A CAPE BRETON CHRISTMAs WITH ASHLEY MacISAAC at the Palais Royale (1601 Lakeshore West), Saturday (December 8). $17. 416-870-8000.
with the recent reissue of the independently released A Cape Breton Christmas With Ashley MacIsaac CD and a Christmas concert scheduled for the Palais Royale on Saturday (December 8), flamboyant fiddler Ashley MacIsaac has set aside some time for a few interviews.What he likely imagined to be cordial chats concerning East Coast holiday rituals and the challenges of bringing new life to tired traditionals soon proceed to more difficult questions about why he has decided to re-release an eight-year-old recording when he's overdue for something new.
Not that a hastily cut and cheaply produced session could do any more damage to his reputation than his well-publicized dalliances, but you'd think that by now, he'd be eager to leave the past buried. As I soon discover, any discussion with MacIsaac, even if it's about old Christmas records, can turn controversial in an eye-blink.
"It's obviously not a $300,000 production," sighs MacIsaac between puffs in his Toronto condo. "And some elements could definitely be considered cheesy, but musically, I think it stands up. It's not a White Christmas, it's a Cape Breton Christmas, and hopefully people will enjoy this little mashed-together bit of Celtic and Christmas music.
"I've never been embarrassed about any music I've recorded. I get embarrassed watching some of the professional entertainers on Canadian television. They bore me. There are a lot of unintelligent, really small-minded views of the business of entertaining in this country."
Exactly who or what raises MacIsaac's ire can be difficult to pinpoint. The daring dabbler's outrageous exploits both onstage and off -- not the least of which being his widely publicized enthusiasm for watersports with young boys -- have made the events of MacIsaac's life in the spotlight a constant source of material for comedians across the country.
But since he has an appearance on The Mike Bullard Show slated for later this week, that seems like the logical place to start.
"I'm not doing it now," he snaps. "I got a call today from somebody at the show asking me if I'd be the explicitly rude guy for them. They said, "Do anything you want and say as many curse words as possible.' Isn't there something more interesting I could do -- like my music, maybe?
"In my current situation, I really need to sell tickets to my shows and sell CDs, so I had to think for a second, but it only took about a half-second. I told them I didn't want to do their show.
"I've just put out a Christmas album, I'm doing a Christmas concert, and yet what keeps coming up is that I've been an unnaturally inhumane person in a situation that happened two years ago. I don't see how that's relevant."
That incident was a controversial performance as part of a New Year's Eve 2000 rave in Halifax, during which MacIsaac stunned the crowd with a lengthy foul-mouthed rant. Despite his claim that the disgusting slurs were all part of the act, he hasn't been able to shake the racist label.
"The people putting on the rave shelled out $10,000 at the last minute for me to do the show. I let them know in advance that I was going to do something crazy onstage, like cutting up a dead rabbit. They thought that was a good idea.
"I wanted to be more rude, more intense, more hardcore than any show I'd ever seen performed. At the last minute, I decided I didn't need a rabbit, I could do something just as extreme with a microphone. Maybe people were expecting a nice night of traditional fiddle music, but what they got was a freak show.
"On the biggest night in the 2,000 years since Christ was born, when big things, crazy things were supposed to happen, if I didn't have artistic licence to do whatever I wanted, why should I even be an artist? I might as well be a computer programmer."
Freak show or not, racist remarks simply aren't acceptable in any context, as MacIsaac continues to be reminded. His shrinking audiences and dwindling record sales suggest that the incident from two years ago may still be having an impact.
"The way I see it, I came from Cape Breton at 18, and by the time I was 25 I'd made and spent millions and had a big party of a time doing it. Here I am, still making records, re-releasing old ones while enjoying all the pleasures of being an artist. I've been through a bankruptcy, but I'm doing OK."
Considering MacIsaac is just 26 years old, he has a lot of time to make amends, and his best work is probably yet to come.
For the moment, he's keeping all his options open. There have been rumours about signing a U.S. deal with Decca/Universal for that new record he's making, but he refuses to confirm or deny anything about it.
However, he would like to share his theory about why Canada's top entertainers move south.
"The whole reason they leave is not just because there's more money to be made in the US, but because being surrounded by more people means there's less chance of running into idiots."