Native Cape Bretoner Ashley MacIsaac says he has found his own 'piece of heaven' in a rented house on Riverside Drive in Windsor, across from a lovely park on the banks of the scenic Detroit River. 'I'd advise anyone to try Windsor,' he says. 'It's definitely one of the prettiest places I've ever been. The lakes, the river, the parks along the water. The weather is incredible here. I don't know of any community in Canada that's overall any better to live in Canada.'

Heaven on the Detroit River: Why Windsor's waterfront, warm weather the perfect fit for fiddler Ashley MacIsaac

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The foot-stomping fiddler was dressed in baseball cap, dark glasses and jeans rather than his signature kilt, but the audience had no trouble recognizing Ashley MacIsaac when he stepped onto the stage at this year’s Shores of Erie Wine Festival in Amherstburg. MacIsaac had come to lend a hand to his friend, Windsor’s Pat Robitaille, and warm up the crowd with a performance of She’s A Rare One, in advance of the evening’s featured act, The Sam Roberts Band.  

While MacIsaac is more closely associated with the sea that surrounds his native Cape Breton, many of those in attendance were well aware he has lived the past three years on Ontario’s waterfront, in Windsor. With the Crossover album released over the summer — it’s the latest of eight — the ultra-high-energy musician spent some time chatting with about what brought him to Ontario’s Motor City on the water.  

“I’d advise anybody to try Windsor,” says MacIsaac. “It’s definitely one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen. The lakes, the river, the parks along the water. The weather is incredible here. I don’t know of any community in Canada that’s overall any better to live than Windsor.”  

MacIsaac had been living in Toronto, but decided in 2008 he was at a time in his life when a smaller community was in order. “It was time to get out of the city. I looked around at available houses to rent. I rented this place over the phone without even seeing it. It had a pool and was (across the street from) the water. Across the street from the Detroit River and a park.”  

While the scene is lovely, and MacIsaac enjoys watching the Great Lakes freighters slip gracefully past, it was a totally different experience for someone who had grown up near the sea on Cape Breton. “The water has a calming effect here, the visuals of it. This is a greeting card version of the water. You can’t compare it to living on the ocean. There, I was half a kilometre from the ocean and once, in a storm, water came right into the house.”  

Love affair with Windsor goes way back

The 36-year-old MacIsaac says he’d visited Windsor and its cross-border neighbour, Detroit, earlier in his life. “I came for a birthday party when I was 13, and I remember how beautiful the weather was. I was back at 16 to play a square dance, and again with a rock band at 19. At 25, I was here playing a traditional show at (Windsor’s) Chrysler Theatre.”  

Soon after arriving in Windsor to live, MacIsaac wrote enthusiastically on his blog: “I finally got out of Toronto. I spent 10 years there out the last 13. I have, since I was a kid, wanted to live in Windsor. It’s a place that CB (Cape Breton) fiddlers went for years and lived and worked.  

“When I was young I had tapes from performances in the ’50s of fiddlers in Windsor and Detroit, and I always looked at Windsor as a place the really good fiddlers went.  

“When I was 13 I played my first gig out of CB in Detroit and ever since imagined living here. I hope some day a young fiddler will find a tape of me from Windsor that was recorded 50 years earlier and it gives them the same spirit of discovery that I had with music when I was young.

“My place is so nice. I moved from under 600 square feet – with two people, I might add – and furniture, to a two-storey house with large master (bedroom) and treed front yard with a backyard where we now have a garden and beautiful hedges and bushes and trees. Not to mention a gorgeous in-ground pool with sparkling blue water! Oh, and an outdoor bar and bbq!!!!!!!! I have found a piece of heaven here. And get this: costs the same price as the one bedroom in Toronto!!!!!!!!!!!”  

He signed it: “Sincerely, no longer a Torontonian. Ashley.”  

As he spoke to, MacIsaac was just back from a tour of his native Nova Scotia. How did the folks there take to one of their own heading to Upper Canada to earn a living? MacIsaac laughs. It’s a natural thing for any Cape Bretoner to do, he replies. He says the feeling on the island is that there are seven stages to success. A key one is to move away to make lots of money. Another is to get bored and return home to retire.  

“You grow up in Cape Breton knowing you’re going to go somewhere else to work. At age three, I knew. I was planning to go away by age five, and in Grade 2, people came to the school to talk about where we could go to work. You go where the work is.  

