Printed in The Toronto Star Sunday, November 2, 1997


The Leahy's are the hottest fiddle and step dance group in
Canada but still find the time to work on the family farm...


BY JAMIE KASTNER
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

From the Leahy farmhouse in Lakefield, fields stretch out in all directions: Across the road, into the horizon, behind the barn, down into a quilt of cultivated valley. A recent billowy late-summer day, eight black-clad Leahys dot the front lawn, like a flock of well-behaved magpies. Scattering outward from the porch, the siblings diligently stand, lean, crouch, kneel, fiddle-wield, for the photographer in front of them. It's the band/family's only home stop-over between west and east coast tours: Supposedly a day off, they're already on their second photo shoot, and evening takes them to Toronto to play a country radio station's barbecue. Although the fifth-generation Lakefield natives have been playing Celtic music and step-dancing together their whole lives (beyond, for that matter: Leahy family bands stretch back two generations) - being Number 1 on the charts is something new.
Nine of the 11 children of Frank and Julie Leahy comprise the current group, simply called Leahy: Agnes, Angus, Frank, Erin, Donnell, Doug, Maria, Siobheann, Julie. Ages range from 18 to 32, each plays a variety of instruments, fiddle ranking high among almost everybody's list, as well as either or both singing and step-dancing. (Of the two. remaining Leahy sisters, Christineis now the band's manager while Denise is raising a family - both still perform with the group on special occasions.)
Their self-titled instrumental debut album, was made independently in the summer of 1996, and sold steadily off the stage before being picked up by Virgin Records last year, when it began its steady chart-chmb. In late-July, it peaked at Number 1 on the Country Album charts in RPM, the Canadian music trade weekly, just as their video, The Call To Dance, hit the top spot on the Country Music Network's, top 5 chart. Touring, meanwhile, has been non-stop since last April: Coast to coast, festivals, colleges, fairs... Last spring there was the Folk Dream Gala at Massey Hall alongside such varied folk luminaries as Pete Seeger, Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Ani Difranco, and in September the musical-ancestral recognition of playing with Irish legends the Chieftans at Massey Hall. Their track Colm Quigley was featured in the festival film The Hanging Garden, and while the band heads over to Europe later this fall, another of their tracks will appear on the forthcoming U.S. compilation Celtic Moods, which also features Sinead O'Connor, The Pogues and Kate Bush.
Fluttering quietly from porch to the roadside stand, hand-painted sign: "Leahy's Farm Fresh Vegetables" (picking and selling its contents flmded more than a few Leahy university careers), a final few camera clicks, then inside, where, while some siblings flock to various corners of the red-and-yellow brick farmhouse, a core of half-a-dozen pale-skinned, high-cheekboned, dark hair-and-eyed Leahys cluster into living room couch and chairs for an interview.
The respectful, laugh-filled pattern of the six-way conversation offers a glimpse at how nine related, artistic people co-exist. The first to speak is Donnell, the prodigious fiddler, who emerges as the group's central figure in music and image. "We grew up with bedrooms and one main bathroom."
"And no television," say Agnes and Maria.
"And no television," Donnell says. "So we'd wake up in the morning, we'd work together, we'd need each other - you have to work together on the farm - we played music together. "
Angus: "And sports."
Donnell: "We played sports together. We were kind of isolated - growing up here we couldn't drive, so this was our life - on this farm. We couldn't get to Peterborough, we couldn't get anywhere, so we were our own friends. And there are so many of us, when you do get in a little tiff with one, you can ignore the one, you have another one."
Maria: "And Mom and Dad, the examples they set, the models they were, definitely gave, us something to fashion ourselves after."
In fact, the children all began in the Leahy band run by their fiddle-playing father and step-dancing mother.
"Mom and Dad had a band, always," Donnell says. "And ever since we were old enough to hold instruments, we were playing. They always encouraged us, they'd always bring us on as special guests, wherever they played. Everyone started playing when they were 3, 4, 5 - so we've played together forever. "
"We went from guesting with Mom and Dad, doing a few church concerts, a few fairs, 'til it just progressed to the point we were playing as The Leahy Family, all summer long."
Playing locally, winning fiddle and step-dancing competitions, and in 1982 was the subject of a documentary that went on to win Oscar in 1982, for best foreign student film, The Leahys: Music Most Of All. Amid the film's footage of the rosy faced fiddle and dance prodigies in matching white outfits, Frank Leahy Sr. explains how his children joined his band as he had joined his father's band before.
"The little ones came along, and more little ones kept coming along, and finally they played so much that I just said to myself, 'Look - what am I doing here? I've played enough, I'll let them do the playing, and sometimes maybe, they'll let me play."
Donnel, Erin, Frank, Maria, Agnes, Siobhean, Angus, and Frank
As Frank Sr. focused on running the cattle farm, as he still does, his kids kept playing. "We were all here," says Donnell, "living in this house: load up the van, take off, drive two, three, four hours, show, home that night .Farm the day, take off again ... back to this house."
