Bridge To The Future: Teen Fiddler Mary Frances Bows Her Own Way On “Cheerio”

In the ongoing race to predict the next teen craze, give yourself 10 points if you had … Celtic/Latin/jazz fusion fiddle?

Hey, in a world where Lindsey Stirling has made the violin commercial again, anything can happen. And just one listen to First Light, the debut album from 18-year-old Ontario wunderkind Mary Frances Leahy, will convince you that she’s next in line. Its nine original instrumentals are ironclad proof that composer/multi-instrumentalist Leahy has carved out a wholly unique and captivating musical identity that rings as natural to the ear as it might look peculiar on paper.

The clarity and breadth of her vision are in full display on the album’s showcase singles. “Cheerio” has a traditional Celtic jauntiness that veers into another realm entirely when Rosendo “Chendy” León’s Latin percussion comes in; there’s even an all-rhythm interlude that’s guaranteed to inspire euphoric pandemonium on the dance floor. Meanwhile, the bittersweet “Silhouette LeBert” shows off a completely different yet utterly complementary side to Leahy’s repertoire. It’s a gorgeous and gentle waltz with an achingly romantic, “final dance of the evening” feel. You can just see the last couple to leave the supper club staring adoringly into each other’s eyes as the janitor leans on his broom and checks his watch.

Other tracks like the appropriately named “Celticumbia” effortlessly bridge the worlds of Celtic and Latin music, giving free rein to Leahy’s skills as not just a fiddler and composer, but also a pianist. Oh, and did we mention she’s a dancer, too?

It helps that music is literally in her DNA. The oldest of seven children born to Canadian Celtic-music legends Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, Mary Frances has been performing with them since age 5, playing an estimated 600 shows throughout Canada and the U.S. together. So it’s not entirely surprising that her emergence as a solo artist came via a little parental encouragement.

“When I hit 14 or 15, I started listening to and writing a lot of music,” she says. “I would sit at the piano and just play for an hour without stopping. It actually drove me nuts, because my mom would hide in the next room or at the top of the stairs with a recording device and tape everything I played. She always said ‘You have to do something with all of this!’”

It was the 2020 pandemic, she says, that gave her the time and opportunity:

“My parents purchased a recording studio, and all of a sudden I had a musical playground right down the hall from my bedroom! Recording an album seemed very natural given the circumstances, and so it began.”

To bring her brainchild to life, she enlisted Elmer Ferrer as co-producer and -arranger. He also played guitar and tres and did digital programming, joining a core ensemble that was rounded out by León on percussion and Mark Kelso on drums. Remi Arsenault plays bass on Cheerio and four other tracks and guitar on yet another. No slouch herself, Leahy says she relished the opportunity to work with top-shelf talents, who “always push you to be better than you thought you could be. Great musicians inspire the ear and direct your musicality in new ways.”

And now she’s directing herself to the concert stage as a solo act. Having already undertaken a couple dozen full shows of her own, she’s fully discovered the high of writing, playing and performing your own music. So of course she has an extensive touring schedule already mapped out for 2024. Appearances announced so far are as follows:

