Sisters Cassie and Maggie MacDonald, the musical duo based in Halifax with Antigonish roots, have accomplished much, already, in their relatively young career.
With two well-received and award-winning CDs already released (Fresh Heirs and Sterling Road), and performances all across the world including at some of the biggest folk and traditional music festivals on the map, the sisters are now working on their third CD and preparing for a spring/summer/fall touring schedule that includes shows in Germany, Austria and Italy as well as from one coast of the U.S. to the other.
In the midst of their U.S. dates, which include teaching opportunities on top of performances, the duo, with their Celtic-roots brand of music, will travel home to be part of the Stanfest line-up this summer.
“The major thing is finishing up our third album, we’re hoping to have that in-hand by the time we leave in May,” Cassie said in conversation with the Casket Feb. 29.
“Once we take off in May we’re kind of gone until November.”
Cassie said while they hope to have copies of the CD available while they tour, they probably wouldn’t arrange a major release/launch show for the CD until the fall, when they’re settled back in Nova Scotia.
“Projects always take longer than you anticipate,” she said. “We were hoping to do a little tour and release it in April but that just will not happen, so we’re going to have to wait until the fall when we come home to really do a big release here.
“In a way that’s kind of good, we’ll have the whole summer to work the material and have a solid handle on it. Then when we come home in the fall, we can do a little hometown CD release.”
Working with Cassie and Maggie on their third CD is well-known Pictou County singer-songwriter Dave Gunning.
Cassie noted they share the same American booking agent as Gunning which has led to sharing stages at various shows as well as traveling together on occasion, and that’s where the relationship developed.
“So we’ve come to know him that way – through traveling together and behind-the-scenes at festivals,” she said. “I think that’s where you get to know people really well … [for example] we took a road trip together down to Massachusetts one summer.
“And Dave is such an incredible resource, just with the arrangements and everything like that. He has played bass and guitar and sang in harmony [on the CD] so it’s basically a Cassie, Maggie and Dave record … we’ll have to make a band after this,” Cassie added with a chuckle.
Maggie noted it was important as well that Gunning is an accomplished singer because there is a lot more singing on this CD than their previous two releases.
“We were really interested in working with someone who had a Celtic background but also had a lot of experience with songs … on this record there is a lot more singing than on our previous two,” Maggie said.
“So we wanted someone with that experience but still had the Celtic background; it’s the perfect marriage where he understands the Celtic world and still has a lot of songwriting, song-production experience.”
Still with the more vocal component on the CD, of which Maggie will be providing, she talked about the reasoning.
“We found with our last record the most popular tracks were the singing tracks,” Maggie said. “So we have expanded on that for this record and we’re excited to see how people receive it.”
The duo also talked about the theme running through the CD.
“For this particular record the theme is the willow tree, so Maggie did a lot of really intense research on old traditional songs that celebrate the theme of the willow tree,” Cassie said. “It’s really popular through all different genres of folk music, Appalachian and Celtic.”
“I loved doing the research … the looking back in time,” Maggie added.
Not having any luck finding a Gaelic song connected with their theme, the sisters contacted Lewis MacKinnon, the well-known Antigonish County writer and musician and executive director of Gaelic Affairs with the province.
“We asked Lewis if he would be interested in, if we gave him a melody, writing some [Gaelic] lyrics to it, which he did, which is really exciting,” Cassie said.
Maggie said the track ended up having a pop song feel to it.
“It’s different from the rest of the record which is kind of folky,” she said.
As for their upcoming, busy schedule, Cassie highlighted a few stops including the Ocrafolk Festival in North Carolina in early June, Old Songs Festival in upstate New York at the end of June, the Common Ground on the Hill Music Festival in Maryland, a California tour at the beginning of July, the Grand Canyon Celtic Arts Academy in mid-July and the Summerfolk Music Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario in August. Their trip across the ocean for European dates is in the fall.
In talking about the academy stop, the second teaching opportunity on their schedule, Cassie said she loves working with children.
“They’re just sponges,” she said.
“Adults have a hard time with that because they want to be prefect right away, they want the notes and to know exactly what is happening, whereas kids just jump in and they get so excited about stuff … it’s awesome.”
Maggie noted those stops also provide great networking, and learning, opportunities.
“It’s always a great experience to be in a place for a week with other musicians,” she said. “Where everyone is sort of settled into a routine and after you teach, you get a chance to learn from all the other teachers.”
For more on Cassie and Maggie, check out their website at cassieandmaggie.com.