The Swing and The Sting Of Ashley MacIsaac

Cover July 8, 2011

Story:Lenny Stoute

There has never been a fiddlin' fool like Ashley MacIsaac and Lord knows it'll be a long time 'till we see his like again. So it's great to know he's still with us and kickin' it Ash-style. Which translates as: Send lovers, guns and money and take no prisoners. Oh wait, that's Ashley Bad Boy and dude says he ain't down with that no more.

Or not. Depends. Not that he'll ever roll over and take shit but the former ‘enfant terrible’ acknowledges since he’s no longer ‘enfant’ he’s likewise past the ‘terrible’ for its own sake stage.

“ I just came in from checking the gutters because now I have a normal life and I can still stay creative. I’m mainly focused on the music now but I guess I’m still somehow pissing people off because I regularly get death threats. Been getting them for years.”

Here’s where the going gets tricky. The man’s a known media manipulator who takes an impish glee in the prospect.  Here’s a typical exchange on that subject, of the sort which continued throughout the conversation.

“ How did you deal with all the trash that was written about you?”

“ Most of it is true and I take full responsibility for that. What the public missed though was that it was all delivered with a nod and a wink. I generated good copy, which in turn kept the controversial Ashley MacIsaac going, which in turn sold albums and kept me touring. Except for a few instances where certain individuals were just being assholes, it was never personal and the journalists were in on it”.

Consequently, it’s canny to step gingerly around some of his stories as he's known to speak for effect. Even with that, there’s this tone in his voice when he talks about letters pasted together from magazine cutouts and mail stalkers following him from one address to another that suggests a ‘truthiness’ to this particular yarn.

Likewise, when speaking of avant-garde composer Philip Glass there’s no questioning the sincerity in his tone.

“ Philip (Glass) is like a father figure to me; I am the same age as his son Zack , whose recent album I played on. I met him when I was young, at the top of my fame and even then he was never condescending with me, treated me as an adult and never got into my lifestyle."

“ Now, he’s the guy I go to when I have a decision to make; should I do that, should I step back for now. Through all of it he’s never gotten pissed at me. The only times I’ve pissed him off is over musical differences, going in different directions kind of thing. Whenever that happens, I step back because he just knows so much more abut music. "

“ The first time I actually played with him it was immediately on another plane and I’m surprised and grateful that he still finds a place for me in his band. "

“ This is all very interesting because your question about where does my music and Philip’s intersect is just what I was thinking about when I woke up this morning. He and I are doing a benefit concert on the 29th(Jul.) in Cheticamp, Cape Breton as a benefit for the Gulf Aquarium and Marine Centre. "

“ It’ll have two solo halves where we each go out and do our individual  thing; he’s playing piano. Then we’re playing together for the final segment and I have no idea what I’m going to do as of yet. So thinking of where our musics intersect, it would have to be in the rhythmic structures of the melodies. ”

He goes on to vocally illustrate his point but about then I could almost hear Ashley’s uber-efficient publicist going, ‘When’s he gonna get to the damn album?’ so here goes.

Crossover is the first genre-bender from MacIsaac in a decade and finds the bowman from Cape Breton swinging ‘n’ stinging like it’s still Hi How are you Today? . Not surprising as it was intended as a follow-up to that 1995 multi-platinum seller. In tone and hopefully for Ash, in sales terms.
Its 12 songs are a mix of original compositions and radical re-workings of traditional numbers, arranged for fiddle and full-on rock band.

“ Hi How are you Today was about my musical experiences from 10 to 18, when I first started entertaining professionally. Crossover is my musical brainwaves from 18 to 36.

“ " At 18 I was a star and lived like a star, with all the recklessness that implies. I lived in hotels. Now I have a house, a normal life, money and I still get to make the albums I want to make. "

“ That’s the gamble for me now; making albums that will actually make money. However, because I’m not going to put out something that isn’t the best quality, it’s going to cost me to do that. "

“ For instance, I spent about $60,000 on Crossover, and produced a quality product that would have cost $350.000 back in the day. From beginning to end it took about four years, recorded in five different studios in four cities, mastered in Toronto and holding it all together is me, the man at the other end of the line. "

“ I’m still taking risks but they’re different risks. Whatever genre I crossover to, the result, the song, has to have the Celtic strain in there and it has to be dominant. That puts me closer to the great Scottish crossover acts like (Celtic rockers) Runrig. Whether they be punk, or rock or folk influenced or arranged, the tunes are the ones that do best in terms of sales, which tells me they’re the ones people like, are those ones.”

One of Crossover’s best examples is the meld of traditional Celtic and balls out rock of “Poka Rokin”. Which Ashley endorses thusly: “This was my dad’s favourite step dance tune which I kicked up one powerful notch. He (dad) used to say if you want to play fiddle properly you must get mad at it”.

With screaming guitars and Ashley afire on the fiddle, it’s the essential Ashley MacIsaac experience.

Ah but this is still the Ash-man, so you there will be curveballs in the mix and here comes 'Summer', a gorgeous classical number by Vivaldi which is the man’s way of letting us know he can play the violin just fine thank you. He prefers to fiddle, the form’s natural exuberance and rich emotionalism more in cadence with his passionate personality.

Vocally, Ashley's working a convincing balance between the urgent and the world-weary. This throws into sharp relief another MacIsaac curve ball, the luminous vocals of Mary Jane Lamond over an urban backbeat and jagged, bluesy wail of Ashley's fiddle on the gripping ‘She's A Rare One."

So if you’re with me on this one, that the world absolutely does not need a mellow Ashley MacIsaac, let us rejoice. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, another poet of the reckless, he’ll not go gentle into that good night anytime soon and Crossover is proud testament to that.