There’s something touching about nine brothers and sisters liking each other enough to record a best-selling CD together — never mind incessantly touring in close quarters and still managing to get along.
Far from being just a latter-day Celtic Brady Bunch, however, the four brothers and five sisters that comprise Canada’s Leahy (it’s their last name, pronounced “Lay-hee”) have been acknowledged as serious musicians since childhood.
Brother Donnell, now 29 (the group ranges in age from 19 to 34), was an award-winning fiddle prodigy by the age of 16 and is still ranked among the world’s best. In fact, the whole Leahy family has been playing their intense brand of Celtic-by-way-of-Canada music at fairs and festivals for most of their lives. Music and rhythm simply run rampant in the Leahy genes: Their father, Frank, had his own band for 25 years, and their mother, Julie, was a champion stepdancer from Cape Breton.
Maria, number six in the lineup, plays guitar, piano, fiddle and mandolin — and also sings and dances. In fact, most of the Leahy siblings are multi-instrumentalists.
According to Maria, the startling breadth of the group’s individual talents is merely an outgrowth of family togetherness. “Having grown up together is understandably a bonus,” she says. “We know each other extremely well [and know] what we can and can’t do. There’s a level of respect that [stems from] having come from the same place, having the same expectations and living habits. We have the advantage of shared experience.”
A few years ago, forming a family band would not have been possible. As various siblings were lost to college and marriage (there are actually 11 Leahys in all), collective musical endeavors were necessarily set aside. But the pull of their first love could not be denied, and in 1997, they exhumed their dream to create the current nine-sibling-strong supergroup.
Even now, Maria admits that the brothers and sisters sometimes find it challenging to separate their personal and professional lives, but she claims that the more petty forms of sibling rivalry don’t exist among them. Considering what they almost lost, success now has a deeper value than it might otherwise have, she feels.
Today, Leahy’s image is one of sleek sophistication. One glance at the brothers and sisters pictured on the back of their self-titled debut CD (which rose to number-four on the Billboard World Music Chart) — the stylish black hair and clothes, the confident smiles, the casual-but-aggressive poses — offers proof that this clan of Irish-descended troubadours means to propel its creatively-ignited Celtic strains into the 21st century.
The first step in that direction was handed to them on a silver (or rather, platinum) platter when country-pop sensation (and fellow Canadian) Shania Twain chose them to open for her on her 1998 North American tour. Although one doesn’t immediately think of Celtic-music advocates and Twain enthusiasts as the same animal, Maria notes that Leahy’s high-energy act can bridge many a musical difference.
“Celtic music itself is very appealing, and we present it in a way that’s more progressive, so younger people can enjoy it and appreciate what it has to offer,” she explains. “The music is [old], but our presentation is new. What we play is conventional, but we play it unconventionally.” (She was once quoted as saying the group’s musical influences “range from French music groups to Def Leppard to James Taylor.”)
Traveling with Twain has obviously boosted the group’s popularity, but it seems unfair that such a spirited act has had to confine its tremendous energy within the limits of a half-hour opening performance (though Leahy consistently received standing ovations for those openers). For now, however, they’re just happy for that exposure. And although Leahy has already won two Juno awards (the Canadian Grammy) and starred in their own PBS special, Maria seems to view stirring up international crowds as the group’s biggest coup to date
“Generally speaking, there have been few differences between Canadian and American audiences. … [They've been] extremely enthusiastic everywhere,” she notes proudly.
Stepdancing is also integral to the Leahy act. But, as with their modern interpretations of old songs, they’ve definitely toed new boundaries around this traditional genre: “We’ve tried to use dance as a percussive instrument, as part of our sound, rather than [an accompaniment to the music],” Maria explains.
Maria points out that Leahy is now playing more original tunes in their live shows. On their CD, however, they stuck to those they had been playing since childhood — though they didn’t necessarily play them the same way. The dizzying fiddle work marking their CD version of the bluegrass standard “Alabama,” for example, turns even that traditional tune inside out and on its head.