Steve McDonald is someone whom we have long sought after for a "Featured Artist of the Month" focus at the Celtic Cafe, ever since a couple of our chat community regulars, Peter and Lisa, starting raving about "Sons of Somerled." Slowly but surely, more of us became exposed to the music and we all then joined in telling others about how terrific Steve McDonald is. Finally we were able to track him down, resulting in a special interview conducted by Peter and Lisa, our Dutch friends responsible for the joy we get when we hear this astoundingly-gifted musician's CDs.
His current release is "Highland Farewell," the last in a trilogy of sorts, starting with the aforementioned classic, "Sons of Somerled." That led to "Stone of Destiny," and in between was a departure of sorts, "Spinfield," released on the "Hearts of Space" label. (His first recording was included on the Hearts of Space Celtic Twilight CD.) The Hearts of Space music I would put into more of a "New Age" music category, while his work for Etherean Music is crying out for a Highland Dance touring show featuring the trilogy! We all know of the success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance as far as Irish dance is concerned, but there has been no major show featuring Highland Dance, with the possible exception of the two limited runs in Toronto of "The Needfire." If there were a way to put together a Highland Dance show with Steve McDonald's compositions included, I daresay that the major Irish dance shows would have quite a rival! Listen to the trilogy about Scotland and tell me that you wouldn't LOVE to see a stage production using this incredibly rich, powerful and moving music!
Highland Farewell is the story of the Great Clearances of Scotland as seen through the eyes of Steve McDonald... himself a grandchild of Scotland born in New Zealand, many generations after "the clearances." For many, born as a result of those dramatic times, the Highland Farewell will be a striking revelation into who you are, why you are, and where you are.
Beginning in the early 1700s, not long after the battle of Culloden, and finally ceasing in the late 1800s, "The clearances" saw the demise of the Highland Clans. English landlords replaced the people of the land, known as "Crofters," with Cheviot sheep which returned a higher income. Those not killed at the hands of English forces fled to places like Glasgow and London. Others were herded onto boats and sent to unknown lands, separated from family and loved ones. "The clearances" saw Scots travel to places such as Canada, where they created communities in Nova Scotia, various parts of the United States, and onward to Australia, and New Zealand.
"The offshore Scots" had become a scattering of proud people, deprived of their heritage, and exiled from their homeland by their own people. Many parts of Scotland, to this day, still feel the effects of "the clearances," the population of certain areas having never recovered. Although unknowingly, many people in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are direct descendants of these people.
Interview with Steve McDonald
by Peter Korf and Lisa Veldkamp.
Q: Can you tell us something about yourself?
A: I was born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand where from the age of 5 I have been learning and playing music -- I had a classical piano upbringing but very quickly got into pop/ rock music. In my first two bands I played drums, but once I started writing my own music I reverted back to keyboards. I was one of (if not the) first people in New Zealand to own a synthesizer (showing my age here!), writing and performing many styles of music.
Q: When did you start writing?
A: About 1966 - 1967. At the time I was still playing drums but more and more leaning my way back to keyboards as my compositions became more musically demanding.
Q: How and when did you discover being a member of Clan McDonald and what does that mean to you?
A: It wasn't until 1992 that I became interested in my ancestry when a friend sent me a scroll containing a brief history of the name McDonald and where it came from, etc. I was so taken by the powerful history of the whole clan system I decided to put the history to music and so wrote "Sons of Somerled." Clan McDonald have been very receptive to my music and sent me a mountain of information which has enabled me to compile a trilogy of albums about the amazing history of Scotland. Being a McDonald, I feel I am a part of the history and therefore it has been very important to portray the story of Scotland as accurately as possible.
Q: Knowing your music on the "Spinfield" CD, being instrumental synthesizer music which I like very much, what made you switch over to Celtic songs and why?
A: The Spinfield albums are another side to my music and I hope to continue to produce albums in that genre, but after I discovered my Scottish roots I became very focused on my Celtic Connection.
