Ashley MacIsaac is a traditionalist, an experimentalist and a prodigy. A rebel, a headliner and an icon. He is eccentric, controversial, praised and cursed. His name has been put up in lights and dragged through the mud. From his home in Toronto, the infamous fiddler discussed rumours, yellow press and his controversial past.
How does it feel being labelled as a highly controversial figure?
I thought Canada was at a stage where it was going to be instantaneous to write about someone being open with the sexual orientation and drug use. As soon as I had seen the first “controversial” press story labelling me as that, I thought, “Ok, if that’s the angle, then I’ll play it that route.”
Do you consider yourself to be a rebel?
No I’m far from it. I’ve focussed on music for nearly 20 years. I gage my personality as an entertainer and as an employed musician. I’m not much of a rebel; I’m just a working musician.
Were you prepared for the world of media, the ups and downs and all that comes with the territory?
It was my choice to venture out into other industry elements and start being involved with record companies, managers, agents, lawyers and accountants. It’s a whole other world of things. It’s not the easiest thing. When you’re hot, you’re hot and when you make big money, you make big money, but that’s not always the case. This is something I knew going into it.
Is there a difference between good press and bad press? Either way you’re making headlines.
Bad press would be when you’re mislabelled and that causes people to find reason to not hire you. Having a career is about longevity. I have had a few where I subsequently sued newspapers or media organizations for things that were said that I felt were defamatory. Those kinds of things can be hard to deal with. Otherwise entertainment press is about sensationalism and getting the most outrageous story. I don’t have a problem with that type. I’ve let things go on for a certain amount of time when I felt that maybe that was the best recourse, to let them dissipate, but eventually I’ve had to deal with them in a more legal manner.
Is it frustrating when the press focuses on your private life rather than your music?
No, I could say that’s part of how entertainment is marketed and sold. The only couple of times that it was blown out of proportion in my perspective were when things were taken out of context or used to state things in a way I hadn’t intended. But otherwise I’m a lover of scandalous extraordinary yellow press. I’ve done close to 4,000 shows in my life and I’ve had two or three shows that the press had made a big stink about. They tend to carry a life on but that’s the nature of the beast.
Was there a moment that you did care about what was said? Has anything hurt you?
There were a few times that I was labelled a racist and called names in certain gay press. I was labelled words that I don’t tend to want to use based on the age of some of my partners in the past, when I was actually really young myself. But I have to sort of take it all with a grain of salt.
Not taken with a grain of salt was your unforgettable and controversial moment on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1997. A kick step lifted your kilt! Was it really an accident like it was written off to be?
No there was no accident involved in it. I was wearing a kilt and I’ve worn a kilt many times. The fact is there was a camera angle that showed what was under my kilt. Conan thought it was funny and I thought it was funny. We rehearsed it in the afternoon and the director thought it was funny and the way they played it afterwards was played as funny. The press followed up on it saying that it was a bad thing, but it was never intended to be that. They could have just cut it or re-taped it, taking five minutes to redo it, but they were quite happy with it and I was too. For how many years has the question been asked, “What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt?”
You exposed yourself in your autobiography called Fiddling with Disaster: Clearing the Past. Did it clear the past? Was it a relief?
Slightly but more than anything I had the opportunity to write an autobiography at a very young age with a ghost writer. The book was published without my final edit approval. There were certain things that were misquoted, miswritten and used in words that I wouldn’t use. It came off a lot harsher than I would have said. Dates had been changed and I had to fight in court afterwards over certain things that were said that led to other problems.
The main enjoyment of it was getting a story out about being a young musician coming into the world of media, press and bigotry and trying my best to wade my way through waters. Hopefully other people can take something beneficial from it. That was the main reason why I wanted to write it.
You seem to be open and honest when a lot of artists may clam up concerning certain subjects.
I was brought up that way and as much as I say that an honest to goodness good lie is as honest as you’re going to get sometimes, that’s the thing with press. You have to give them what they want. You’re answering questions that are often prepared and you have to make it easy for someone to write a story.
Honesty can be your best friend and lying can sometimes get you out of problems. Depending on how personal the question is, sometimes it makes much more sense to lie.
How do you feel about liars?
You’d better be a really good liar if you’re going to lie. Don’t waste your time lying to me or about me unless it’s a really good one.
Is it important to stay true to yourself and your heritage? Your music is experimental and crosses over into different genres, still you manage to stay a traditionalist.
I don’t veer too far from the traditional sensibilities. My upbring and my background of music is Cape Breton and being a product of the 80s. These two things mashed together are what my band is like be it making a traditional record, a traditional performance, or a solo violin performance.
But there’s a whole other side of the market, music and albums that I’ve heard or like that will take precedence a lot when I’m making a record.
You got married earlier this year. Will that change your writing?
I haven’t spent a lot of time putting songs out there; I play a lot of tunes. The one record where I wrote the whole album of songs is Pride. That was based on relationships and song writing ability but had a lot to do with relationships of the past. Broken up relations tend to allow for creative ways to be a wordsmith.
Happy relationships? I don’t know. But I haven’t really tried. In the courting phase of Andrew and myself being together I definitely wrote some lyrics. A marriage is sort of the emotional orgasm of courting.
Is it’s easier to be openly gay in the public eye now than it was a few years ago?
It’s nothing to boast about, but I wouldn’t sit back and have anybody tell me that I haven’t been a battering ram for a lot journalists.
Over the last twelve years I’ve seen countless stories everything from when I got married to Andrew to ten years ago about the age of my boyfriend when I was only 19 years old. There was only three years difference in our age.
After I got married Andrew and I have seen hundreds of stories and blogs that were calling it disgusting, shameful, vile and every possible nasty dirty thing. That type of negative scandalous press allows it to be less sensational for someone else.
Is it easier to be gay in the press? I think it’s a little easier now and it should be.
If they’re talking about you, they’re leaving someone else alone. With somebody taking the battering it is a lot easier for other people.
There was Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, then there’s Ashley MacIsaac.