Playing, farming, living and touring together, the pace grew increasingly hectic, tours national and international, until The Leahy Family decided to take a musical hiatus in 1990.
"We had been in Germany for six months," says Agnes, land we were playing every day, and so everybody came back to Canada, and was just totally whacked out, really tired. So we took a break, and people started going to university, people got married life - circumstances slowed us down musically."
University-age boys studied agriculture and humanities at Guelph; the girls scattered to Toronto, Halifax studying everything from math to aesthetics; Agnes and Siobheann also getting married.
In the documentary, Frank Leahy says: "If you have a love of music, that's it - the future will look after itself. Because they won't be able to live without it, it'll become part of their life - they'll want it most of all." His prophesy began coming true again in 1995. "It was about two years ago that we started back up again, because we wanted to," says Agnes. "Everybody had this passion, this drive to do it. Thought we'd give it a go, see what happened - and things happened quickly."
"This was started up again by Donnell and Erin playing in bars in Toronto and Ottawa, so really it was the two. Then eventually three and then four and then five - and so, certainly inspired by some good friends of the family, Donnell took it upon himself and Erin to start this thing up again, and ever since then more have just been able to make it."
Starting again, the group shortened their name to just Leahy, and Donnell was generally accepted as the leader.
Angus: "He's the toughest."
Agnes: "It's also...."
Donnell: "Not to dominate here, but what reinforced that a little bit, was that I, during this whole time, wasn't working outside of this business. I was the first one doing it full-time. Now, since then, they've all changed their careers to music."
From The Leahy Family to Leahy; from rural fiddle contests to bars in Toronto and Ottawa - it was time to hit the studio.
We wanted more bookings, and club owners would say, 'Send us CD and promotional package' - well we didn't have a CD," says Donnell.
"Also," adds Agnes, "most of the people in the audience wanted one."
"We wanted the CD to reflect what we were doing at the time on stage," continues Donnell, "which is hard to do because our live show is so visual and energetic."
"My picture is on the front, because it's an instrumental CD, the fiddle is the solo instrument on every cut, we wanted the cover to reflect what was going on: It is fiddle music, but it's not your normal fiddle music, it's energetic, it's not folky ... And on the back there's a picture of the whole band."
"It was suggested to us to put vocals on the CD, do this and that, make the album cuts shorter to fit the format of radio - but we were after honesty: 'You know what you're buying, hope you enjoy it.'
A month after the album's completion, Virgin records took an interest in the band - by Christmas they were signed to the label.
"They released it March 11, to radio and record stores," Donnell says. "And still it was like: 'What can we do with this, it's instrumental, radio won't pick it up....' All of a sudden radio picked it up. Somewhere along the line someone suggested 'Should we do a video?' 'I don't know....' Did a video, went to Number 1. "This is new to us - and to a lot of other people as well."
Maria: "People's perception of us has changed, because of the video, because of media, we feel the same, but people are reacting differently."
Erin: "Like someone phoning you out of the blue from elementary school, just their, tone of voice, the types of things they say. . . ."
Donnell: "Our video'll come on, Shania Twain before us, Phill Collins after us, whatever, and it's an association."
Agnes: "You're seen on television a star."
Donnell: "Yeah, they'll say, 'You re on television, but you're just Donnell still'- they're confused a little bit." And what of their father's prediction of sometimes being invited back to play?
Donnell: "They get embarrassed into it when I announce their name from stage 'Mom and Dad come up and play."
Agnes: "It happens about two times a year. I think they're very proud of us and what we've done, but I think they don't quite understand, because they don't travel with us, the level, possibly, that it's at - but naturally, they're very happy with what we've done."
Stars or not, they'll always be the Leahy kids to someone ... "When we play at shows that Mom and Dad come to," Donnell says, "they always have, which is fine, so much advice for us after the show: 'Donnell, Donnell - don't tune your fiddle when you're on stage,' y'know maybe she's right - and, 'Don't your back to the audience. . . But so much of what we do is just. . ."
Agnes: "What's natural."
Donnell: 'What's natural: Whether it's the back or the front, we just go with it. And a big part of that is what makes the audience comfortable - people tell me they feel it's like a party rather than a staged performance.
"But Mom: 'Don't be wiping the sweat off your head with your T-shirt, that looks bad ...... But Mom, my eyes are burning, I can't see. . . .'
"One time we were doing a show in Toronto for the Special Olympics, and I was ready to go and Dad said, 'Donnell, I need help putting a couple of cows in.' I said, 'Dad, I'm late, I've got to go.'
'Oh that's all right, when I played, I farmed and I played music, you can do both you know.'
'Well Dad, I'm kinda late, it's a big show.'
'They can wait, make'em wait.' "
Donnell is called out of the room - Paddy Moloney of the Chieftans is on the phone.
Donnell: "Excuse me."
Agnes: "He ended up just having to go to Toronto, he didn't have time."