Against the odds and following years of determination, singer and songwriter Rita MacNeil has become one of the biggest, brightest, and most beloved stars in her native Canada, where many considered her a musical legend. But while her popularity soared over the years—not only in Canada, but in other countries across the globe as well—one would find it all but impossible to locate a Rita MacNeil album in the United States, except through her website. Most agree that her absence in the American market comes down to externals. A large woman with a faint yet noticeable cleft palate who has battled a weight problem along with teasing throughout her life, MacNeil has yet to find her place in an image-conscious industry, despite her wide-ranging talents. Nonetheless, MacNeil understands the pressures of working in a business set on appearances, even though such factors have nothing to do with her music. As David Napier in Saturday Night noted, “it’s the music—heart-wrenching lyrics backed by a haunting voice—that has brought the middle-aged mother of two to the brink of international stardom.”
MacNeil took the often malicious attacks and jokes about her weight in stride, working throughout her 20-year career to overcome preconceptions. “We all look different in this world and should have the right to do what we love to do, no matter what,” said the award-winning singer to World & I contributor Linda Joyce Forristal. While MacNeil has encountered difficulties throughout her lifetime, including intense shyness and dealing with sexual abuse as a child at the hands of an uncle, her struggles have served as the impetus for her songwriting, and for this she remains grateful. Within the lyrics and melodies of her numerous hits—rich, emotional recollections that never fail to rouse her endearing fans such as “Working Man,” “Flying on Your Own,” “I’ll Accept the Rose,” and “She’s Called Nova Scotia”—live MacNeil’s own personal experiences and the tragedies of those around her.
Because of her unique ability to relate to others’ hardships, MacNeil has acted as a source of inspiration for millions of listeners worldwide, including fans from Sweden, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and her own homeland. Her frequent concert tours, both at home and abroad, always sell out. In Canada, the singer’s 15 albums have consistently exceeded the platinum sales mark, and she saw several top ten hits in both Britain and Australia. An artist known for her wide range of styles—from Celtic, country, and folk to rhythm and blues, pop, and rock—MacNeil appeals to a variety of fans. Like so many modern-day songwriters, she has gained much of her musical nourishment from the radio. “I’d listen to everything from Celtic to rock to Hawaiian music,” she recollected, according to her website. “As a teenager, I could hardly wait to be able to come home from school and put the radio on. I liked everybody, that was the whole premise of my life.”
Born on May 28, 1944, in the town of Big Pond in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada; daughter of Renee and Neil MacNeil; siblings: three brothers, four sisters; married and divorced; children: Laura and Wade.
Began recording career in Toronto and Ottawa playing in small clubs and at feminist rallies; released self-produced and distributed debut album Born a Woman, 1975; returned to hometown of Pig Pond, late-1970s; performed 72 shows at the Expo ’86 in Vancouver and became an “overnight” success; signed with Virgin Records (Canada) after high sales of independent album Flying on Your Own, 1987; performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, 1991; signed with EMI Music, 1995; published autobiography On a Personal Note and released album A Night at the Orpheum, 1999.
Awards: Three Juno Awards for Most Promising Artist, 1987; Female Vocalist, 1990; and Female Country Vocalist, 1991; four Canadian Country Music Awards for Country Fan Choice of the Year, 1991 and 1992, as well as for Top Selling Album, 1990 and 1991; five honorary doctorates from the University of New Brunswick, St. Mary’s University, Mount St. Vincent, St. Francis Xavier, and University College of Cape Breton; inducted into the Order of Canada, 1992; Gemini Award for television show Rita & Friends, 1996.
Bestowed with several honors and awards for her contributions to the world of music, MacNeil won three Juno Awards for Most Promising Artist in 1987, Female Vocalist in 1990, and Female Country Vocalist in 1991; four Canadian Country Music Awards for Country Fan Choice of the Year in 1991 and again in 1992, as well as for Top Selling Album in 1990 and 1991; and received five honorary doctorates from the University of New Brunswick, St. Mary’s University, Mount St. Vincent, St. Francis Xavier, and University College of Cape Breton. One of MacNei’s proudest moments occurred when she was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1992. In a career filled with accomplishments, two other highlights stand out for MacNeil: a 1991 performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England, and a prior 1986 appearance at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.” Vancouver is one of my favorite places,” MacNeil stated on her website. “It’s where I got my big break and it will always have a special place in my heart. The press were very kind and I think they were responsible for getting people out to the shows. It was the springboard that enabled me to continue and opened up a lot of doors for me.”
Most of the credit for a performer’s rise to fame, however, is due to the singer’s own perseverance. MacNeil, the fifth of eight children born to Renee and Neil MacNeil on May 28, 1944, in the town of Big Pond in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, started singing with her extended family, who immigrated to North America from the Isle of Barra in Scotland four generations before. On a regular basis, family members and friends would get together for informal “kitchen parties,” during which someone would play an instrument and everyone would sing. By the age of six, MacNeil realized that she wanted to spend the rest of her life in music. “I sang first because I was compelled to,” wrote MacNeil in her 1999 autobiography entitled On a Personal Note, “as if I were freeing my spirit.” Both MacNeiPs father, a hard-working carpenter and shop owner who inspired the singer to later write the song “Old Man” (available on 1981’s Part of the Mystery and 1992’s Thinking of You), and especially her mother, who stayed busy raising MacNeil and her three brothers and four sisters, supported their daughter’s aspirations from the beginning.
