Ashley MacIsaac wants you to like the fiddle as much as he does. It may be a tall order, but he’s going to give it a try.
The 21-year-old native of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, bucks pop traditions on his A&M debut album, “Hiª How Are You Today?” (released June 4). Playing Celtic fiddle tunes in a modern music setting, he effortlessly straddles hip-hop, industrial and folk music from one track to the next.
The musical chameleon is out to shake things up.
“There’s this stereotype about the fiddle,” MacIsaac said recently, “and I think it comes from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ Every time that type of music starts, everybody goes ‘Hee haw!’
“My job is to get people connected for more than three minutes and actually stay for a whole 75-minute or 90-minute show. I come from a root of playing traditional music, and over the last three years I’ve become somewhat of a media sponge and will basically put anything else that comes into it, as long as I can retain at least some sense of the root.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Canada, where he won two Juno Awards this year, including one for best new solo artist. He also had a sizable hit with the Gaelic-sung “Sleepy Maggie.”
But will it fly in the land of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Garth and Hootie?
“When I was young, hip music to me was fiddle music, because I never listened to anything else,” MacIsaac said. “I was never one to go out and buy CDs and tapes. I didn’t have a tape player or anything like that. The main form of entertainment in our household was fiddle music.
“But looking at everything from like watching your mojo working to the development of American rock music to techno and disco and what has become pop music in the United States, it’s all about having one true sense. I don’t think there’s any music that doesn’t do real well that doesn’t have feel or have rhythm and soul in it. If it has a beat, I can play over it.”
MacIsaac, who will open for The Chieftains’ U.S. tour this summer, says his varied audiences explain his music’s appeal.
“If you go to one of my concerts,” he said, “there’s everybody there from age 90 to age 14 or 12. You see 9-year-olds sitting there and really enjoying the stuff I play for them and also really enjoying the fact they’re seeing all these kids getting up and dancing to it. And when I slow down and play something solo, most of them get my point, sit back and listen to it. It’s a great feeling to have that affect on people.”
The quirky album title comes from MacIsaac’s nearly two-year stay in Toronto, where he recorded the LP with several producers.
“As wonderful as Toronto is and has a wonderful sense of culturalism,” he said, “it’s completely separate. There’s no connection between the different spots in the city, and it’s really spread out. It’s like Harlem maybe about 70 years ago when crime was just starting. People are scared and won’t really talk to you if you’re walking down the street. It’s not like that anywhere else in Canada.
“I got into the habit of screaming, ‘Hi, how are you today?!’ and I would emphasize the ‘Hi!’ and then people would usually turn around and answer you back. Then I’d ask them where they were from and likely I had been there so I had a connection there already.
“The same way with the record; it’s an abrupt introduction to my sort of calmer sense of playing fiddle music.”