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The Barra MacNeils

The Barra MacNeils

Roots music group

Since their 1986 independent recording debut, The Barra MacNeils, four siblings from Nova Scotia have been bringing their Gaelic-influenced roots music to eager listeners in sold-out concerts across Canada and around the world. "It's important to have something solid like traditional music to lean on," Stewart MacNeil told Dan Hughes in Network magazine. "These days, people want to dig their heels in and know they're standing on solid ground. Roots music is something tangible."

The Barra MacNeils, comprised of brothers Sheumas, Kyle, Stewart, and younger sister Lucy, have been leaning on the musical traditions of their ancestors since they were children. Each has been attracting regional and national attention on television and radio since the age of ten. As they wrote on the liner notes for their fifth, highly acclaimed recording, The Traditional Album, "Growing up in Sydney Mines, Cape Breton, we were very fortunate to be immersed in Cape Breton traditional music at a tender age. Our home was often the setting where musicians, whether they were fiddlers, singers, or piano players, would drop in and take part in a music session."

While much of their musical education came at home, each of the MacNeil children began formally studying music at the age of six. By the early 1970s, the three brothers were well known on local and national radio and TV, and their sister joined them later in the decade. They toured and recorded during their spring and summer holidays, and furthered their skills with music study at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. By the time the four recorded The Barra MacNeils, they were seasoned professionals.

The Barra MacNeils released their second independent album, Rock in the Stream, in 1989. A Canadian Musician reviewer called the music "enough to bring a tear to the eye of expatriate maritimers or charm the ears and hearts of those even relatively unfamiliar with this beautiful musical style." By this time, the MacNeils had developed their vocal and harmony strengths as well as their songwriting talents to compliment their considerable instrumental skills. The Barra MacNeils were poised to establish themselves as a leading force in the Canadian folk roots music scene.

As Stewart, the second youngest in the group, noted in Words & Music, "To say it's Cape Breton music really is an understatement because there are a lot of influences in Cape Breton music." But, many call the Barra MacNeils the heir apparent to the Rankin Family as rulers of Cape Breton music. Jimmy Rankin, of the Rankin Family, eagerly acknowledged them in Network, "The Barra MacNeils are just like us, trying to make a go of it and we say all the best to them. I'm just glad to see they're finally getting the recognition they deserve because they're great."

The Barra MacNeils signed a recording contract with Polydor in 1993 after capturing honours for Best Recording Artist and Album of the Year for their third album, TimeFrame, at the East Coast Music Awards. The record company immediately re-released nationally all three of their independent albums, followed by the singles, "Row Row Row" and "My Heart's in the Highlands," both from their third independent album, TimeFrame. That same year, the band's major label debut, Closer to Paradise, was released. The album featured the singles "Darling Be Home Soon" and "In the Wink of an Eye," which both received extensive radio and video airplay. Stepping up their already hectic touring schedule to open several shows for Celine Dion helped Closer To Paradise reach gold status in Canada with sales of over 50,000 copies by the summer of 1995.

Closer to Paradise was quickly followed up by 1994's The Traditional Album, an all-instrumental blend of traditional jigs and reels. "The production values on The Traditional Album were very in your face and uncompromised," said Stewart on the band's website. "There was a sense of air being moved. It was very important that the acoustic instruments sound like they're there."

The MacNeils released their sixth album, The Question, in 1995. Having previously recorded in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, and Nashville, the MacNeils enjoyed the luxury of staying home to record. "With all the other albums we had to get our feet wet, find out basically what we could do," Kyle recalled on the Barra MacNeils' website. "The way technology has changed recently, you can record anywhere you like." The group rented a house on the shore of Bras D'Orlake: "Big, with lots of wood and close to home," Lucy remarked. Staying close to home also gave the group the opportunity to work with local Cape Breton musicians Bruce Timmons, Larry Walker, Bruce Jacobs, and Tom Roach.

The Question features original songs written by the Barra MacNeils, joined by two of the younger aspiring MacNeil brothersBoyd on fiddle and Ryan on Irish pipes. It also includes previously recorded pieces. One single, Bruce Cockburn's "Goin Down the Road," was originally a title song for a 1970s film. "We were approached by Cockburn's publishers," said Stewart, "and we agreed to do it if Bruce would sing a verse." Cockburn eventually sent his contribution from Toronto.