In 1952, MacNeil moved with her parents and siblings from Big Pond to Sydney, Nova Scotia, in order for her father to find more work. But despite an industry boom in that town, carpentry work remained scarce, and her father continued to struggle to make ends meet. It was during these years that MacNeil developed a case of severe shyness, a condition intensified by her harelip and teasing by classmates. Even though singing around those she knew well came easily as a child, when she tried to take formal music lessons, the bashful MacNeil was unable to utter a single note for her teacher. Later on, she entered a local Kiwanis Music Festival, but froze midway through her performance and wept all the way home.
As a result, MacNeil never learned to read, write, or play a musical note. Instead, she learned to create songs in her head, a technique she continued to use as an adulthood. According to MacNeil, she sings and hums words, and the melodies just comes to her. After composing songs by memory, she then sings them to her band, who help MacNeil mold each tune into a polished product.
Although MacNeil, at the time still desperately afraid to perform in public, spent most of her early life practicing songs by singing to her mother and using a broom handle as a microphone, she made up her mind during her teens to overcome her stage fright in order to fulfill her longtime dream. At the age of 17, in the early-1960s, she left home and moved to Toronto, Ontario, believing that the big city would provide her more opportunities to sing. In Toronto, MacNeil started singing in small clubs and bars and eventually married and had two children, Laura and Wade. During these years, MacNeil was also involved in the women’s movement and became a sort of musical spokesperson, performing regularly at feminist rallies around Toronto. However, worried that she might be pigeonholed, MacNeil later removed herself from the activist scene. “I can use the word feminist, it’s other people who don’t understand it that make me nervous,” she explained to Napier.
MacNeil’s marriage ended in divorce after six years, and she moved with her children to Ottawa, Ontario, where she spent her darkest days a single mother. Forced to support her children on her own, MacNeil took various jobs as a janitor, sales clerk, and waitress, in addition to occasional performances, to earn enough money for her family. “A lot of songs come out of those hard times and you learn a lot about yourself,” she recalled on her website. “You learn about what it’s like being on both sides of the fence as far as trying to meet your bills and make a living. Then when things start to go well, and things are easier you can look back on those hard times to give you strength to get through everything. It’s great inspiration for writing.”
Feeling homesick, MacNeil in the late-1970s returned to her first childhood home, Big Pond. Soon thereafter, her luck began to change, and after giving a total of 72 performances during the Expo ’86 in Vancouver, she became an “overnight” sensation. Prior to this breakthrough, though, MacNeil had already begun her recording career, releasing her early albums independently. Her debut, 1975’s Born a Woman, was produced and distributed with help from MacNeil’s friends, who collected money to finance the project. In 1981, the singer arrived with Part of the Mystery, then released her third album, I’m Not What I Seem, in 1985. All of her self-produced records—with the latter album partially produced by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) and distributed by the College of Cape Breton—did relatively well, selling around 10,000 copies each. Although now out of print, her early recordings are available for download via her website.
MacNeil forged ahead with a fourth album, 1987’s Flying on Your Own, a record she hoped would attract major-label interest. Although record companies rejected the effort, she released Flying on Your Own, the title-track being her signature song about a woman’s inner strength after a failed relationship, by herself. Eventually, the release sold so many copies that Virgin Records (Canada) offered to distribute. Now signed to EMI Music, MacNeil continues to publish her songs through her own Lupins Productions, headquartered in Sydney and managed by her son.
Continuing to record—including a performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra entitled A Night at the Orpheum, released in 1999—and touring almost non-stop throughout the 1990s, MacNeil also worked in television during these years on her own hit variety show on CBC called Rita & Friends (winner of a 1996 Gemini Award) from 1994 until 1997. Over the three seasons it aired, Rita & Friends entertained more than one million viewers each week and featured an eclectic mix of guests such as songwriter Joni Mitchell, rock singer Jeff Healy, and alternative acts like the Crash Test Dummies and Sloan. Other side projects included toying with the idea of her own line of plus-size clothing and opening her famous Tea Room, a popular tourist stop in a renovated school house in her hometown. Completed in the early-1990s and run by MacNeil’s daughter, the well-known destination serves baked goods, teas, and Rita MacNeil memorabilia.
Born a Woman, Boot Records Ltd., 1975.
Part of the Mystery, Lupins, 1981.
I’m Not What I Seem, UCCB Press, 1983.
Flying on Your Own, Lupins, 1987.
Reason to Believe, Lupins/Virgin Music Canada, 1988.
Now the Bells Ring, Lupins/Virgin Music Canada, 1988.
Rita, Lupins/Virgin Music Canada, 1989.
Home I’ll Be, Lupins/Virgin Music Canada, 1990.
Thinking of You, Lupins/Virgin Music Canada, 1992.
Once Upon a Christmas, Lupins/Virgin Music Canada, 1993.
Songs from the Collection, Lupins/Virgin Music Canada, 1994.
Porch Songs, EMI Music Canada, 1995.
Joyful Sounds, EMI, 1996.
A Night at the Orpheum, EMI Music Canada, 1999.
MacNeil, Rita, On a Personal Note, Key Porter, 1998.
Billboard, February 12, 1994, p. 27.
Maclean’s (Toronto), November 2, 1992; March 3, 1997, p. 15; November 24, 1997, p. 118; January 18, 1999.
Saturday Night (Toronto), October 1995.
World & I (Washington), October 1998.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 29,2000).
Rita MacNeil Official Website, http://www.ritamacneil.com (April 29, 2000).
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