“When I come back they welcome me. (They say), ‘the tourist is here today.’  

“I remember once at 17, I had a joint in my mouth and was looking out over the ocean back home. I thought, I can go away and work and this will still be here. I’ll come back. I would definitely go back if I make it to my 80s.”  

After returning from Nova Scotia, MacIsaac rested a few days at home before heading off on a cross-Ontario tour. Then he’s scheduled for a performance with the Victoria Symphony in December. In Windsor, he’s performed twice at the annual Carousel of Nations festival, and you might occasionally catch him as part of the entertainment at the local Scottish Club, along with other ex-Cape Bretoners. In September, he played at the wine festival with Robitaille.  

MacIsaac explains how he and Robitaille met up. “I was walking close to my home and he was mowing his lawn. I’d heard the music coming from his house before. I stopped to say hi and we became friends.”   He also performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, a performance he even kept secret from his mother, as per Olympic rules.  

MacIsaac’s albums demonstrate the broad range of music he is capable of pulling out of his fiddle. Crossover represents a return to the full-band sound he last produced nearly a decade ago. Starting off as a roots musician, MacIsaac turned Cape Breton tradition on its ear with his saucy incorporation of rap, thrash metal — characterized by an aggressive drumming style — and some unique hybrids along the trail.

Speaking of Crossover, he recently said: “It’s what I like. Rock and Celtic, some soft, some loud.” He said each song stands alone. “It’s a bit of everything, going from quiet fiddle tunes to big, loud songs, with transitions in it like I would program a live show.”  

The Crossover song he performed with Robitaille, She’s A Rare One, brings him back together with Kingston-born singing partner Mary Jane Lamond, who also performed Sleepy Maggie back in his earlier days. His latest album also features a few of his own vocals because, after all, MacIsaac sang Gaelic tunes as a boy.  

“I have a wide range of audiences. Fiddle is my interest. It can be traditional, square dance, or rock ’n roll fiddle.”  

MacIsaac involved in his adopted community

A while back, a Toronto reviewer noted MacIsaac’s current Windsor address and claimed he was “hiding out” in the city of 216,000, away from Toronto’s media glare. MacIsaac scoffs at such nonsense from the self-proclaimed centre of the universe. He says he’s not hiding from anyone, is well-known in Windsor and loves to sit out in a chair on his front lawn, watch the traffic pass and wave to friends.  

He says he’s been more involved in his current community than he ever was in Toronto, and points to a rally he had just attended to counter PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign against trapping fur-bearing animals. Wearing a muskrat fur jacket, MacIsaac sported signs reading: “Shame on PETA” and “Support Canada’ seal hunt.”  

MacIsaac says while he loves Windsor, he is after all a rolling stone, and says it's perhaps time to think about moving on once more. “I’m thinking of leaving. I had a good time and I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s a little too small and a little too big at the same time. It’s not my cabin in the woods and it’s not the excitement of the big city.  

“At the end of this year, it will be three years I’ve lived here. There’s a good chance we’ll move closer to my partner’s parents’ home (in Cobourg). Maybe next July. Maybe Oakville.”  

Wherever he goes, you can bet waterfront won’t be far away.  

MacIsaac made a brief foray into politics in 2006 when he announced he was running for the federal Liberal leadership, but pulled out three months later. Yet politics remains on the musician’s radar, and getting elected to the House of Commons is part of the “40-year life plan” he says he adopted at the age of 25.  

One reason he was drawn to Windsor, he says, was the prospects of contesting a seat for the House of Commons. That didn’t work out, so MacIsaac says maybe he’ll look at the Toronto area, where the bulk of Ontario’s new parliamentary seats will be added in time for the next election. More than likely, though, he says, he won’t run in the next election, but in the one after that – for the Liberals.  

'I move a lot because I get bored'

MacIsaac has moved seven times in the past decade. “I move a lot because I get bored. I wouldn’t specifically look for waterfront, but water is definitely a plus. If I came back here, I’d look at Amherstburg. I’d like the best of all worlds, but you can’t find that in any community.”  

MacIsaac has been performing for nearly 30 years, and estimates he’s done 4,000 shows. What does the future hold? “The next five years will be busy,” he says. “Musicals, a stage show. A couple of movies planned. Traditional music, probably another pop record. Whatever comes my way and makes sense. I’ll perform as long as I can.” — November 2011