Growing up in Baddeck, Rosie MacKenzie saw countless sailboats glide past on Bras d'Or Lake, but little did she know the role that boats would play in her musical future.
This week, the fiddler and singer returns to Nova Scotia from her part-time home in Dingle, Ireland, to launch her new album Atlantic, a collection of instrumental and vocal songs that were mostly written at sea while on a sabbatical from performing and recording.
Joined by Irish guitarist Matt Griffin, MacKenzie performs a CD release show at the Old Triangle on Thursday at 7 p.m., before heading to Cape Breton for an appearance on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Bras d'Or Yacht Club in Baddeck.
On Tuesday, the pair takes part in the 20th anniversary of Celtic Colours International Festival as part of the Cow Bay Ceilidh at the Port Morien Community Centre, with Tim Edey & Brendan Power, Manx group Mec Lir and island balladeer Donnie Campbell. They also hope to perform at the event's famous after-hours Festival Club at the Gaelic College in St. Anns, before Griffin has to catch a plane back to Ireland and MacKenzie prepares for a November Canada-U.S. tour with Irish-Canadian singer John McDermott.
MacKenzie and Griffin first teamed up on the fiddler's solo debut The MacKenzie Project, recorded in Ireland in the years following her departure from Cape Breton Celtic quartet the Cottars. But instead of the traditional route of releasing an album and then hitting the road, she went to sea instead, taking a break from music to sign on for cross-Atlantic voyages as a crew member on a pair of privately owned sailing vessels.
The job wasn't musical in nature, but in a way it still paved the way for the next phase of her musical career.
"I was much more prepared in a lot of ways (for Atlantic) and I gave myself a lot of time in between," says MacKenzie over the phone during a short layover at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. "I just decided to do something completely different from music after all those years and so I landed on a sailboat in Finland.
"I spent over two years at sea, and I didn't do a whole lot of playing at the time, but the sea turned out to be a very creative place. On a good day, you have lots of time on your hands when you're crossing the ocean, so I would record bits of songs along the way. I think I had 400 recordings I'd made at sea, and I'd try to finish most of the ideas and then decide if I liked them or not."
Life at sea consisted of days of hard work, as both a chef in the galley and a steward, and generally being on call around the clock. And then there were those days where she found herself in stormy 12-metre waves in an 24-metre boat.
"Then it's perfectly calm a few hours later, and you're just thinking, 'What the hell was THAT?'," recalls MacKenzie, who learned a lot from the experience, including how much music was a part of her life.
"It was a very demanding job, and basically it made me realize that music is the best job in the world, as great as it might sound to be off sailing. It feels good to be back doing what I love to do, and it's very fulfilling now that I've chosen to play music again.
"But I do think it was the time between records that really shaped my music, and I feel very fortunate to have gone on these amazing adventures. They also pushed me personally, and that's important to be open to those kinds of things, as an artist who wants people to feel like they know me when they hear me perform. These experiences kind of cracked me open; I felt very vulnerable at sea, and that's an interesting place mentally when you're creating music."
After coming ashore for good, MacKenzie spent most of last January going through all of her iPhone demos, rediscovering new things in recordings she'd made two years before. Then she flew to Dingle in February to reunite with guitarists Griffin and Donogh Hennessy — who both played on The MacKenzie Project — for a week of pre-production before heading into the studio with additional musical friends, like singers Pauline Scanlon and Riona O'Madagain.
"It just really came together, it was a really magical time. Then we recorded most of it in a week, and I ended up staying in Dingle, and we added a few little bits here and there," recalls MacKenzie, who considers the southwest corner of Ireland a second home where a traditional musician can play to their heart's content.
"It's a really amazing town, it's been incredibly inspiring to me. It's full of amazing musicians, and you can play every other night of the week with someone who really inspires you. It's been a good place for me."
Being among so many musicians on the Auld Sod, you might expect that some Irish influence has crept in around the edges of MacKenzie's singing and playing, but listening to Atlantic, you can't deny it still has that strong core of Cape Breton/Scottish roots, combined with other sounds and ideas that she's absorbed in her ongoing journey.
"I don't think my style comes from a lot of pre-meditated thought," she says. "Cape Breton is where I was born, and I couldn't be more proud of being from there and raised in such an amazing, original style of music. It's so respected all over.
"But over the years I've been inspired by so many different things, whether it's my adventures or people I've met or musicians I've heard and played with. I feel pretty open musically to let all that blend into my own style, and the record is all newly composed music, so there's a freedom where it can be anything I want it to be."
After MacKenzie's adventures this week in Halifax, Baddeck and Port Morien, look for her to appear back on the road in November playing with Irish-Canadian singer John McDermott, on an extensive Maritime tour that starts on Nov. 1 at Th'YARC in Yarmouth. Subsequent dates include Liverpool's Astor Theatre on Nov. 2, Mabou's Strathspey Place on Nov. 3, the Highland Arts Centre in Sydney on Nov. 4, Pictou's deCoste Centre on Nov. 5, and the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax on Nov. 7, along with dates in New Brunswick and P.E.I.