Music has been a family affair for as long as Lucy MacNeil can remember. The lone female vocalist/musician/dancer of the award winning Barra MacNeils, has fond memories of a childhood heavily influenced by the traditions that have shaped the direction of the professional lives of she and her 5 brothers. (Two younger MacNeils belong to Slainte Mhath).
“Though we lived in Sydney Mines, we spent an enormous amount of our time at our grandmothers’ in Washabuckt.” There they would gather on weekends and holidays for fiddling, step-dancing and song. “When you spend your life in that kind of pattern, you begin to take it for granted until you hear other people describe their lives and you realize not everyone has a life revolving around music.”
Their parents, Columba and Jean, could see at an early age that the children were musical. In particular their mother, who was self taught in fiddle, piano and guitar, was determined that the kids would have the opportunity not only to play but to be able to read music as well. So from the age of 7 each were enrolled in formal lessons, so that they would enjoy the best of both worlds.
In the beginning it was the eldest boys, Kyle, Sheumas and Stewart, as the MacNeil Brothers, who performed in community events as well as individually in local church choirs. Over time their natural ability began to take shape in the form of a band and grew in popularity. By 1986 with the encouragement of local fans the group produced their first independent album, which also included sister, Lucy. She would join the band full-time in 1991 after completing University.
It wasn’t long before they began building a name outside Cape Breton, particularly in Ontario.
“It kind of snow-balled from there as people began to recognize our style,” says Lucy. They would later sign with Polygram and garner an even wider exposure after three independantly produced albums sold fairly well.
“But we knew that in order to achieve in this business, you have to take care of the career.” At a certain level they took a step back to take a look at the direction they were headed. “We did a compilation CD which had a great response to the new and old material.” They used that positive energy to determine the next step. “We were hearing comments about the fact that our recorded music did not capture the essence of the live show.” So they found themselves going back to the Barra MacNeils roots, as multi-instrumentalists and with the vocal harmony they had grown up on. “We did a lot of things like the Rita MacNeil specials and national TV shows to get our name out there.”
Touring was stepped up to include much of the United States, the U.K., and even Jamaica. “Recently the U.S. has been opening up to us more and more.”
Nine albums later, the Barra MacNeils are still striving to give the best to whatever stage they find themselves on. They have been involved in Celtic Colours for several years, in fact while performing this fall in Northern Ontario, they met several couples who had plans to take in the festival. Today they enjoy great responses from audiences that can include several generations.
“We have learned over the years to listen to our fans.” Lucy says people like certain aspects of the shows, so there are two types of fans, the ones who prefer the instrumentals and those who like the songs that are played on radio.
“Either way, once people see us live, they get an eye opener to the variety included on stage. Our philosophy is ‘do what you know best, and enjoy what you do’.”
The band has certainly worked long and hard to reach a point where they are content in knowing they give their best whether on stage or a CD.
“We are very focused on perfecting the music, and we have so much fun these days, the show is over way too quickly, so we hope the audiences are having a wonderful night of it along with us.”
Over the years, the band has constantly strived to make the performances innovative, both musically and in terms of their interaction with the crowds.
There’s one fairly recent endeavor that stands out among the highlights of their career, the Christmas CD.
“This was truly a wonderful experience; you have visions of what it should be, what you expect and this is definitely something we are so proud of.” Lucy says the album has a lovely warm feel to it, capturing exactly what they wished to convey. “It’s really close to our hearts.” They have had an unprecedented positive response, both to the collection and the sold out Christmas tour several times over.
“Christmas in our family was always special; after opening presents at home, we would pack it all up and head to our grandmother’s and be up there for days.” It became quite a feat to organize as they all grew and especially when the boys were in different choirs, as was their mother.
“To get everyone together in one place became more difficult over the years as people started getting married but the tradition still continues and that’s really nice.” They all live fairly close to each other so that when they are not on tour they are in contact regularly.
In November they played at the Folk Alliance for North Eastern States, which they have done before and have gained quite a following. Their latest album Racket in the Attic continues to sell very well. In fact, the success of this latest release won the band the 2001 ECMA award for Group of the Year as well as a Juno nomination in the Roots/Traditional category. The 2001 Christmas tour began on November 20th, on the west coast and they will make their way back until the final performances at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, on December 23rd. A second show, a matinee, was added to accommodate the large numbers of fans expected to take in this exceptional seasonal performance. Lucy is delighted with the timing on the tour.
“Nothing could be nicer than to complete one of our favorite tours right here on the island, just in time to be home for the holidays.”
Savoy Showtimes are Sunday December 23rd 3:30 and 8:00 Tickets $25.00