JUNE 21TH, 2024 PEI Festival of Small Halls
JUNE 22TH, 2024 PEI Festival of Small Halls
JUNE 23TH, 2024 PEI Festival of Small Halls
SAT. JUNE 29TH, 2024 Portsmouth, NH
SAT JULY 6TH, 2024 Mahone Bay, NS TBC
SUN. JULY 14TH, 2024 Summerside, PEI Harbourfront Theatre
FRI. JULY 19TH, 2024 Huntsville, ON Algonquin Theater
THURS JULY 18, 2024 Howe Island, ON
FRI. JULY 26TH, 2024 Souris, PEI
SAT. JULY 27TH, 2024 Summerside, PEI
SUN. JULY 28TH, 2024 Broadcove, NS Broadcove Scottish Concert
FRI. AUGUST 9TH, 2024 York, PS Susquehanna Folk Festival
AUGUST 15TH, 2024 Bayfield, WI Big Top Chautauqua
AUGUST 16 2024 Milwaukee, WI Henry Maier
THUR.SEPTEMBER 26, 2024 Truro, NS Nova Scotia Stampede
FRI OCTOBER 18, 2024 Ithaca, NY IMG Show Day – Venue TBC
THUR.OCTOBER 24TH-31ST, 2024 AMA Waterways European Cruise
SUN NOV 24TH, 2024 Calgary, AB Jubilee Auditorium
MON NOV 25TH, 2024 Regina, SK Casino Regina
WED NOV 27, 2024 Saskatoon, SK TCU Place
FRI NOV 29, 2024 Edmonton, AB Jubilee Auditorium
WED DECEMBER 4TH, 2024 Pictour, NS DeCoste Centre for Arts & Creativity
THUR.DECEMBER 5TH, 2024 Moncton, NB Casino New Brunswick
FRI-SAT DECEMBER 6-7, 2024 Halifax, NS Light House Arts Centre
SUN DEC 15, 2024 Burlington, ON Burlington Performing Arts Centre
MON-TUES DECEMBER 16-17, 2024 St. Catharines, ON Partridge Concert Hall
WED. DECEMBER 18TH, 2024 Markham, ON Flato Markham Theatre
THUR.DECEMBER 19TH, 2024 Kitchener, ON Centre in the Square
FRI.DECEMBER 20TH, 2024 Peterborough, ON Peterborough Memorial Centre
SUN. DECEMBER 22ND, 2024 Ottawa, ON Southam Hall
SATURDAY MARCH 1st, 2025 Waterville, Maine Waterville Opera House
SUNDAY MARCH 2nd, 2025 Waterville, Maine Waterville Opera House
THURSDAY MARCH 13th, 2025 Brownfield, Maine The Stone Mountain Arts Center
FRIDAY MARCH 14th, 2025 Keene, NH The Colonial Performing Arts Center
SATURDAY MARCH 15th, 2025 New London, CT Garde Arts Center
SUNDAY MARCH 16th, 2025 Beverly, MA The Cabot
TUESDAY MARCH 25th, 2025 Nanaimo, BC The Port Theatre
WEDNESDAY MARCH 26th, 2025 Victoria, BC Royal Theatre
FRIDAY MARCH 28th, 2025 Campbell River, BC The Tidemark Theatre
SATURDAY MARCH 29th, 2025 Port Alberni, BC Alberni District Secondary School
SUNDAY MARCH 30th, 2025 Duncan, BC Cowichan Performing Arts Centre
MONDAY MARCH 31st, 2025 Courtneay, BC Sid Williams Civic Theatre
FRIDAY APRIL 4th, 2025 Vernon, BC Vernon & District Performing Arts Centre
SATURDAY APRIL 5th, 2025 Vernon, BC Vernon & District Performing Arts Centre
MONDAY APRIL 7th, 2025 Trail, BC Charles Bailey Theatre
TUESDAY APRIL 8th, 2025 Cranbrook, BC Key City Theatre

Even before Leahy’s solo career had left the launching pad, her family experience had enabled her to rack up an impressive list of accomplishments—including a piano performance alongside the great Yo-Yo Ma on her parents’ latest release, CANVAS, which also features two of her own compositions (“Choo Choo” and “Colour Theory”). She’s performed on Little Big Shots with Steve Harvey, the Carmen Nebel TV show in Germany and the special A Celtic Family Christmas. The many performances she’s given in her mother’s homeland of Cape Breton Island led to Mary Frances’ coming out in top in a recent Cape Breton Tourism music contest; her winning entry ended up as the title track to her new album.

As a dancer specializing in the Ottawa Valley/Cape Breton styles, she was seen performing atop a white grand piano for a 2021 Canada Day special, and has also taught multiple workshops. And in the past year alone, she’s had the opportunity to perform with Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas, as well as arrange and record fiddle for the BBC’s musician of the Year, Tim Edey.

With her eyes set squarely on the future, she’s determined to further her development as a musician and performing artist. She spends an average of 7 hours per day practicing on her various instruments, not counting her private jazz piano lessons with the University of Toronto’s Adrean Farrugia. She’s also enrolled in a Latin-style piano course through the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, and is learning the fine arts of orchestration via private lessons from Becca Pellet at Humber College in Toronto.

Her main focus, though, is on the labor of love that is her new album, and the very real shot it represents at making her the next big thing among listeners who might be hearing a fiddle for the very first time—or at least as they’ve never heard one before.

“If I had to describe the album, I would say it’s a salad,” she muses. “It’s a mixture of many odd things which, put together, create something delicious.”