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 knocked purists on their ears, as it combined virtuoso traditional fiddling with modern dance rhythms and punk rock excitement. It even spawned a surprise hit in "Sleepy Maggie," a collaboration with Cape Breton Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond. MacIsaac's energetic, kilt-swirling live performances attracted fans of all ages and musical tastes, and eye-catching videos helped push sales of Hi How Are You Today? to more than 300,000 in Canada. 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. Fine Thank You Very Much, a companion album released in June of that year, saw Maclsaac getting back to basics with traditional jigs, reels and strathspeys. It earned him an instrumental artist of the year Juno in 1997.
In addition to fame for his undisputed musical talents, MacIsaac has also gained notoriety for his often-erratic lifestyle. While he continued to play live and also had a few small acting roles during the late 1990s, he was more frequently in the news with reports of unusual behaviour and a declaration of bankruptcy. Much of this conduct could apparently be explained by substance abuse problems, which he spoke openly about upon the release of his Helter's Celtic album in the fall of 1999. MacIsaac continued his genre-manipulating 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 - contributed to the fiddler losing his deal with Loggerhead Records shortly after the release of the album. He recorded and independently released Fiddle Music 101, an album of traditional fiddle instrumentals made with Halifax fiddler David MacIsaac, and collaborated with Howie MacDonald on another independent album called Cape Breton Fiddle Music Not Calm, in 2001.
MacIsaac faced his demons head on when he addressed them in his 2003 autobiography, Fiddling with Disaster. American label Decca Records, which is largely known for its jazz repertoire, released Ashley MacIsaac (featuring the fiddler singing six songs) that same year. MacIsaac continued to tour and play in a variety of different settings, and Toronto's Linus Entertainment became his next label in the summer of 2004. It released Live at the Savoy and reissued some of MacIsaac's earlier, hard-to-get albums. CBC-TV aired the documentary Me, Myself and the Devil: The Life and Times of Ashley MacIsaac in 2005.
Linus released Pride, a rock-oriented album with MacIsaac singing and not playing fiddle, in the fall of 2005. It didn't find an audience and disappeared quickly. MacIsaac then 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. While there have been no new recordings, except for a 10-track compilation titled The Best Of Ashley MacIsaac in 2008, MacIsaac continues to perform around the world. One of these performances took place in the summer of 2007 in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, where the fiddler opened for American rock band The White Stripes and his distant cousin, singer/guitarist Jack White. In July 2008, MacIsaac posted a message on the eBay auction web site offering 50 percent of his future performance, recording and publishing-based income in exchange for a minimum bid of $1.5 million. He had no takers.
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' Orion project that year after contributing to Glass' album of the same name in 2007.
MacIsaac released Crossover in 2011. 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. Beautiful Lake Ainslie, a traditional album recorded with pianist Barbara MacDonald Magone, was issued in 2012 and sold only at the shows that MacIsaac continues to play in Canada and around the world.
Author Steve McLean
Links to Other Sites
Cape Breton Celtic Festivals
Dedicated to Celtic music, song, and dance. Click on the "Celtic Colours" link for the latest festival highlights and biographies of participating musicians. Requires various media players. From the Virtual Museum of Canada.