Ashley MacIsaac

Ashley Dwayne MacIsaac, musician, composer (born 24 February 1975 in Creignish, NS). The enfant terrible of the Canadian music scene, Juno Award-winning fiddler Ashley MacIsaac is as well known for his eccentric personality and outlandish, controversial behaviour as he is for his ferocious fiddling talents and his commercially successful, genre-bending breakthrough album, Hi How Are You Today? (1995).

Early Years

A fiddling prodigy, MacIsaac grew up playing traditional Celtic music and learned from the local masters in his native Cape Breton Island (he and fiddler Natalie MacMaster are cousins). While still a teenager, he independently released two albums of traditional fiddle music on cassette: Close to the Floor (1992), which sold an impressive 8,000 copies; and A Cape Breton Christmas (1993). His playing drew the attention of such prominent musicians as Philip Glass, Paul Simon, and David Byrne, and those connections helped attract growing interest from the Canadian music industry.

Breakthrough Success

MacIsaac signed a deal with A&M Records and released Hi How Are You Today? in 1995 through his own Ancient Music label. The album’s eclectic combination of virtuoso traditional fiddling, modern dance rhythms, and punk rock edge knocked purists on their ears. It even spawned a surprise hit in “Sleepy Maggie,” a collaboration with Cape Breton Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond, that became a Top 20 hit in Canada and reached No. 29 on the Billboard dance chart. MacIsaac’s energetic, kilt-swirling live performances attracted fans of all ages and musical tastes. With eye-catching videos playing in regular rotation on MuchMusic, sales of Hi How Are You Today? rose above 200,000 in Canada. Close to the Floor was re-released as a CD in 1995 to capitalize on this success and sold more than 26,000 copies.

MacIsaac was named Best New Solo Artist and Hi How Are You Today? took the honour of Best Solo Roots and Traditional Album at the 1996 Juno Awards. His follow-up album, Fine, Thank You Very Much (1996), saw him getting back to basics with traditional jigs, reels, and strathspeys. It earned him a Juno Award for Instrumental Artist of the Year, in 1997.

Public Notoriety

In addition to fame for his musical talents, MacIsaac has also gained notoriety for his often-erratic lifestyle and exhibitionist outbursts. While he continued to play live and also had a few small acting roles in the late 1990s — in such films as The Hanging Garden (1997), New Waterford Girl (1999), and Marion Bridge (2002) — he was more frequently in the news with reports of unusual behaviour, such as when he exposed his genitals while kicking up his kilt during a performance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in 1997. He also declared personal bankruptcy in 2000.

Much of this conduct was attributed to substance abuse problems; MacIsaac spoke openly about a two-year battle with crack cocaine addiction during the release of Helter’s Celtic, in the fall of 1999. He revived his experimental, genre-bending ways on this record, and even took a few stabs at singing. But slow sales, combined with his outspokenness and a controversial, profanity-laced New Year’s Eve performance in Halifax, contributed to losing his deal with Loggerhead Records shortly after the release of the album.

He independently released Fiddle Music 101 (2000) — an album of traditional instrumentals recorded with Halifax fiddler David MacIsaac — and collaborated with Howie MacDonald on another independent album, Cape Breton Fiddle Music Not Calm (2001). In February 2002, his home on Cape Breton Island was destroyed by fire, and all of his personal belongings including many instruments were lost. In 2003, MacIsaac addressed his demons in his autobiography Fiddling with Distaster. He also signed with Decca Records (best-known for its jazz repertoire), which released Ashley MacIsaac (2003). The album touched on different genres and featured MacIsaac singing six songs, but didn’t sell well. His relationship with Decca ended and he moved on to Canadian independent label Linus Entertainment in the spring of 2004.

Linus repackaged and released special edition versions of all of MacIsaac’s albums except Helter’s Celtic and the Decca release, and also released Live at the Savoy (2004). MacIsaac abandoned the fiddle for 2005’s more rock-oriented Pride album, which didn’t find an audience. That year, CBC Television aired the documentary “Me, Myself and the Devil: The Life and Times of Ashley MacIsaac.” Interviewed during the program, he said, “A lot of things I still say today aren’t true about me. I say stuff to media that I'll make up just to see if they'll print it.”

Politics and Marriage

After musing publicly about the possibility of representing Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, as a Member of Parliament, MacIsaac announced in March 2006 that he was running for leadership of the Federal Liberal Party. He then dropped out in June, citing his lack of proficiency in French as the reason for his withdrawal. In 2005, he commented that he wanted to hold the “largest gay wedding” in Alberta, in protest of the province’s opposition to the legalization of gay marriage. In 2007, he married violinist Andrew Stokes in a ceremony performed onstage at an East Coast Music Awards concert.

MacIsaac spent some of 2006 and 2007 touring with Tapeire, a stage show based on the life of tap dancer James Devine, the “fastest dancer in the world” according to Guinness World Records. Music from the show was released on a Linus CD. In the summer of 2007 MacIsaac performed in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, with singer/guitarist Jack White (a distant cousin) and his rock band The White Stripes as part of their Under Great White Northern Lights tour. The performance was included in the documentary of the same name.

Earnings Auctioned Off

In July 2008, MacIsaac reportedly auctioned off 50 per cent of his future performance, recording and publishing related income in exchange for a bid of $1.5 million received on the web site eBay (in the event of MacIsaac’s death, the rights and profits revert to his estate). The arrangement also included the option of having MacIsaac perform an annual concert in a city of the bidder’s choosing for ten years.

In 2010, MacIsaac performed at the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and collaborated with members of Vancouver Celtic rock band Spirit of the West on a benefit single titled “Dreams” that raised money for Ghanaian Olympic skier Kwame Nkrumah Acheampong. He also toured with American composer Philip Glass’s Orion project that year after contributing to Glass’s album of the same name in 2007.

In 2011, he released the album Crossover through AIS Records. It included contributions from Lamond and others in an attempt to revisit the varied styles of Hi How Are You Today? but failed to achieve the same success. Over the Canada Day weekend that year, he performed alongside Susan Aglukark and Charlie Major at the Concert of Hope benefit show in Slave Lake, Alberta, following the devastating fire there in May 2011. Beautiful Lake Ainslie, a traditional album recorded with pianist Barbara MacDonald Magone, was issued in 2012 and sold only at MacIsaac’s concerts, which he continues to play in Canada and around the world.

Awards

Best New Solo Artist, Juno Awards (1996)

Best Solo Roots and Traditional Album (Hi How Are You Today?), Juno Awards (1996)

Instrumental Artist of the Year, Juno Awards (1997)

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.