The sisters performing at the Broad Cove Concert. Robbie Fraser is playing keyboard.
1. What’s your age?
Margie and I are in our latter 20s….two old cailleachs!
2. CB born and raised? Or recent transplant? (Plus whatever biographical details you feel like giving).
Cape Breton born, raised and rooted, all the way. We’re from South West Mabou. Our folks are still in the house we grew up in and we go home as often as we can to see how they’re doing, visit the relatives, head to the Red Shoe or West Mabou for a gig, and see how the village is doing! We miss it terribly and there’s no better place to be in the summer!
3. “What are you up to these days?” I.e. what do you do for a living, what are you working on, are you a student, in the workforce, writing songs, etc?
I (Dawn) work for Celtic Colours International Festival. I am the Assistant Artistic Director there. I started about 2 weeks before the 2009 festival and have been there ever since. I work with (and learn from) Joella Foulds on the programming of the entire 45-46 shows we feature each year. I am very fortunate to find employment here on the island doing something I feel is important and that gives me great work satisfaction.
Margie worked with Vibe Creative Group in Sydney and now works as Creative Design/Marketer for the Colaisde na Gaidhlig/Gaelic College in St. Ann’s. Margie and I both attended the Gaelic College in the early nineties as part of our varied instruction on fiddle, dance and Gaelic so we think fondly of the College and its place in our childhood.
4. What are your favourite Cape Breton eateries?
We grew up eating at The Mull right in Mabou. Excellent food, service and memories! You can’t beat Mary Lorette (Beaton), a local caterer in Mabou for her amazing meals at any community or wedding supper at home. Margie and I really enjoy eating at Flavor and Trio in Sydney. There are some fabulous restaurants all over the island. Great to support local!
5. What are your favourite things to do out of doors, on Cape Breton?
If you look at the very back picture on our CD, “Taste of Gaelic” you’ll notice a picture of the “track”, the old railway bed that runs up Inverness County. I grew up going for walks there in summer and winter. I would go swimming with my cousins just up the way from there in the meadow and have gone kayaking just up from that on the Mabou River, towards town. I also love biking and try to bike to work when I can…and when the weather cooperates! I’ve always tried to do that, whether it be in Mabou, Sydney or when I lived and worked in downtown Halifax.
There’s also the Sight Point trail down past the Mabou Coal Mines which is just breathtaking and a must-see for any nature enthusiast!
6. Favourite CB music venues, past and present?
Now there’s a question!! Again, I think our very first performance was dancing at the Mabou Ceilidh. In the late 80s when that happened, their main concert was on a stage alongside the Mabou Athletic Centre (i.e. the Rink) just down the Harbour road. Lots of memories of it pouring rain in early July and the applause for a performance was car horns honking!! You don’t see/hear that anymore!
St. Mary’s Parish and the Mabou Hall also put on concerts in May and October and we grew up performing in the Mabou Hall as a result. Quite a heritage of performances that have happened there and the gifted musicians that graced that stage over the last 40+ years. A real history!
Then Strathspey Place was born and there have been some great events there in its 11-year history to date. We love the West Mabou Hall, Glencoe Hall and relatives and friends’ kitchens for some other great “venues” to play and share tunes. And of course the Red Shoe Pub has always been good to us. We played the opening night of the Shoe way back in 1997 I believe…us then underage. But it was a momentous occasion as our aunt Mary Janet MacDonald had her debut instructional step dancing video release.
7. Tell us a bit about your creative process.
Funny you should ask! It’s varied. For the groups that Margie and I perform, that’s a process that has evolved over time. When we were little, Dad was always helpful in tune suggestions and both Mom and him were very supportive in letting us put together groups of tunes as we saw fit.
We had some unique inspiration. For ECMA 2009 in Cornerbrook, Nfld, we stayed in a beautiful, beautiful home but at that time, it was in the process of being sold (a network of house/resorts), it was about 20 min outside of Cornerbrook, and we were literally in the woods with little to no transportation into town.
