Without another word or a last name, you know who I’m talking about. It’s that first name basis that makes her so familiar to folks. And it’s that familiarity that makes people from all across the country and beyond drop in by the tea room in Big Pond for a visit.
Any other performer with over a dozen albums to her name, who had a successful run on national television and regularly sells out concert halls might seem unapproachable, but Rita MacNeil appears to have the opposite effect. People stop her to chat whether she’s on the street, in the grocery store or just coming off stage. Just like when she started singing back in the seventies. Those were days of smoke filled bars and pubs, late nights and prolific days spent writing at the kitchen table. She seems light years away from that now and quite happy to be where she is. Not one to relive the past, Rita does look back on the good, pays homage to the places she got her start.
“The pub days were in a class of their own,” Rita reminisces. “They were amazing days. And that was a time that was so incredible, such a learning stage. A place that allowed me to explore so much that was in the music. I look upon those days with great love and great great remembrance. But then the concert stage… I’ve got great memories doing this sort of work too. It all has its place.”
It has always been about the music. All of the songs MacNeil writes, whether about love, women’s issues, or even the land she comes from, are extremely personal. They have to be. She is motivated by whatever touches her life, and says that other people approach her on that basis. That’s another reason fans respond so well to Rita MacNeil, she seems to put their own feelings into song. This, she says, is one of the most gratifying things in all her success, the knowledge that she has reached someone through the shared experience of music. Even in the early days of Rita’s career, whether performing in a pub or at a festival, there was always someone who stayed behind and waited to talk to her and thank her for one particular song or another.
Although a lot has changed since those early concerts, there are some things that have remained the same. Rita’s innate shyness is one of them. She admits the nervousness she feels before playing for an audience has never subsided. The woman who has played before crowds of thousands gets nervous if the numbers are one hundred or one hundred thousand. And sometimes the closer she gets to home the bigger the pressure.
“You can be more nervous if it’s a home audience,” Rita says. “The whole Maritime tour I was literally a wreck through the whole thing, but it was pretty spectacular, the reception, the love and all those good things. The home base is important to me and you can’t deny that. I mean, it’s what sends you off to other places—certainly what keeps you anchored.”
She will readily admit that the pressure she feels is mostly self-administered. Even after all this time, she says, she’d love to be able to say she’s just “…chock-a-block full of marvelous confidence, and of course I know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing it for years…”, but it’s not like that. And then she adds, “I don’t think anything real in the world is like that.”
But what is it that keeps these preshow jitters from becoming a thing of the past? Partly, she reflects it’s the responsibility she feels toward the audience. Her soft spoken voice takes on an almost wistful quality as if for a brief moment the shy girl from Big Pond has a hard time believing that people have come to hear what she has to say.
“It’s the sense of being out there and you question it. For a brief moment before you hit the centre of the stage you think ‘Am I crazy?’. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in, and you’re asking a lot of people. You’re asking people to listen to what you’ve written and what you’re experiencing. And always hoping that, and at the same time knowing, that in somebody’s heart, they’ve been through the same thing.”
It is this ability to relate that has made Rita MacNeil fans respond the way they do. It’s that element of what you see is, for the most part, what you get. A woman who is comfortable kicking off her shoes, literally, as if to show, hey, I’m just the same as you are. If you ask anyone their impressions of Rita, the first words you usually hear are “down to earth”.
“I think they see me as a very ordinary person who’s been able to make a career out of music, y’know, given the odds. That’s the impression I get from talking to people, and from the letters I get. Somebody who has taken a gift that I’ve been given and is using it and sharing it, and not doing so bad.”
