/ FACES Magazine February 2017
MacIsaac & MacKenzie
Alexis MacIsaac and Calum MacKenzie are a wife and husband duo who have established a unique musical partnership that combines Cape Breton piano playing with a modern approach to Celtic fiddle. While Calum’s musical approach has been heavily influenced by his Hebridean roots and his native Cape Breton culture, Alexis’ playing is a multi-faceted harmonization of Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton styles.
Though their respective approaches to music are distinct, together they create a clean and seamless sound that is nonetheless grounded in tradition. As a fiddle player, Alexis has performed throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates with acts such as Riverdance, The High Kings, and The Paperboys, while Calum has been fortunate to play with, and accompany, many local Cape Breton artists and international musicians both at home and abroad in the Caribbean and in Scotland on piano and fiddle.
Their debut album, The Bay Street Sessions, is a compilation of original and traditional compositions and arrangements, infused with centuries-old feeling and contemporary flair: their mutual love for music articulated in each note and phrase from bow to key.
Alexis, can you tell us about your childhood? Was music a big part
of growing up for you?
Music was always a part of my life, but Celtic music became my focus when the Celtic wave happened in the 1990s with artists like Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster emerging as popular bearers of traditional music. I grew up in Ottawa, but I spent my summers in Antigonish and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. My dad grew up in a small community in Brierly Brook, just outside Antigonish and still has a number of siblings who live in the area. My dad would take me to concerts and ceilidhs throughout the East Coast in the summer months which further cultivated my love of Celtic music. In Ottawa, I also devoted time to music sessions in the Valley and in the City. Ottawa has a diverse, but very strong, traditional music scene.
Calum, what was it like growing up in Cape Breton? How has this
influenced your music?
I grew up in Mabou, Cape Breton (home of the Rankin family), a region thoroughly steeped in traditional music. I grew up going to square dances, concerts, and ceilidhs, and was strongly supported by my parents to pursue traditional Cape Breton music, playing fiddle and piano. My brothers and sister were also musicians which helped encourage me to practice, particularly given I was the youngest in the family! Although Cape Breton music was the primary source which I looked to, my father grew up in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland on a small island called South Uist, a place known for its strong piping tradition and Gaelic culture. Growing up, we spoke Gaelic in the house, and while the link is subtle, language and music are inextricably linked, so speaking Gaelic also had a heavy influence on my style and approach to traditional Scottish music.
How has music become a lifestyle for you both?
Neither of us actually play professionally at the moment. Alexis used to tour with Riverdance, the High Kings, and the Paperboys, but returned to school in her mid-twenties to pursue other endeavours. Calum is currently an elementary school teacher, but has played numerous gigs with his brothers, Kenneth and Angus MacKenzie, throughout Canada, Scotland, and even in Barbados. Kenneth is a great fiddler and piper and Angus MacKenzie is a multi-instrumentalist with the award winning Scottish band, Daimh.
How did you two meet? As musicians, why is your partnership so unique?
We met through mutual friends (Alexis’ first cousins and Calum’s childhood friends) at St. Francis Xavier University. We reconnected years later after Alexis finished touring and had established herself in Ottawa. Calum moved to Ottawa soon after. Although music bonded us, we never really played together in the beginning because our styles were quite different. Alexis, while influenced by Cape Breton music, also had a strong Irish and Scottish influence, distinct from music Calum, as a piano player, was accustomed to accompanying. It wasn’t until much later in our relationship that we thought we should try out a duo to see if we could complement each other’s styles. It ended up working out quite well after hours of practice, and we’ve established a unique style that incorporates both Cape Breton piano playing with modern Celtic fiddling.
Alexis, you have travelled quite a bit in your musical career. Can you describe what that has been like?
I have been fortunate to have travelled across North America, The United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates with music. It is a privilege to be able to play music for audiences and I have been very fortunate to have been able to travel whilst doing so. One career highlight was playing for members of the Canadian military who were stationed in Abu Dhabi. It was an immense honour to play for those who serve our country.
What has the journey and creative process been for both of you in
regards to your debut Album?
We got married in Mabou, Cape Breton in July 2015. We composed a song for our first dance—entitled the Mabou Knot—which we played at the reception. Calum’s a bit of a reluctant dancer and so we decided to play the first dance for others rather than dance it ourselves (laughs).
That tune precipitated a desire on both our parts to formalize our creative partnership by developing some recording material. We worked away at it in later 2015/early 2016 and ended up recording with a great sound engineer, Phil Bova, based in the Ottawa area.
Can you describe the album?
The album combines Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton playing and features guest artists from Ottawa, Cape Breton, and Scotland.
While we have many traditional pieces on the record, we also have some original compositions which reflect our contemporary approach to the music. We named it “The Bay Street Sessions” after house sessions we’ve hosted at our home on Bay street in Ottawa which have included musicians from all over of various styles. It reflects our eclectic Celtic repertoire and our musical style.
Do you have any special rituals or traditions when performing together?
We just had a baby boy (Cillian) in October 2016. We’ve brought him to every performance we’ve played at since as a good luck charm. He likes the music!
How does your relationship affect working together as musicians and your creative process?
Being married to each other is an asset rather than an encumbrance. We are able to be totally honest with each other artistically and as we’ve been together for almost 9 years, we know each other pretty well at this point! We can anticipate each other’s musical choices fairly readily which helps create a tight sound.
What is next for your partnership? Any plans to travel?
We are hoping to promote our album throughout 2017 and are planning to attend some festivals. Really, we’re just so happy we’ve been able to complete the project. It has been such a great experience and we’re so pleased with the end result.