Really Rita

Visitors to Rita MacNeil’s Tea Room in Big Pond, N.S., are occasionally surprised to observe their idol heading for her car in tears. “I can’t help but get very overwhelmed,” says the shy singer. The contrast between what was and what is, is sometimes just too much.

The 1939, one-room schoolhouse (converted to living space by the time MacNeil purchased it in the early 1980s) has grown to include a gift shop, foyer, larger kitchen and a second tea room. (It’s also capably managed by MacNeil’s daughter, Laura.)

The parking lot fills with tour buses and cars bearing licence plates from all across Canada and many parts of the U.S. But some days, all that MacNeil can think of is how she used to struggle off the bus from Sydney with groceries before Laura and younger brother, Wade, arrived home from school. She remembers the place as her rather modest home. “Now when I think of that, it’s just too surreal,” she concludes. “It hits you like a cold splash of water and you can’t help but be shaken by it.”

The Tea Room’s status as a popular tourist attraction indicates MacNeil’s enormous success in the Canadian music business, and the abiding loyalty of her fans, thousands of whovisit each year. And those fans would be the first to understand her need to retreat from the busy restaurant. Hers, they know, is a tender heart. In her songs they hear their own sorrow and pain, as well as their joys and pleasures.

They also recognize her need to be grounded in family and friends in her beloved Cape Breton. Though she’s a genuine star, they know she takes nothing for granted, remembering the hard times.

“You have to be honest,” she says. “That’s how I came to write what I do. It was going inside myself and feeling so much. And I found that when I was performing, people were saying ‘Oh. That happened to me,’ or ‘I’ve felt that.’ So it was a connection right away.”

Although she’d dreamed of being a singer from childhood, MacNeil’s talent blossomed as a songwriter in the 1970s when she became involved in the women’s movement in Toronto. Too shy to speak out, she discovered her music was her real voice.

Though her personal life was falling apart — she was struggling with depression and a painful divorce — the music never stopped, and in 1975 she released her first album, Born a Woman. But performances at Expo ’86 in Vancouver brought her a wider audience, and resulted in Flying on Your Own, the album that signalled her rise to stardom.

More albums followed — 11 in 10 years — and the concert stages became more prestigious. (Her 1991 appearance at the venerable Royal Albert Hall in London remains a career highlight.) She toured the U.S., Sweden, Japan, the U.K. and Australia as well as Canada.

When a Christmas special hosted by MacNeil for CBC-TV in 1993 drew two million viewers, the network offered her a weekly variety show. For three years, Rita and Friends provided a venue for the best of Canada’s musical performers, from Joni Mitchell and Buffy Sainte-Marie to Barenaked Ladies and Susan Aglukark. MacNeil delighted in welcoming up-and-coming artists — especially if they happened to come from the Maritimes.

Since the show’s cancellation in 1997, CTV has broadcast two MacNeil specials, each drawing over a million viewers. This past September, CTV aired Rita MacNeil: On a Personal Note , a documentary that, like the 1998 Key Porter book of the same name, allowed her to talk frankly about the ups and downs of her life that continue to nourish her songwriting. A country-wide tour performing with symphony orchestras early in 1999 required enormous energy, first for the afternoon rehearsals, then for the performances. “You ride a lot on the excitement of it all,” she notes, “and the love of it.”

In Vancouver, MacNeil landed long enough to record A Night at the Orpheum (Rita MacNeil with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra). She’s currently planning a Christmas special to be aired late in 2000.

Why has MacNeil retained such a loyal audience? Perhaps because they, like MacNeil herself, recognize the genuine article. She’s not glamorously intimidating and many fans recognize her as a friend, a neighbour, someone who’s been through what they’ve been through. Nervous before performances, she finds the audience gives her courage to perform. “They keep coming to the shows and they’ve supported this life of mine for so many years now. At age 55, I feel it very overwhelming to still know that they’re there for me. I’m able to be the performer, the singer, the writer, and they show up to hear the songs, new and old, and they buy the records. I find it quite amazing,” she says. “”The connection is strong.”