As there are two sides to every coin, so there are different sides to Rita MacNeil. In 1983 she recorded an album called I’m Not What I Seem and this statement can certainly be applied to her as well. There is the intensely personal side to Rita that she wishes to keep that way. The road that has taken her this far has not been an easy one. As a single mom, Rita says it wasn’t always easy to find help looking after her children when she had to play a gig or go on the road. And certainly money concerns were an issue, as the career she chose didn’t always support her family life. Yet through much adversity, she never called it quits. Only once, she recalls, did she ever come close to questioning her role in the music business, but that was during a particularly down and out time. But, she adds, it may have only lasted a couple of days.
Once again it was her love and connection to the music that kept her afloat, instead of drowning in doubtful seas. What people may not know about Rita MacNeil is that even as a quiet woman, she has a large reserve of inner strength. She acknowledges that it has come from a “live and learn” life. The biggest lesson she has learned is not to take yourself too seriously. To say that life is fleeting is an understatement, and if you truly understand that then you can weed out what is important and what is a waste of time. It is in this vein that she can poke fun at herself.
“I’ve made fun of bad experiences through songs, for instance, in ‘Here’s to the People’. I’ve made fun of myself and situations I’ve allowed myself to get into.”
If you ask Rita MacNeil what it is she likes best about herself, she will tell you it’s her capacity to love. Love is love, she says, and in that you accept your own faults and the faults of those around you. How Rita sees herself may not be entirely as others see her. She admits to being in love with the music and wants to continue touring and singing. But she also talks about enjoying a challenge and wants to always go one step further, and how important it is to acknowledge others on the way and respect their talent. That is what she feels she did with her TV show, Rita and Friends. The variety of guests showcased many different types of music instead of limiting the show to one particular style and sound.
It was the show that helped turn her into a household name in Canada, and with that status it’s not easy to maintain a low personal profile. Rita admits that it’s important to her to keep things private. You have to protect yourself and keep what you need for you.
Although she has a home in her beloved Big Pond, Rita has built a house just outside of Sydney. This place is also home to the offices of Lupins Productions, her own company. The business is run entirely by her family. It does offer her some relief knowing this, and prompts me to ask if after achieving a certain level of success, is it hard to trust people and let people in. She concedes that in some ways, it is. Although she’s learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way, Rita states that while you have to be careful, there is also a danger of becoming too careful.
“If you have your guard up too much, then you’re not allowing some of the good things coming in that should. You don’t want to make others pay for things that have happened. It’s hard. I’d love to put a pretty ribbon on it but I can’t do that. It’s a tough business, and the best you can do is just keep going.”
There were times in the past, however, that she has had to get tough. Many may find that hard to imagine.
“It’s true,” she says thoughtfully. “There were times when I had to be hard. I’ve had to cut people out of my life. That doesn’t mean I didn’t spend the next week crying about it.”
So while there may be aspects of this business that she isn’t too thrilled about, Rita chooses instead to be optimistic and focus on the good, always taking the best and leaving the rest behind. The days behind her stretch like a rainbow of emotions and memories, but the future shines brightly ahead. She hopes to cover the US market, a territory that has until now remained unclaimed soil. With an upcoming tour planned, she gets to do two of the things she loves best: sing, and meet the people who come out to hear her sing.
She laughingly recalls a moment from the early days, while touring from the Born A Woman album. She was invited to perform with a thirteen piece orchestra in Ottawa and just before the show she was nowhere to be found.
“I took off,” she chuckles. “I was so scared, and they had to come and find me. I was hiding behind the outdoor shelter they had set up for the performers. And I’ll always remember, there was this Polish Dance Troupe who had heard me in rehearsal, and they were gathered around me… they were so wonderful. And they walked me part if the way to the stage, and I don’t even remember walking the rest of the way. I warbled through something, I don’t know how. Oh my, I’ll never forget that.”
Being able to laugh at things like that is what allows her to walk on stage now. There is a quiet confidence in Rita MacNeil. She is a woman who is ever critical of her work, always thinking she can do better. Not one to dwell on the past, she draws from it instead. When I ask her who was the first person in your life who ever told you you could do it, she replies without hesitation.
“I did. It was me.”