A Q&A with the incomparable Loreena McKennitt; photo by Richard Haughton
Q: First, I want to say congratulations. You were recently inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Tell me a little bit about receiving that honor.
A: Well, it was a surprise!
A: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I thought of songwriting in that kind of genre as more for singer/songwriters that were writing about their life and their experience, and so I really wasn’t expecting it or even thought I would qualify, even though when I thought about it [I thought], “Oh, yes, I do write songs!” I think it’s always nice to be recognized by your industry and peers.
Q: Let’s talk about the tour. We’re really excited here in Rochester to have you here. This tour is an anniversary tour of your album The Visit that came out in 1991 (1991 in Canada and 1992 in the US). Why is The Visit so important to you and your music career and in your life? And why are you bringing it back to audiences?
A: Well, it was my first [recording] where I signed a licensing deal with a major record company, and that was the Warner Music Group. Technically, I was signed to Warner Music Canada, but it then was distributed through their affiliates around the world. And so, it was the first [album] that had a much wider audience who became aware of my music. So, from a career standpoint, it was a huge jump from the number of sales I was achieving as an independent versus when I had this licensing arrangement with Warner.
Creatively I was also kind of tiptoeing. When I lived in Manitoba in the late 1970s I developed a really keen interest, a passion for Celtic music, more straight ahead sort of Irish, Scottish, English music. And I knew I wanted to pursue it in some way. So, 1985 through 1991 was me exploring some of that, recording some of that, but also I’d been working at the Stratford Festival in the theater. I went to an author’s festival where I was asked to set a poem by W.B. Yeats to music. And so, I was starting to branch out past the traditional repertoire. And so, my third recording, Parallel Dreams, was, again, a combination of a bit more independent songwriting until The Visit was much more original music than it was traditional. And for me, that was my confidence growing. As a songwriter, people were interested in not just me doing the traditional repertoire but actually some of the songwriting that I was embarking upon. So, for me that was very important to kind of [boost my] confidence in career development internally.
And I’ve often said along the way, that there’s this fascination with the history of the Celts. And particularly after I attended an exhibition in Venice in 1991, I learned that the Celts were this vast collection of tribes that had fanned out across Europe and in Asia Minor, and I was so fascinated to follow that. I then set out and traveled to many, many places that had some kind of connection to the Celts, and then I’ve used that Celtic history as a kind of creative springboard. So all these things were converging my interest in the Celts and confidence in songwriting. But also having my fingers in film and theater and some of these elements also come out into the picture.
Q: The Visit made a huge impact worldwide, and it put you in front of a whole new group of people, particularly people who were listening to pop. I can remember that happening. Why do you think that happened? What was the chemistry at that moment?
A: I’ve asked myself this! The best I can answer is that first of all Celtic music and the Celtic myths have an infectious and attractive quality about them. It’s the very quality that attracted me to it in the first place in the 1970s. So I’ve been trading in that, so to speak…I haven’t kept strictly to it, but there’s enough of it that satisfies a kind of a natural attraction that many people the world over have for “Celticness.”
I think the other thing is that the arrangements are very eclectic. It’s not like anything that existed before. This goes back to the early days. I mean, I was keen to paint these musical pictures that were conjured in my mind from traveling and reading and so on. And I wasn’t following a conventional manual about arrangements where there’s the kick drum and the bass and the guitar and the piano or whatever. I was really interested to try to bring some of these [Celtic] geographical locations into the arrangements through the choice of the instruments and the idiomatic way that they’d be played, whether it’s the kemenche from Turkey or whether it’s the Irish pipes or whatever it is. So, I feel that the eclecticism and at times the exotic nature of it, particularly in the early nineties—because this was also before social media and the internet and though people were traveling, they weren’t quite as geographic or internationally geographic as people might be now.
Then the third factor is that I think that there’s an aspect of my voice and the essence of it that some people relate to. I think part of that is the fact that I studied classical singing, but I’m not singing a classical repertoire. Yet I’m bringing a lot of that classical sensitivity to the performance. So [I brought] this sensitivity of phrasing and dynamics and delicate things, that is often associated with classical music and a few other genres into something that’s not classical music, that is eclectic. And so, it was and is very distinctive in its own right, and I think nobody else was doing the same thing. I think it just stood out. I think of the Polygram people in 1988. I’d done an artist development exercise with them. They said, “Well, we like what you’re doing, but we don’t know what to do with it.” And at least they were honest! It was through busking and through me just pounding the boards here in Canada and doing my own small tours that it was proven through all of that that in actual fact, even though this was not top commercial material, that people really had an appetite for some of this kind of thing.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about when you were first listening to Celtic music. You said it was mostly Irish and Scottish. What was your first introduction to that?
A: Well, I grew up in a small town in southern Manitoba, and I moved to Winnipeg for my grade twelve year, and by that time, I was already playing guitar—albeit upside down and backwards. And so I was interested in folk music and it was when I was in Winnipeg that I got introduced to some people who were already well immersed in Celtic music. There was a folk club that occurred on Sunday nights at the woodworking shop on Main Street, and we’d get together, and a number of them came from Ireland and Scotland and England, and they would bring their albums with them. They’d be talking about this piece, and we’d be learning some of the pieces and sometimes we’d be sharing. “Why don’t you take this album home with you and bring it back next week,” or whatever. We would go to the store and buy some ourselves and order them, frankly, as imports. So that was my first exposure to Celtic music, and I thought, “Oh my god. This is so fabulous.” But at the same time, I had been listening to Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell and that whole era of singer/songwriters. But at the same time, I was listening to this and really developed a passion. I soon realized that you couldn’t really fully appreciate the history of traditional music without really understanding the political, social, and economic circumstances in which it sprang. Then I decided to take a course. It was a correspondence course on Irish history from about 1800 to the present, and it was very, very fascinating, that connection of the songs to its historical context, particularly Irish history. Then suddenly, a big light bulb went on and I said, “Ha!” So, then I heard about this exhibition in Venice that was on the Celts. This was 1991, so it was after the Soviet Union had come apart and a lot of artifacts that had been in Eastern Bloc countries suddenly were seen for the first time and all assembled in one place. Holy cow. I had no idea. I bought the catalog, and it had different aspects and angles of the history of the Celts and the different languages and different customs and the geography.