Ashley MacIsaac Looking to Knock the Socks Off Children’s Fest

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“If they wanted Sharon, Lois and Bram they would have asked for them,” says fiddler Ashley MacIsaac who may have received a few raised eyebrows when it was announced that he’d be one of the featured performers at this year’s Ottawa Children’s Festival.

Truth be told, the often proclaimed bad boy of Celtic music has never much bought into the hype that once followed him and isn’t worried about how he’ll be received by a younger crowd not used to his usual high energy romps. When putting together this show he didn’t study kids performers, opt to work in a fiddle version of  “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or break out any singing puppets. It's going to be an Ashley MacIsaac concert.

“Frankly, I thought that the best thing I could do was go out and knock their socks off,” he says with a chuckle.

Kids, better pack a second pair of Lightning McQueen sneakers because your shoes just might fly off too! Despite some insinuating that MacIsaac has toned his act down a few notches since entering his 40s, the Nova Scotian assures that he doesn’t intend to hold anything back .

Though he admits his 40s snuck up on him quicker then he expected, MacIsaac tells Ottawa Life that he doesn’t really feel much different these days than he did in his 90s peak when he tearing up stages and inciting crowds into punk show style frenzies. These days he’s just happy to still be able to perform no matter what the age group.

When he first started out MacIsaac was not much older than some of those who will populate his Children’s Festival crowd. As a Cape Breton kid he says he grew up in an area where music was vital to the culture. His sister is a fiddler and three of his cousins, including Natalie MacMaster, also all rosined up their bows at a young age. However, even with so many influences around him, MacIsaac says that before he broke out into the mainstream musicians on the island still weren’t looking at music as a sustainable career with most holding other jobs while performing. As youngster he was well prepared for a more conventional career himself.

“I was prepared to be a lawyer or a doctor,” he says on his early plans after high school before a chance trip shifted him in another direction.

“Around the beginning of grade 12 I had the opportunity to go to New York and play in a show. When it came time for applying for university I thought I would give it a year and see if I could make a good living. In that first year I realized I could make as much money as other jobs so I followed through with it.”

MacIsaac doesn’t hide his intentions for getting into the business. He says he wanted to cut a record, make a million dollars and buy a house back home in Cape Breton and that’s just what he did. His 1995 breakout release Hi™ How Are You Today? netted the singer a JUNO and top 40 hit with “Sleepy Maggie”. Above all this, however, it allowed the musician to live comfortably in one of the most lucrative times for East Coast musicians. The Rankin Family having had a hit with “Fare Thee Well Love” five years before was the first foot in the door MacIsaac and bands like Great Big Sea would blast off the hinges in the post-Grunge era where more record companies were looking to cash in on selling Canadian talent to Canadians.

“All the stars aligned. It was a combination of both industry interest in us, the right music and, well, timing is everything.”

When “Sleepy Maggie” crossed over from the charts to dance floors and MacIsaac started getting more mainstream press he quickly laid the foundations for his financial wellbeing over the fame he knew might not always be around. Reaching the peak of any kind of celebrity wasn’t what he was after anyway, something he knew before signing into one of the best deals ever offered to a new artist in the Canadian music industry.

“You give the industry a lot of leeway early on because you don’t know what is happening. But you learn pretty quick that you either fall for that and you become a huge star and it’s fine or you don’t’ fall for it and you still become a huge star…or you end up in nowhere land. I wasn’t interested in either of those things. I wanted some control over my life.”

Falling out of the mainstream after reaping its rewards was all part of the plan for MacIsaac who states how he "never wanted to be the starving artist" living from gig to gig. Stability was always paramount and at 42 he says he’s never been more happier with where he is at. He can now be more selective with where he decides to perform. The Children’s Festival will be just a few more shows in a now 4,000 performance career but he’s learned over time that youngsters can sometimes be the best audience.

“I know kids like to be excited when it comes to music. They listen to it really close. When I’ve performed to them I see the ones who really get it are kids because they don’t have any preconceived notions when they step into the Ashley MacIsaac show.”

He does say he's keeping the crowd age in mind a little bit, though, and maybe will work in a few pauses between the tracks to let the wee ones catch their breath.

“Kids can get kinda’ hyper,” says MacIsaac.

If you’ve never been to one of his shows, take a look at some of his YouTube clips where he’s stomping about the stage as though his shoes were on fire and you’ll see those amped up kiddies will be in fine company.

Ashley MacIsaac performs six shows between May 10 and 14. Tickets are on sale now at