated, so much a part of the culture and the key ingredients for why Cape Breton probably produces more fiddlers per capita than anywhere in the world. If you had grown up in, say, Pittsburgh or rural Alberta, what do you think you would be doing today? In other words, how have your roots influenced your life?
I don’t know for sure what I would be doing if I wasn’t performing for a living. When I was younger I was very interested in doing skits and plays and now I really enjoy cooking and baking, so maybe I would be doing either one of those things. I think that growing up in Cape Breton gave me more than my music; it also gave me a strong sense of humor and a feeling of ease from living in such a safe and peaceful place. One thing about Cape Bretoners is that they look out for each other and are extremely generous. I think the sense of humor is the best part, particularly with the older generation. I could go and visit an older person (especially a certain few) and sit there listening to stories for a good part of a day. But for the music part, I couldn’t have grown up in a place where I would have been more exposed to it. My grandparents and parents took me to dances and concerts from the time I could walk and always had the radio on with programs playing fiddle music -- mostly from Cape Breton at that time. My parents didn’t push me to practice and they didn’t tell me what I should play -- with the exception of a few suggestions. They let me do my thing and I think that helped to keep my interest in the fiddle.
Which came first, step dancing, piano, or fiddling?
I started dancing when I was four, and the fiddle when I was twelve, and the piano when I was fourteen or fifteen.
I understand that your grandmother, Hughena Campbell, gave you your first fiddle when you were twelve years old. Tell me that story. Did Hughena also play the fiddle and how did she influence your music career?
My grandmother’s brother lived in Boston during the 1930s and his job was selling ice. This one particular woman he sold ice to could not pay him and so she traded two fiddles for the ice. Then they landed in Glencoe at my grandparents’ house and she gave one of them to me when she knew I was interested in playing. I have both of them now but I don’t use either one of them for my performing.
My grandmother passed away in August 2004 and my grandfather in 1996. They were very good to me and encouraged me to keep up the fiddling and dancing. There was always music on the radio and my grandfather whistled from the time he got up at 5 a.m. until the time he went to bed every day.
Did anyone in your immediate family play fiddle? Which other family members influenced your music career the most?
My mother was a step dancer and my dad could dance pretty well, too, but he would never get up on stage for a solo number. We had quite a few tapes around the house and they were what I really learned from. My cousin, Ashley MacIsaac, and I started at the same time taking lessons from Stan Chapman. At that time, there were a lot of fiddlers starting out like Natalie MacMaster, Stephanie Wills, Jackie Dunn, John Pelerine, Lucy MacNeil (from the Barra MacNeils), Dwayne Cote, Rodney MacDonald, Kendra Mac-Gillivray, and many more. Most of them started a few years before me but this is the crew of fiddlers I spent most of my time with for the first six or seven years.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Fall 2005 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Sally Driscoll is a freelance writer and totally amateur fiddler in State College, Pennsylvania. She tries hard to make up for the lack of Scottish blood in her family history by listening to a lot of Cape Breton fiddle recordings!]