Wendy MacIsaac: not a Mountie
An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2003

It started as a whim and became a life-changing decision.

Wendy MacIsaac, already an established Cape Breton fiddler, joined an informal pick-up band on the stage of the Festival Club at the 1999 Celtic Colours festival. Such bands are formed and disbanded every day during the weeklong festival, but this one was different. The members clicked and decided to make it an ongoing effort.

"It was a slow night," MacIsaac recalls. "A group of us got up and played a bunch of tunes. That's how it started."

Beolach is arguably one of the fastest-rising young bands on the Cape Breton music scene -- a scene populated with many talented young musicians. MacIsaac, who was best known at the time as a member of Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond's touring band, says joining Beolach was an easy decision to make.

"I'd been playing with Mary Jane for five years by that time," she says. "I had it in my mind to be in a band where we just play tunes." Although busy both with the band and an active solo career, MacIsaac never feels drained by it. "It's not work, you know? Well, driving to gigs is work. But the audience always knows we're having a good time."

The center of attention on stage is usually MacIsaac and fellow fiddler Mairi Rankin, who play in remarkable accord.

"Mairi and I connect really well," MacIsaac says. "We can make the tunes sound very similar -- sometimes it sounds like one fiddle." The goal, she adds, is a strong, uniform sound. "We don't harmonize a lot and we don't improvise a lot."

Both fiddlers took lessons from local legend Stan Chapman, which helped them develop a similar style, she notes. "It's also the environment we grew up in, listening to the same fiddlers and the same house-party tapes."

The band's musical arrangements begin with the melody, obviously, and that means getting MacIsaac and Rankin on the same page. Sometimes, they know different versions of the tune, MacIsaac says, but "sometimes it's just like three notes apart."

"We rarely rehearse unless the whole band can be there," she adds. "We try to put together something a little different. Sometimes we'll try something might seem stupid at first, but it sounds really good. That's how we get the creativity flowing."

MacIsaac, cousin to notorious Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, took up the fiddle at age 12. But she didn't realize it would become a vocation until much later. "I knew I would always play," she says. "I would always do the weekend thing."

But her career almost went in a very different direction. "I tried to get into the RCMP," she admits. "But then I decided I really didn't want to be a cop." The distinctive red jacket of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or Mounties, wasn't an issue, MacIsaac adds. "I like the uniform!"

Her direction was solidified in 1995, when she was hired to perform at the Cape Breton Summertime Revue. "As soon as the review was over, Mary Jane asked me to play with her."

Her future plans aren't cast in concrete, however. "I'll just do this until I'm rich," MacIsaac says, then laughs. "Yeah, right." For now, Beolach dominates her schedule. "Maybe we'll be at it for five years, maybe for 20," she said. "We really love working with each other ... and this is the main gig for everyone." The band's sophomore recording is due out in summer 2004.

MacIsaac never grows tired of playing local dances, which remain her favorite gig. And she's happy to be part of one of Atlantic Canada's rising stars. "Right now, there aren't a lot of Cape Breton bands touring," she says. "I think one of the biggest problems with Cape Breton music right now is that we don't have the best distribution in the States. That would be a big help."

With a potential future in law enforcement off the table, MacIsaac has given some thought to the possibilities if she ever opts out of a music career. "Cooking," she says without hesitation. "I'd love to open a restaurant."

She doesn't expect Cape Breton music to disappear from the forefront of Celtic music any time soon, however, "It's too good," she insists. "In the early '90s, it was so 'Celtic, Celtic, Celtic' that people got too much of it. But it's never going to die. It's real music. ... I'm biased, of course, but I love it."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 1 November 2003

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Buy Wendy's 1998 CD That's What You Get from Amazon.com.