The initial 2020 COVID-19 lockdown took away a lot of things for touring musicians, scuttling plans for promoting new album releases and touring in general. But it also gave time to other artists, like Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, to reflect on what their next projects could be.
“Our minds were in a different place,” she said from her home. “We were going to record before the pandemic and were in the initial stages with a few pieces. We bought our own studio equipment, which is something we swore we’d never do, but it worked out. So then we had all this time to think and write. There was a freedom to it.”
The result is a different album from what it would have been under normal circumstances.
“You knew you weren’t missing out on something or neglecting something else because you were working on the album,” she said. You didn’t have to juggle schedules so it was just a bunch of free time given to us, and we made use of it. We didn’t want to set out for anything in particular, we just wanted to have that creative freedom too.”
By following Donnell’s mantra of “Let the music decide,” Canvas explores beyond the Celtic folk realm both artists, collectively and individually, are known for. The resulting original tunes allowed for the concept of “anything is possible,” including having guest artists like classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Flamenco guitarist Josemi Carmona, Brian Finnegan on flute and whistle plus Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens singing Gaelic on one of Natalie’s songs “Woman Of The House.”
“Lucky for us, the people we wanted first on our list, we got to work with,” she recalled. “It had something to do with the fact we were all in the same boat. There was more time for everybody, and you weren’t competing with other things, so it worked out for us.”
A couple of tunes on Canvas, “Colour Theory” and “Choo Choo,” are courtesy of their eldest daughter, Mary Frances, who also plays piano, fiddle and stepdances on the album. Her involvement in the project wasn’t just a chance to start having their kids be a part of their albums.
“Not in the beginning,” Natalie said. “Where she got really good was through the pandemic. At the beginning of this CD we had no intentions of any involvement with her. She wasn’t nearly at the level she was the following year when we started recording. That first year of the pandemic she made great use of that time. She poured herself into good, tangible things, in particular her fiddling and piano and writing music.”
The tune “So You Love” features Yo-Yo Ma, but it starts with Mary Frances on piano.
“That introduction you hear was a one-time thing,” Natalie explained. “We didn’t know what to do for an introduction so I said, ‘Just play whatever comes out of you,’ and boom, that’s what it was. She couldn’t re-create it; it just happened and it was magic.”
In 2020, Natalie and Donnell did something unusual for artists. They had a tune they wanted to record but couldn’t come up with a companion piece. So they took to social media to invite submissions from their fans. The result is Wish You Were Near, which includes three of the 200 tunes that were sent in.
“That was a bit of magic too the way it worked out,” Natalie said. “It was very hard to narrow it down. The submission from Robyn Cunningham was the only vocal one even though we said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you play. Just let yourself go and try to write something that goes along with this melody we’ve created.’ Robyn was the only one with lyrics, and we loved the idea of turning it into a vocal piece.”
The added bonus was Robyn got to sing on the track while Mike Manny and Kyle Burghout, the other two selections, got to play on it.
The last number of years Natalie and Donnell have featured their kids in their live performances. Donnell jokes the kids are their retirement plan. In 2017 five of their kids were featured on the NBC television show Little Big Shots. But their lives aren’t about “all music, all the time.”
“There’s more time with sports than anything else,” said Natalie. “Our 10-year old is in Triple A hockey, and our other boy, Michael, is very heavily into hockey, plus they play soccer in the summer. We have a girl who’s heavily into gymnastics, and our other girls enjoy soccer. There’s a lot of crafty-type stuff we do as well. There’s nothing greater than having a childhood that has free play time.”
It’s that elusive quest for balance that all parents search for when raising a family.
“Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve been living so much hockey. It’s too much.’ So you try to balance that time. We make free time because it’s important,” Natalie explained. “Sometimes when we’re on tour we make it a point that when we get home the kids don’t have anything to do for a week in regards to music. Unless they want to. As parents we’re doing our best, trying to always find balance.”
Even for Natalie and Donnell, music isn’t everything that consumes their days. Natalie has homeschooled all the kids, now just the two youngest, while Donnell runs a cattle farm with his two brothers.
“That’s been the family business for decades, probably since their people came over from Cork Ireland in 1825,” Natalie said. “It’s not our main thing, but every day they’re farming.”
For more on Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy and their new album, Canvas, go to natalieanddonnell.com.