Natalie Mac Master and Donnell Leahy: Fiddling With Parenthood


When Celtic musician and international recording star Natalie Mac Master and virtuoso fiddler, Donnell Leahy of the band Leahy, toured together this year, they packed more than their fiddles. They took their family – 22-month-old Mary Frances Rose and three-month-old Michael – on the road with them. Natalie and Donnell wouldn’t have it any other way.

What was touring like for you before you had kids?

NATALIE: I shopped a lot. I’d usually have about two hours to myself after sound check and before a performance when I could wander the streets in wherever city we were playing in and shop. I had so many great clothes. Or I’d practise or just work on my music. I always enjoyed my suppers from the great catering for the show and I loved watching TV when I got back to my hotel – midnight reruns of The Fugitive or a movie. In the morning I’d get right on the tour bus still wearing my pajamas.

And now?

NATALIE: No sleeping in. No staying in pajamas. We’re up at around seven with the kids to get dressed. No television. I can’t watch a late movie late when I’m up three or four times in the night with the baby. I don’t shop at all. It’s not that I can’t but there’s no time. I still enjoy my suppers. Eating with the children before a show doesn’t work so after sound check I still go to catering. My whole day revolves around food: big breakfast, lunch, dinner and pizza after the show. All the activity and stepdancing burns it off. Plus nursing burns 800 calories a day!

What are the kids like on the road?

NATALIE: The kids are great. They’re very good little travellers. We did 100 shows with Mary Frances along during her first year, all in North America except for one trip to France. She was excellent.

Do you get much time with the kids?

NATALIE: I actually get to enjoy a pile of time with them when I’m on the
road because daily chores like keeping house, getting meals or grocery
shopping are all just wiped off your ‘to do’ list. And I always take a babysitter with me, of course. Really, the only time I can’t be with them is when I’m on stage – and that’s two hours a night.

What’s the most difficult thing about being on the road with kids?

NATALIE: It’s very cumbersome. There’s so much stuff! No matter how simply you think you’re travelling, there is still stuff. You’re surrounded by stuff! It just becomes awkward.
DONNELL: It can be very frustrating if you haven’t got it planned and set up in advance. We have great people and they’ve learned with us.
ParentsCanada: Has it become more difficult with two children?
NATALIE: Yes, it’s more difficult adding a second one to the picture. I haven’t had a lot of experience with the second one yet – he’s only three months old – but I’ve noticed a difference.

What’s the best thing about taking your kids on the road?

NATALIE: The flexibility to have my children with me and still work. I feel so lucky that I can take my children with me to work. That’s the best part.
DONNELL: Not a lot of people can have that opportunity. We’re very traditional. That’s just us. In the traditional sense, we’re home with our kids. ‘Home’ is on the road. It’s wonderful for the children to travel and meet people. We try to take in as much as we can culturally.

Do you and Donnell often perform together?

NATALIE: Donnell and I do some shows together, but I do a lot of shows on my own and so does Donnell. So often times, it’s just me, the two children and the babysitter. But now, for this fall’s coming touring season and next spring, Mary Frances is old enough to go out on tour with her father.

What’s it like for the band?

NATALIE: I’m very conscious about burdening other people because of my
children. I don’t want my band members, bus drivers, tour managers or anyone to feel like, ‘Oh yeah, there are children out here now and it’s becoming difficult for us because they’re in our way.’ I’m really sensitive to that. It’s a little more stressful for me with two to stay out of everyone’s way. But nobody minds. Everyone has been, ‘Oh, let me hold the baby for a
while.’ That’s great that they want to hold the baby. I want to keep it that they want to hold the baby, not that they have to hold the baby.
DONNELL: Having the children along is good for touring. It grounds you.

What’s funny about touring with kids?

NATALIE: It’s embarrassing, but sometimes I have nursing stains on my stage tops.
DONNELL: Natalie is brutally honest with the audience. If she rips her pants or something blows up on stage, she’ll tell the audience.

What’s it like as a dad to take two babies on the road with a full schedule of performances?

DONNELL: The hardest part of touring is being away from home. It makes it much easier and pleasant to be able to take home with you – to have your wife and children with you. It’s just amazing. You’re not desperate to get home. Our tours are totally geared towards kids and family. What we do – right from the hotel rooms we book to the time we eat to what we eat – is dictated by our children. I’ve toured with children for a number of years now because my siblings in Leahy (I have 11 brothers and sisters in the band) had children long before Natalie and I did. We’ve had as many as seven kids on the road with us. The whole tour changes with children. It becomes a happy place all the time.

What makes it easier?

DONNELL: Tour buses are the best thing in the world because you can set them up like a stable environment – a home if you will. We will have the proper food in the refrigerators, always. As artists, Mom and Dad need that too. When you’re touring, it’s so hectic. Nutrition and rest are really important. The bus allows for that. We’ll have hotel rooms everywhere, but when we
pull up to the venue, the bus is a stable haven that always exists. It also helps to have things set up right, like adjoining rooms for the childcare person all prearranged at the hotel.

What about your careers?

DONNELL: Natalie
wondered, when we had children, how that would affect her career.
Natalie is happiest playing music. I can’t imagine her not playing
music. I think she’s a better parent because she’s happy. We still pride
ourselves in our work and our music. What drives us is the music. The
quality can’t be compromised, but our main focus is our family. If we
felt touring affected the children negatively in any way, we wouldn’t be
doing it.
NATALIE: It’s
incredible to be able to continue our musical careers to some capacity –
not quite the same as we did before – and be able to take our family on
the road.

Where are the kids during a performance?

DONNELL:
Often, at the side of the stage. Once with Leahy, we had seven little
chairs, strollers and car seats all lined up. They love to watch the
show and we love to watch them watching. Of course, every now and then
someone from the backstage choir will wail. At first, we were like, ‘Oh,
that’s awful!’ but now we say, ‘Our children are here’ and talk about
touring with children. The audience enjoys it.
NATALIE: I love that I can expose my children to music.

Do you bring your kids on stage?

DONNELL:
Mainly, no. But they’ve appeared the odd time. Once little Mary Frances
walked out to her mother during a performance. But mostly we shield
them from the spotlight. We had to seriously consider about whether or
not to be on the cover of ParentsCanada. But we’re proud of our family
and we’re proud of our parenting. We wanted to convey how excited we are
about children and family to your readers.

Check
out Natalie Mac Master’s new book, A Celtic Air, about growing up in a
musical Cape Breton family and her new DVDs, Live in Cape Breton and
Bringing it Home, a PBS special airing in March 2008. Natalie Mac
Master’s next Canadian tour will be in December 2007. For tour details,
go to nataliemacmaster.com.

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