Kimberley Fraser:
a left-handed approach to tradition

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2003

Kimberley Fraser has witnessed a revolution in Celtic music during her lifetime. In the past 10 years or so, there has been an amazing infusion of energy and excitement into the tradition, both on the global front as well as her native Cape Breton Island.

But, far from being a simple resurrection of old traditions, the music has grown, evolved and adapted to a modern audience, she says. And Fraser plans to be a part of its future.

"The music has changed a lot in the past decade," she explains. "It will change a bit more, too. To keep going, it has to change."

Cape Breton has a "strong balance between its roots and the people who want to push forward," she says. "There are so many young fiddlers in Cape Breton that I can't ever see it going away. And there are so many fiddlers who play in the Cape Breton style who don't live in Cape Breton, too -- that's good to see."

Very poised and self-assured in person, 21-year-old Fraser is a year from graduating from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, with a double major in music and Celtic studies. She plans to take a year off, then pursue a master's degree in Celtic studies -- of the two majors, she says, that is the more stable career path. Music is her first love, she explains, but she eventually hopes to find herself in an academic position.

To date with only one CD, Heart Behind the Bow, to her name, Fraser plans to use her year off school to complete a second. She's hoping to record with Haugaard & Hoirup, a pair of Danish musicians she met and jammed with at the Festival Club during Celtic Colours 2001.

Meanwhile, she's already gotten a jump on teaching, both privately and through the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts & Crafts in St Ann's. She is very happy to have a firm foundation for a vocation besides performing.

"It's always something I wanted to do," the Sydney Mines resident says of her burgeoning music career. "It's always in the back of my mind, but it's a scary thought --- there are no guarantees."

An event such as Celtic Colours refreshes her and replenishes her confidence, too. "If I can make a living with music, I will," she says firmly. "At a festival like this, I meet all the musicians and I think, 'I can do this.' It's more discouraging in the winter, when it's harder to find gigs. Winter is a struggle."

Her first tour, as pianist for Buddy MacDonald and Glenn Graham earlier this year, was a lot of fun, she says. "But if it was my own tour, just me, it might be different. It's something I have to get used to. I still play more dances and laidback concerts, not formal performances. It's very different."

She smiles when asked if she's nervous on stage and admits that she sometimes projects a lack of confidence she doesn't really feel. "I don't feel awkward," she explains, "but I do feel more nervous when I'm playing a show."

It certainly doesn't affect her playing, that much is certain. Fraser's music is as refined, polished and crystal clear, already one of the favorites among the island's young set of performers. Often playing with her eyes closed or downcast, a closer look will reveal an expression of complete serenity and a sense of pleasure in the moment.

Fraser also plays a left-handed fiddle, a distinction that isn't always obvious at first. She credits her teacher, Kyle MacNeil from Cape Breton's famous Barra MacNeils, for encouraging her to play with her strongest hand.

"When my parents were first looking into it, that was a big concern of theirs," she recalls. "A lot of people said I should play right-handed because everyone does. But Kyle said I should go with my left hand. ... A lot of people don't notice."

It's very different from fellow Cape Bretoner Ashley MacIsaac, who plays left-handed on a right-handed fiddle, she notes. "That looks more awkward."

She started playing the fiddle when she was 6, but she was already an experienced performer. A stepdancer from age 2, she had her first solo performance at the tender age of 3. She started playing piano when she was 9.

Music is a big part of her family heritage, although Fraser says "I wasn't really exposed to it in my immediate family." Both of her grandfathers were musicians, she recalls. "But it was because my sister stepdanced that I got started. I would go to her recitals -- and I got the music in me."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 6 December 2003

[ visit Kimberley Fraser's website ]