“It’s been 25 years since we put our first album out, and it’s been quite a road for us. Through those early years, most of us were going to university and playing in the summer, playing on the weekend, and it just kind of grew into a full time thing.”
For a group of musicians, 25 years is a nearly unheard-of time to be consistently recording and touring. No doubt, it’s been an interesting quarter century – which includes hitchhiking to Deer Lake after their bus broke down en route from St. Anthony, and a chance late night jam with Great Big Sea in Germany – but for Cape Breton sextet the Barra MacNeils, their career has been almost a logical progression. That comes from being siblings, and having tunes and traditional Gaelic music in their home as they grew up.
Stewart MacNeil, who spoke to The Independent last week in the lead-up to the group’s shows in Gander and St. John’s (Nov. 2 and 3), alongside Lucy, Kyle, and Sheumas, released their self-titled debut in 1986, the first of more than a dozen. Their younger siblings, Ryan and Boyd, were part of the Celtic fusion ensemble Sláinte Mhath (“Good Health”), who travelled all over the planet before going on hiatus and joining the Barras in 2005 for All at Once. With 20 years separating the oldest and the youngest band members, the entire family is now involved in the group.
“It’s amazing how the band evolved – it really evolved in a true band sense,” MacNeil said, noting the eclectic mix of instruments that now comprise a show, from keyboards, accordions, flutes, and fiddles, to step dancing and the Brazilian pandeiro. “It is pretty unique, and it’s powerful when it all comes together.”
Fans in this province can expect it to all come together this weekend. The band will be performing at the Arts & Culture Centre in Gander on Nov. 2 and at Holy Heart Theatre in St. John’s Nov. 3.
Each autumn since 1997, Cape Breton has played host to the Celtic Colours International Festival, bringing regional performers together with overseas artists for showcases and workshops spanning more than a week. At the 2011 festival, the Barra MacNeils collaborated with 10 different artists over the course of 10 days, reworking traditional songs and arranging unrecorded originals. The result was The Celtic Colours Sessions, which is the newest of two albums (a live disc with the Nova Scotia Symphony Orchestra was released earlier this year) that the band is promoting on this tour.
“It was quite an adventure. We really had an amazing time and played with some great people. For some of the artists, the songs came together early, and before we got in there we had a good idea of what we were doing,” MacNeil recounts. However, each session was different – an Irish immigration song with the Black Family was replaced at the last minute with “Tarry Flynn,” popularized by Johnny McEvoy in the 1960s, and the closing instrumental track with Tim Edey came together organically during the sessions.
“We just sort of kept putting stuff together. We wanted tempo changes and stuff like this, and Tim is just a savant for traditional music, an exceptional player. It started with polka and we ended with a polka, and we had jigs and reels and lots of key changes – it was just a real treat to play with him.”
From Archie Fisher and James Keelaghan to Old Man Luedecke, The Celtic Colours Sessions features some big name collaborators. Particularly significant, especially to fans from this province, is “Gone to Canada,” a duet led by its songwriter Ron Hynes.
“If somebody told me the first (time) I heard the Wonderful Grand Band on our local radio station, when they were playing ‘Sonny’s Dream’ on full rotation, that we’d be recording someday with Ron – boy, I would have been pretty amazed. Ron is such a superb songwriter. We’ve met Ron over the years, but we’ve never had the chance to record together, and we never actually recorded any of Ron’s songs. When we heard he was coming to the festival, he was definitely one of the first on the list.”
“He chose the song ‘Gone to Canada’ to have as a duet with Lucy, and I think it was a great choice. He made a comment, he said, ‘You’re gonna think this is a little strange, but when I wrote this song, I was driving from Antigonish, heading towards Sydney, and when I started writing this song, I had Lucy MacNeil’s voice in my head!’ I suppose in many ways, it came to fruition.”
On the Barra MacNeils’ website, all proceeds from digital sales of that single will go to support Ron Hynes’ ongoing throat cancer treatments.
Looking behind to see ahead
For the MacNeil siblings, collecting traditional music remains an exciting, ongoing process, with members constantly keeping their ears to the ground for rediscovered gems. “Just within Cape Breton alone, there’s such a rich tradition of Gaelic music. There’s songs that I hear and I enjoy, but sometimes it’s a few years down the road before I learn the song.”
Naturally, surrounding themselves with such a body of work leads to a certain pressure when writing new material. It’s been a humbling experience that sometimes necessitates that the music speak for itself. “There’s a lot of songs I’ve written that the Barra MacNeils haven’t recorded – I think sometimes there’s an unwritten code as to what ends up being something the band plays,” he said.
“After 25 years, there’s stuff that really stands up, and that fans want to hear. I remember there was a period where we took ‘Coal Town Road’ out of the setlist, and people responded. It’s been in most shows since we recorded it – so, the original material does have to stack up. We don’t just record music because it’s our own.”
Learning traditional music and styles since they were children, it’s difficult for the Barra MacNeils to imagine doing anything different, even at this milestone of their career. Following the shows in Newfoundland, they will be heading to western Canada to do their regular Christmas show sweep across most of the country (they have two Christmas albums under their belt), wrapping up in Halifax on Dec. 23.
“The road has been good to us. Overall, I can say we’ve had great experiences on the road. And,” he adds with a laugh, “it looks like we’re going to be doing this a little bit longer!”