Leahy: music from Ontario to the world

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Feb 22, 2009 / 2 comments

Ontario, in eastern Canada, is a musical melting pot when it comes to traditional music, taking influences from settlers from England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Hungary, and Germany, to name but a few, along with music from the First Peoples who lived in the area before all those folk came along. It’s also a musical crossroads within Canada, for the country sounds of the plains to the west, Quebecois nearby, and Cape Breton to the east. So it’s not a surprise that Leahy, a band of brothers and sisters from Lakefield, Ontario, would incorporate many sounds into their music, ranging from country to Irish to blues to Cape Breton. They’ve done that well enough to forge a take on music that has seen them recording top charting songs, winning three Juno awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy), being chosen by country star Shania Twain to open her shows, and also sharing the stage with Irish trad icons The Chieftains.

“Mom is from Cape Breton and plays piano and Dad is a fiddler of Irish descent. We grew up on a farm, without a television,” eldest brother Donnell says. “When there were social functions at our house, music was always the focal point, so music became something you really wanted to do, to be included” Out in rural Ontario, on a working beef cattle farm, they also found their own ways into learning about music. “The area we come from isn’t a musical area, it’s a sports focused area, so I grew up not hearing fiddlers that much and was able to develop my own style,” he says. Playing music was the family entertainment, and they also traveled as a family band while the kids were small.

As the brothers and sisters grew and started going off to school and marriage, the family band became inactive for a while, but for Donnell, his career was always music. When eight of the original eleven decided to start the band up again as adults “My being band leader wasn’t something that was decided, really, it just evolved,” he explains. That’s the way most of their writing of music, and lot of the arrangements , and the flow of the music among them on stage develop too. “One of us might bring in a song, or maybe just a line or part of a melody, and then we’ll start passing it around and all start working on it,” Erin explains of their writing process.

The current lineup includes Donnell, on fiddle, Maria, on guitar, Frank, who plays drums, Agnes and Erin, who handle keyboards, and Doug and Angus, who are also fiddlers. Most of of them sing and step dance as well. Though they are quite serious about their music, they know it includes laughter too. Sometimes they’ll be throwing in bits of business such as trading instruments or playing a fiddle behind one’s back, just for fun. All of the band members learned to fiddle when they were younger, so Donnell came up with an idea to get them all on fiddle together “What could you do if you broke your bow? How could you play? It’s happened to me. All you could do is pluck the strings. We tried that out one night, got a real groove going, and it was so much fun!” he says, laughing, “ and by that late in the show, the audience loved it and was having fun along with us.”.

High energy tunes, quiet original ballads, slow airs on the fiddle, and a blazing take on Orange Blossom Special are all likely to turn up in a Leahy concert. They more than held their own opening for superstar Twain at the height of her popularity a few years back, and it was she and her then husband, rock star producer Mutt Lange, who encouraged the Leahys along an additional musical path. “I asked him who he thought we should get to produce our next CD,” Donnell relates, “and he said, ‘you already know the best producer.’ And I said ‘who?’ ‘You,’ he told me. To have someone with his experience say that, that just gave us an extra nudge of confidence.” The brothers and sisters collaborate on producing much the way they do on the rest of the band essentials.

Another way the Leahys do that is through their music camps, which they’ve begun holding every summer in their beloved Ontario. “That's turned out to be so much fun too,” Donnell says. “Having the students ask about your playing and why you do what you do and talk about that, it really makes you think.” In addition to the family members, they often invite guest instructors along, including Donnell’s wife, top Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster

Leading a family band “is easy because I know how everybody thinks and we all share values that go without saying, but it’s tough, mixing business and family sometimes,” says Donnell. "It’s about bringing out the best in people, and finding ways to do that.” It seems a fair bet that Leahy the band will be bringing out the best in each other, and bringing really unique music to their audiences, for some time to come.

To get a good idea of what Leahy are like in a live show, you’ll want to see the dvd http://musicroad.blogspot.com/2008/05/now-playing-leahy-live-in-gatineau... Leahy: Live in Gatineau. You may also find out about the band’s recordings, tour schedule, and music camp at their website http://www.leahymusic.com LeahyMusic.com.

You may also want to take a look at
http://musicroad.blogspot.com/2008/07/now-playing-cape-breton-radio-live... Cape Breton Radio Live take 02

http://musicroad.blogspot.com/2008/06/now-playing-mcdades-bloom.html The McDades: Bloom

Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.
Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, and The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at http://www.musicroad.blogspot.com Music Road. You may reach her at [email protected].

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