Q: How did you experience your trip back to Scotland?
A: That was somewhat of a revelation to me. "South Pacific Scot."
Q: We find the album "Sons of Somerled" a great translation of the story behind the McDonalds, are there any songs on which you would like to tell us more, to understand better, and if yes, which ones?
A: To me the songs that epitomize my true sentiments are Per Mare Per Terras which was the first song I wrote for the album, because it conveys the standpoint from which I approached the project and that is, as a "grandchild" of Scotland. "Sons of Somerled" was special to me because of the story of Somerled which is typical of the great stories that have come out of Scotland. All the songs have a story behind them and I have tried to relay those stories as accurately as possible.
Q: What songs do you like most?
A: My favorites are "Come to the Isles of Skye", "Per Mare Per Terras" and "Live on my Warrior Son"
Q: Can you tell us how the Clan McDonald felt about you writing about the McDonalds?
A: The Clan centre helped me greatly to keep the whole project on the tracks and certainly saved me a lot of time with all the research required. I'm very greatful to Rob McDonald Parker who was then the International Director for the Clan, for all his help in the early stages of research.
Q: We also got "Stone of Destiny" a while later, can you tell us something about the story that inspired you for writing this follow-up CD, as they call it?
A: During my research I came across the story of the Stone of Destiny and was fascinated with its turbulent history. Strangely enough, it was just before the release of that album that the English returned the Stone to Scotland which historically was a significant event in the Scottish history as every monarch since the Tenth Century had been coordinated on the Stone. It was taken from the Scots by Edward the First of England (the first battle featured in the film Braveheart) so its return was rather special. The Stone is believed to have special powers that have been revered for centuries.
Q: Now we know that there will be a new album, "Highland Farewell," is this also a follow-up on the former two albums?
A: "Highland Farewell" is in a way the final chapter for my research, so I look at the three albums as a trilogy.
Q: Can you already tell us something about this CD, and what it's about?
A: It is about the highland "clearances" which saw the demise of the highland clans. The wealthy landlords evicted the tenants of the land by the thousands, and some who refused to go were burned alive in their houses. In many cases they were herded onto ships and sent away to Canada and the United States with only the shirts on their backs. The ones who survived are the people responsible for bringing the way of Scotland to the "New world," hence there are people like myself born at the other end of the world with the name McDonald, so I guess I have come full circle.
Q: Will you continue writing Celtic songs or go back to the synthesizer?
A: I'm not sure at this stage. I feel I would like to take the Celtic thing a stage further. I do have some ideas but I'm not willing to discuss them at the moment, but I can say that what ever I do next will be in context with what I have done in the past. It's all links in the chain - I do what I am sincere about.
Q: How do you experience the reactions coming from the Celtic population?
A: I've had very good reactions on the whole, the hard core "purist" may have some problem with my big production, in-your-face approach, but I've had some good feed-back from people who are passionate about the history of Scotland. I think it's all about personal perception.
Q: Are there more CD's available you think we should know about?
A: Not really, there were other recordings which are probably not relevant now.
Q: Will we be able to see you performing live on stage? We would like to know more about touring dates and the countries you're going to perform.
A: This year I am touring the USA. In September - October, with Hollie smith opening, then back to New Zealand, but we are looking at a UK tour next year and would love to take in some European cities as well, I will keep you posted on this.
Q: Is there a web site on which we can follow you, or any links of interest?
A: Etherean Music has a web site with most of my information on and certainly any touring information will be on that.
Q: It seems there are different versions of "Sons of Somerled," one with a multimedia part and one without; is there a second Version?
A: The one with the multimedia part is the international release, the other is the New Zealand version which contains two or three songs not otherwise released. The same with another album I released only in New Zealand called the "Celtic Warrior" which is a compilation of some songs from the USA "Sons of Somerled" and "Stone of Destiny." It's all rather confusing, from now on all releases will contain the same material.