"Seallaibh Curaidh Eoghainn," a traditional tune on The Question is "a world beat Celtic vision that melds Irish, Scottish and Turkish sounds into one," Stewart explained on the band's website. Lucy MacNeil's voice is featured on the album in a remake of "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," originally made famous by Marianne Faithfull and used as a part of fellow Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil's early live repertoire.

"Myopic," the first single off The Question, was introduced by Stewart at a sold-out concert in Ottawa as "a song of great social significance, especially for those who wear glasses," according to the Ottawa Citizen. The inspiration for the song came from Stewart's pre-recording jitters: "I've worn glasses since grade four and I'm sure people can relate to that not being able to see the big picture." Lynn Saxberg called the song "a cross between the vocals of Men Without Hats and the organic instruments of Spirit of the West," in the Ottawa Citizen.

The Barra MacNeils followed The Question with a compilation album of their musical highlights. The fourteen track CD Until Now included songs off all their previous releases. The MacNeils spent a few years out of the studio, perfecting their live show by playing festivals in Canada and events in Canada, Scotland, and the United States. Their return to the studio produced Racket in the Attic, their first album of all-new material in five years. Racket in the Attic contained original tracks, both with vocals and instrumental, as well as covers of songs by Fleetwood Mac and Steel-eye Span.

Stewart has called his family's music "an alternative to the alternative," and Kyle, has described it as "a fresh approach to music in general." Slowly, the band has wandered beyond the strict Gaelic sound they have become famous for, embracing more of a world pop style in the process. On Closer to Paradise, they used the talents of Brazilian percussionist Marcos Suzano as they explored sounds of other countries and cultures. "I think our music has an international flavour," reflected Stewart in Words & Music, "and I think it's going to reach a lot further than Canada because it's influenced by a lot of world music." Regardless of the musical directions the Barra MacNeils have pursued, the foundation of their music has always remained solidly rooted in the Gaelic influences of their own Cape Breton culture.

For the Record

Members include Sheumas MacNeil (born on October 26, 1961), piano, keyboard, vocals; Kyle MacNeil (born on April 21, 1963), violin, guitar, mandolin, vocals; Stewart MacNeil (born on October 20, 1964), vocals, accordion, keyboards, whistle, flute, electric guitar; Lucy MacNeil (born on October 24, 1968), vocals, bodhran, Celtic harp, viola, violin.

Released first album, The Barra MacNeils, 1986; signed with Polydor after the East Coast Music Awards, 1993; "Row Row Row" and "My Heart's in the Highlands," both from their third album, TimeFrame, charted nationally, 1993; released major label debut, Closer to Paradise, 1993; released The Traditional Album, 1994; released The Question, 1995; released "best of" compilation album Until Now, 1997; released Racket in the Attic, 2000.

Awards: East Coast Music Awards, Best Recording Artist and Album of the Year for TimeFrame, 1993; Best Roots/Traditional Artist, 1995; Pop-Rock Artists of the Year, 1996; Group of the Year, 2001.

Addresses: Management Phillip Dubinsky Management Ltd., phone: (902) 539-5989, fax: (902) 567-1278. Website The Barra MacNeils Official Website: http://www.barramacneils.com.

Selected discography

The Barra MacNeils, Independent, 1986.

Rock in the Stream, Polydor/Polygram, 1989.

TimeFrame, Polydor/Polygram, 1992.

Closer to Paradise, Polydor, 1993.

The Traditional Album, Polygram 1994.

The Question, Mercury/Polydor, 1995.

Until Now, Celtic Aire, 1997.

The Christmas Album, Barratone/Oasis, 1999.

Racket in the Attic, Barratone/Oasis, 2000.

Sources

Periodicals

Canadian Musician, October 1989.

Maclean's, May 8, 2000.

Network, September/October 1993.

Ottawa Citizen, January 30, 1996.

Words & Music, February 1994.

Online

"The Barra MacNeils," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 20, 2004).

The Barra MacNeils Official Website, http://www.barramacneils.com (May 20, 2004).

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