Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is one of the last Celtic communities left in the world. It is here that the two hundred year old tradition of fiddle playing has been cradled. The music retained its traditional sounding style up until Ashley Maclsaac, a fiddle playing rocker, literally collided smack into the music scene. He has turned the world of traditional Celtic music upside down, while also displaying to much of the world through television, an unorthodox variation of the traditional dress look of the Celtic culture.
In an A&M Records press release, Maclsaac made a statement about his fashion choices: “The reason I don’t mind wearing platforms and bell bottoms and basically being a fiddle slut is because I still do play in a structured way and it’s totally fusion because of that. So I’m not a grunge fiddler, and I’m not a rock fiddler and I’m not a slow Celtic fiddler… I’m just a Cape Breton fiddler who’s learned to put things other ways. It’s multi-media to music.” Many who listen to him say he perfectly blends the traditional sound of Celtic fiddle with the hard rhythmic beat of rock and roll. He can turn from static beats to smooth ones on a dime.
Maclsaac could easily pass for an extra in the Mel Gibson movie hit, Braveheart. He has a threatening look to him, somewhat barbaric and devilish, and his music reflects the same. He stomps in his army boots, has scruffy facial hair, all this while wearing the most traditional looking kilt. He tops off his dress with a feather boa, which was a gift from the American drag queen RuPaul. He is the epitome of in-your-face music rebellion, a Celtic with the cause of turning upside down any notion of a traditional fiddler from some far away land. Maclsaac’s father’s passion for fiddling rubbed off on his son. Maclsaac once said his father told him, “If you want to play the fiddle get mad at it or don’t play it at all. When I go out and do my live show I present the image of angry young man when on stage. It’s angst or punk and that’s what the Celts were, punks. But it’s also about romancing because the Celts were also about that.”
Maclsaac got his first musical break when Philip Glass asked him to perform for the 1992 off-Broadway production of Woyzeck. The charged-up fiddler hung out in Manhattan clubs, soaking up its rough and caustic atmosphere. This is when he, “started doing more freaky things,” he stated in People. After his introduction to the world of acting, Maclsaac began to see himself as more than a fiddle player. He parlayed his drama experience into his concert performances, and success followed.
Maclsaac learned how to step-dance at the age of five and fiddle at the age of eight. In an A&M press release, Maclsaac is accredited with “flagrantly challenging of tradition to re-create, messing it up until it’s unclear then forging ahead with his version—a new age fusion of Celtic soundscapes interwoven on a symbiotic tapestry with contemporary forms.” In 1984, there was a softer side to the young musician. He performed in front of the pope during his visit to Nova Scotia, and didn’t display the stomping antics of his future performances.
Maclsaac’s musical roots run deep. His father, Angus, and Stan Chapman, a man from Nova Scotia who trained about 70% of the fiddlers on Cape Breton, taught him and about 600 other fiddlers. In an interview with Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Michael Norman, Maclsaac reflected on Cape Breton and its cultural core. “It was a very traditional family and community. People kept the Scottish customs alive—everything from the fiddling and the square dancing to the food and the language.” His music reflects his heritage yet, in his debut release Hi How Are You Today?, Maclsaac makes the traditional Celtic fiddle interact with the music from the grunge world in the song “Rusty D-con-STRUCT-tion.” “Beaton’s Delight,” on the other hand, pounds out a more industrial sound, while “Sleep Maggie,” has been simply called new age Celtic.
For the Record…
Born February 24, 1975, in Creignish, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; son of Angus Maclsaac (an electrician and musician).
Learned how to step-dance at the age of 5 and fiddle at the age of eight; performed for the pope, 1984. Major label debut, Hi How Are You Today?, was released in 1995 and has sold over 500,000 copies worldwide. Guest featured on albums by Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, David Byrne, The Chieftans, and Philip Glass.
Awards: East Coast Music Award, Best Live Act, 1995; Canadian Music Association Award, 1995; Juno Award, Best New Solo Artist, 1996; Juno Award, Best Roots and Traditional Album-Solo, 1996.
Addresses: Management —Jones & Company, 1819 Granville Street, 4th floor, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, B3J 3R1. Fan club —Cape Breton Diddleing Association, P.O. Box 25025 Clayton Park RPO, Halifax, NS, Canada, B3M 4H4.
Ashley Maclsaac’s audiences span several generations. Maclsaac’s hometown audience is no exception. “In Cape Breton, I get grandmothers and 15-year-old moshers at my shows,” Maclsaac told Andrew Essex in Replay magazine. “The old-timers sit through the punk stuff just to hear one somber Celtic number. If the young ones don’t settle down for the slow number, I tell ’em to shut up and listen.” While touring Ireland and Scotland in 1996, Maclsaac noticed a slight difference between his Canadian audiences and the ones abroad. As he related to Tiffany Danitz in Insight, these audiences had “more of a sense of intrigue, because they had a connection with my music.”
This bad-boy rock fiddler has sold over 500,000 copies of the album Hi How Are You Today? worldwide. It went platinum in Canada. In the U.S., he gained enough attention from Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, David Byrne, The Chieftans, and Philip Glass to be guest-featured on their albums. He won two 1996 Juno Awards, a 1995 East Coast Music Award, and a Canadian Music Association Award for his own work.
Critics received Maclsaac’s 1995 release Hi How Are You Today? warmly. Terri Horak of Billboard praised Maclsaac for his “pop-fiddle tunes” and noticed that “he took care to keep the traditional tunes pure.” Dan Aquilante of the New York Post hailed the album as “a Celtic fusion that is a 50/50 mix of raw energy and instrumental dynamics.” Many reviewers took notice of Maclsaac’s unusual fiddle play. Saturday Night contributor Bruce Headlam commented on Maclsaac’s technique, calling him “a rhythmic player who makes the impurities of his full stroke—the ‘dig’ at the start of the note, the bounce across the length of the bow—work to the tune’s advantage.”
When he’s not playing the fiddle, Maclsaac indulges in his second passion: American television. He likes to say that he brings the culture of his favorite shows like Seinfeld, Columbo, and even The Andy Griffith Show, into his Celtic music. While getting his chance to actually step inside his tubular TV world as a guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, he stunned the late night audience. Maclsaac is a true Scotsman, and as such he does not wear anything under his plaid. The instudio audience saw more than they expected, and the television viewers saw less since producers censored him from the waist down. Maclsaac was not fazed by the incident, and according to him, “They blurred it so you can’t see anything.”
Close to the Floor, independently released, 1992.
A Cape Breton Christmas, 1993.
(With others) Strictly Bass Three, 1994.
Kumbaya Album, 1995.
Hi How Are You Today?, A&M, 1996
Fine Thank You Very Much!, A&M, 1996.
Alternative Press, August 23, 1996.
Billboard, April 27, 1996.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 22, 1996.
Hits, September 9, 1996.
Insight August 12, 1996.
Musician, September 1996.
New York Post, June 11, 1996.
People, May 5, 1997.
Replay, August 1996.
San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, June 2, 1996.
Star-Ledger, July 19, 1996.
Time, December 11, 1995.
Washington Post, November 15, 1996.
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