So we missed meals, planned our trips into town for performances, etc. It meant we had lots of time in the mornings and afternoons to do work, work on tunes, etc. So a group that is up on youtube was born out of that very situation and it began some of the more choreographed groups that Margie and I do with our boys in the band.
When it comes to tune composition too, that’s a very personal project and it varies per tune but for the most part, it is through inspiration and in-the-moment ideas, moreso than a planned approach and sitting down with the purpose of creating a tune, that yields the better results.
If you look up any interviews with Dan R. MacDonald, John MacDougall or other local fiddlers of the area, they’ll say the same thing – that inspiration brought forward the tune into their head. I had one such instance and personally, I think I’ve burnt out my allotment for compositions as such! Here’s the story:
My cousin Brad MacIsaac was in a motorcycle accident in 1996 and succumbed to his injuries. He was only 19. It was a traumatic and sad time for our family. He was from Troy but the funeral parlor was in town, in Port Hawkesbury.
It was a long, slow drive to Troy with the number of cars making the journey. In that time, the first part of a slow air came to me. I think I wrote it out on a Kleenex box in the back seat of the car. I finished the first part just as we arrived at the church in Creignish and drove up the steep hill.
For years and years after, I couldn’t conceive of a second part for it and it bothered me. Nothing fit. By 2000, I had graduated from Mabou Consolidated and was on to my first year at St. FX so it was a welcome time to be home on Christmas break that first year.
A few days into it, one evening, I was playing the fiddle in the kitchen (probably my most favorite place to play in the world) and instantly I had a second part for Brad’s tune. Not sure what channel was open or what frequency I was connected to, but I was dialed in. It was about 8 pm that evening.
After that, the first part of another tune would come and I’d quickly write it down. Then within the half hour, without even playing the fiddle, the second part would jump into my head. This went on for hours. By about midnight, I had moved upstairs to go to bed, and the tunes just kept coming. I’d run downstairs in the dark, write the first part and think I was done, go back upstairs and lay down. And then within the half hour, I’d hear the second part whirling in my head and the light would go on and I’d run downstairs. Good exercise!
At this point, Mom, Dad and Margie were asleep so I’m sure they were wondering what all the racket was. I woke up the next morning and had probably another 3 or 4 tunes finished within the first half of the day. So all in all, maybe about 10-15 tunes. Now-a-days, I’m lucky if I write one a year. Maybe I was just relieved of the pressure of the first round of university exams, or maybe Brad helped me out, but it was a unique experience…one I’d love to have occur again.
8. Are you planning on sticking around in Cape Breton? Why, or why not?
That’s the plan! I’ve lived in Halifax for employment purposes and Antigonish for education. I loved both places and was content there. But even living in a city as close as Halifax, I felt I missed out on family events, friends’ weddings back here in Cape Breton….one time events that I can’t ever get back and that bothers me.
I also worry about our seniors here, and what’s in store for the next generation. Margie and I both like to stay rooted in what we know and where we’re from. We’ve felt very privileged to have grown up in the community of Mabou, and all of the people there and in Cape Breton, that have shaped our lives and our outlook on life. We need to pay homage to that and do our part for the area, and that’s something I think about every day.
I find when you’re away from an area, you lose touch with the every day ‘goings on’. Growing up it was important to show respect and attend wakes and funerals and not being present at home for such events, it does affect your awareness of who is still back home. So God willing there is enjoyable, profitable and continued work to allow us to stay in Cape Breton, we both will do our very best to return all that we can to the place we call home.
9. Finish this sentence: Cape Breton needs…
….continued support (in all its varied forms) from its citizens, from big and small business, from government and beyond.
10. Finish this sentence: Being from Cape Breton, to me/us, means…
At the Normaway Inn with THE Buddy MacMaster and Maybelle Chisholm McQueen on keyboard.
Check out more of Dawn and Margie on the following media platforms:
More “Dream Big Cape Breton” interviews with local young people can be found here.