I had a childhood fascination with Ashley MacIsaac. His name, his rebellious attitude, crass exterior and general demeanour appealed to me when I was trapped in an institutionalized prison (some people call it grade school) that seemed dead set on destroying any modicum of creativity or outspokenness I had.
Ashley’s appeal wasn’t hard to quantify. Trumpeting his fiddle with overwhelming bravado and confidence, he held his Maritime flag high at a time when Maritime culture was at low tide. Post-Nirvana 90s bleakness served as the perfect backdrop to highlight his uniqueness. The media latched onto it immediately and one of Canada’s most notorious personalities was born.
The story of Ashley MacIsaac calls for a half-cup of musical genius, a dash of politicism, a pinch of homosexuality, a heaping tablespoon of ego, two parts self-destruction and one part redemption. Cook under medium heat, simmer until it boils over.
When I heard that Ashley was headlining Ottawa’s Westfest, a dinner bell went off in my head and I couldn’t help but wonder how the recipe turned out.
There’s always been an element of crypticism to his persona. Speaking with him, you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence of that. There is no pretense in his words -- no filter. Overt and obvious, the surface tension in his opinionated demeanor is palpable. Everything comes out as effortlessly as you’d imagine, but it’s anchored in a sense of struggle. Ashley’s suffering isn’t obvious at first, but as you peer further and further into the spaces between the lines, it’s unmistakable.
On TV, MacIsaac comes across as intimidating. There’s an element of barbarism to his look. A gruff, rigid jaw line, a thousand mile stare cemented in stoicism, dark glasses, gravelly voice and tribal tattoos. I was certain he wouldn’t go for my idea of playing a weeping violin ballad as I spouted out an absurd poem about my favourite fiddle player. There was no fucking way he’d play another ballad as I apologetically wept after recklessly shotgunning a beer in front of a guy who didn’t drink.
But he did.
For a moment during our interview, his coarse exterior softened. I saw the child-at-heart peer out of the window, if only for a brief moment, before the shutters slammed shut.
It reminded me of my father, when upon a slight of laughter I realized that, he was just a big kid. In that thought, my admiration became clear.
He’s just a big kid who wants to play the fiddle.
Written and Photographed by Steffi