Cynthia MacLeod:
borrowing music from the neighbors

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2003

Just a 45-minute drive could have spelled all the difference for Cynthia MacLeod.

MacLeod, a young Prince Edward Island fiddler, is already wowing audiences with her flashy performance style and infectiously cheerful grin. But PEI, she says, doesn't have its own distinctive sound.

"I play Cape Breton," MacLeod insists. "You couldn't call me a PEI fiddler because there isn't a specific PEI style."

There are a lot of musical styles to be found on the small island, which floats off the north coast of Nova Scotia and the eastern tip of New Brunswick. While MacLeod's career has focused on the traditions of neighboring Cape Breton, there are also Irish, Acadian and old-timey styles to be found, among others. "If I lived about 45 minutes west of where I grew up, I probably wouldn't play Cape Breton music at all," she says. "Nobody plays it there. You're more likely to find old-time or Irish music."

MacLeod spends a lot of her time across the water in Cape Breton, honing her techniques and sharing her music with as many people as possible. (That's where I found her, squeezing in an interview on an off-limits stairway shortly before she was scheduled to start jamming on the Festival Club stage at the annual Celtic Colours concert series.) Although she's from a different island -- heck, a different province -- she doesn't have much trouble fitting in with the natives. "It's a bit harder because I didn't grow up here," she admits. "I don't have all the same tunes."

Any awkwardness is fleeting, she says. "It's a little odd coming in and saying, 'I'm from PEI but I'm going to play your music,'" she laughs. "But the people here have been very open. I haven't had any complaints."

A pianist since age 6, she started playing fiddle at age 10, taking lessons from Cape Breton legends including Jerry Holland and Sandy MacIntyre. (She added stepdancing to the mix at age 15.) Now 18 and already with a highly acclaimed CD, Head Over Heels, under her belt, she only recently decided to make music her full-time career.

She's also starting college courses in psychology -- "because I love to analyze people" -- although MacLeod insists she'll probably never follow a career in that field. Still, she wants to plan for the future, because "I can't see myself being 40 and still playing the fiddle all the time. I'll want a job -- just not in psychology."

Already working in local radio, MacLeod says she's looking into a future in the media. "But who knows, it could end up being music therapy or something like that."

Meanwhile, MacLeod is racking up awards for her music even as she expands her playing field across Canada and into the United States. Her performances vary, she says, depending on the tastes of the region she's visiting.

"Here, I always play a lot of Cape Breton tunes and Scottish traditionals," she says, gesturing at her surroundings. "Out west, I might throw in some swing tunes. But I pretty much go with the flow. Nothing's set in stone."

She's going back into the studio this winter, with hopes of releasing her sophomore CD in the spring of 2004. "On the first album, I played the tunes that people wanted to hear," she says. "It got people's attention." The new CD will have "more distinctive arrangements," she explains. "I won't record anything that I don't want to hear. If it's just a set of tunes, I won't record it."

She's even writing her own material, which she describes as "kind of different."

"I don't aim for a specific style," she says. "It's whatever comes into my head at the time."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 29 November 2003

[ visit Cynthia's website ]