For Ashley MacIsaac, it’s all about the music, but high-octane fame was no hardship.
He’s living a quieter life these days, but if you’re looking for the fiddler extraordinaire, out gay man and one of Cape Breton’s most controversial exports to say life without extreme fame is so much better, you’ll be disappointed.
In a recent interview with Xtra, MacIsaac talked about his past, his present and his upcoming tour. He’s performing at the WinterBites Festival in Courtenay, BC, on Jan 25, and then it’s off to Halifax for a two-day gig with Symphony Nova Scotia before he stops in Ottawa on Feb 15 to perform at the National Arts Centre (NAC). MacIsaac’s tours are shorter these days — but it’s not because he’s rushing home to an impatient husband.
“It’s sort of like lobsters,” he says. “If there’s lots of me out in the market, then I’m not getting paid as much, so it’s the old ‘when you’re hot, you’re hot, and when you’re not, you’re not’ vibe.”
When MacIsaac burst onto the international music scene almost 20 years ago, the time was ripe for the industry and fans alike to embrace his sound — Celtic music blended with rock and pop — and his showmanship, which included giving Conan viewers a peek at what’s under his kilt during a live broadcast. He couldn’t have predicted the extent of his success, like his 1995 album Hi, How Are You Today? going double-platinum, but he had followed his instincts to find a wider audience.
“That was when Nirvana was hip and Sloan was cool in Halifax, so rock and really grungy, edgy rock was all over the radio,” MacIsaac says. “It was a natural progression based on the fact that I wanted to present myself to a larger audience.”
The fame he experienced was documented in the media as following the familiar arc of exciting young newcomer turned rebellious troublemaker turned unhappy guy who was blighted by too much, too soon. MacIsaac points out he’s still here — happy, healthy and working as a professional musician, just as he has his entire adult life. He also rejects the notion that early fame was a soul-crushing experience.
“It’s not the same as being rich,” MacIsaac says of celebrity. “The only thing I can compare it to is having 24-hour-a-day yes men around you, so maybe in politics there’s a similarity. A lot of yes men around, and frankly, it’s quite comforting.”
These days the fresh-faced newcomer turned guy everyone’s either criticizing or worrying about is Justin Bieber. A UK tabloid reported the Canadian pop star’s mother has urged the public to pray for him. From vandalizing his neighbour’s house with eggs to a DUI arrest in Miami Beach, the public and media are predicting the Biebs is partying toward a bad end. MacIsaac sees it from a different perspective.
“Biebs the other day was caught in Brazil in a brothel,” he says. “Everyone was going, Why would he be there? I was going, Why not? I did the same thing when I was 20. Oh, I’m in Brazil. I got money. I’m famous. Let’s go to a brothel. Oh, I can get drugs. Oh, I can buy 15 cars.
“All those things — it’s fun,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t lie.”
Despite his fond memories of his wild past, MacIsaac admits that a young person having seemingly unlimited cash and a crew of yes men can lead to trouble. He stopped taking crack cocaine years ago and says he hopes Bieber isn’t taking hard drugs.
“I think it would be very hard as a young person to have that much money and not turn into a bit of an asshole,” MacIsaac says. “Obviously, he smokes pot, but if he’s involved in harder narcotics of any sort he could find himself getting into trouble.”
Being a rock-influenced Celtic fiddler as opposed to a pop star meant MacIsaac knew his days of extreme fame would be short in the space of his entire career. These days he lives a quiet life with his husband, Andrew Stokes, and their dogs and parrots in Windsor. MacIsaac enjoys cities like Toronto, New York and Hong Kong, but as every married person knows, marriage requires compromise, and Windsor isn’t so small to a guy who grew up in a village of 300 people.
No matter where he lives, MacIsaac brings the same focus to his music. His collaborations vary from touring with Orion, a concert series by renowned American composer Philip Glass, to appearing in the White Stripes’ documentary Under Great White Northern Lights. He and Jack White are going to record a song together, but so far their schedules haven’t meshed.
MacIsaac’s upcoming concerts will include songs from newer albums, like 2011’s Crossover, but you might also hear favourites like “Devil in the Kitchen”and “Sleepy Maggie.” The main difference between each performance is the venue, which dictates the volume, he says. At clubs he plays louder, while the acoustics at a theatre like the NAC don’t call for the same kind of volume.
When composing and recording new music, he enjoys innovation but says he’s not chasing the sound of today looking for a hit record.
“I still make music with the hope that possibly younger people might go, ‘Oh, this is cool,’ but I’ll be 39 next month,” MacIsaac says. “I’m not David Bowie. I’m not stuck in a generation of pop music. I’m stuck in a generation of music that was well known in the 1600s, you know what I mean?”