Loreena McKennitt

by Dan MacIntosh

On finding musical inspiration, the "New Age" label, and working on the movie Tinker Bell.

Loreena McKennitt aspired to be a veterinarian – that is until she became smitten by all things Celtic, especially Celtic music. Based in her native Canada, in many respects, she has become a sort of musical travel writer, chronicling her geographic and cultural passions in song.

McKennitt sings with a pure soprano voice, while often accompanying herself on a harp. She's been releasing albums since 1985, and while her music is often inspired by the likes of William Blake and Shakespeare, she tells us that some of her fondest memories came on her work for The Santa Clause and Tinker Bell.

Hers is a unique journey that, like her music, is refreshingly unpredictable and organic. You won't find her on Facebook, which she abandoned in 2018 when she had about 600,000 followers, but you will find her traveling, reading, advocating, and creating. She recently released a 30th anniversary deluxe edition of her seminal album The Visit, which includes a few tracks she talks about here, including "Tango To Evora" and "The Lady Of Shalott."
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I have never interviewed anyone that plays the harp and sings. When you write your songs, do you write them on the harp, or on another instrument?

Loreena McKennitt: The writing happens in a very unpredictable way. Less so on the harp. If I use an instrument, it would be the keyboard, like the piano.

Sometimes I'll have melodies and I'll just notate them in notation script. They might be phrases, or they might be a full melody. So, I might just have it in my head and I'll just hum it into a simple tape recorder or something. But the piano is the instrument I'm most familiar with and comfortable with. The harp, I do play it, technically. I was never trained and would say that I play it not unlike one types with two fingers. I play enough to be able to accompany myself in some rather simple folk songs, but anything that's more complex would be beyond my capability.

Songfacts: Are there any harp players that inspired you to want to take up the instrument?

McKennitt: The harpist from Brittany called Alan Stivell was the first person I heard in the late '70s. It was a recording called Renaissance Of The Celtic Harp, and what was so interesting about his work was, yes, he plays a smaller lap harp, but he had a band with a kick drum and cello and bombard, which is a reed instrument in Brittany, and there was a kind of rock dimension to it all. So it could be a really simple ethereal, mythological voice on its own, or it could be mixed in with some of these other instruments.

It was very eclectic, and when I heard that, I thought, Hmm, that gives me the license to go and play around with different combinations of instruments as well.

It was a time when I was evolving from performing more traditional material that I felt was pretty predictable. There were some really wonderful pieces, infectious pieces that were in the traditional Celtic repertoire, but I felt that others were performing it better than I could.

Moreover, once I became exposed to Celtic history, I became infatuated with it and I decided I would start traveling to where the Celts had been. This was the fault of attending an exhibition in Venice in 1991 that was the most extensive exhibition ever assembled on the Celts. That's where I learned that they were much more that just a mad collection of anarchists from Scotland and Ireland and Wales, but they were actually this vast collection of tribes, somewhat like indigenous tribes, that spanned out across Europe and into Asia Minor and dated back to about 500 BC. And being a lover of travel literature, I thought, Great, I'm going to travel to places and use that travel as my own first inspiration to then bring back into my creative person and rendering of the musical footprint, whether it was CD, vinyl or whatever the format. It was like an act of musical travel writing. So, instead of writing a book, I assembled all that inspiration into songs and into recording.

Songfacts: Do you remember when you transitioned from performing traditional pieces that you'd learned and loved to writing your own music?

McKennitt: When I was living in Winnipeg, I was part of a folk club that got together every Sunday night and there were people that were from Ireland and Scotland and London, England, and we'd share songs and play together. People would say, "Well, here's a new recording of Planxty,"1 so it was a gathering of likeminded minds, but at the same time, I had always wanted to be a veterinarian. I maintain music chose me, rather than me it.

And in those late '70s I started off university, but then there were so many performing opportunities where I wondered how far I'd go. I also started working at the stockyards at my father's office. He was a livestock dealer who bought and sold cattle. So, I would go there by day, but at night I would be playing in lounges and yet I had this hobby interest in the Celtic music. Then in '81, I auditioned for the Stratford Festival theater, the Shakespeare festival here in Stratford, Ontario, and was invited to be part of the company for four years. So, I was exploring musical theater.

Then by 1985, when I wasn't invited back to the theater, that's when I made my first recording. And when I look at that first recording, it has one piece, the William Blake piece, that emanated from the one-man show that I wrote music for here at the theater, but also I had been invited to set a piece of Irish poetry to music for the International Authors Festival when they had some renowned Irish authors coming to it, so that recording consists of a traditional piece, which is "She Moved Through The Fair," but it's a real eclectic composition of things. That's when it started to evolve.

And certainly, with Parallel Dreams, my third recording in 1989, I was a little braver and these people were interested in what I could write, rather than me executing some of the traditional repertoire. And the result of the success domestically in Canada of that recording, that's when the major record companies were looking at me as an artist. And then I signed with the Warner Music Group, and then it went on from there. But it was a slow evolution over a decade, really.

Songfacts: Were you intimidated to write lyrics because of your exposure to so much great poetry, where you thought, Well, I don't think I can do what they've done?

McKennitt: Yes [laughing]. That was a large part of it. I didn't think my lyric writing was my strongest suit, so I thought, Well, I'm here in Stratford and I've spent a fair bit of time working in the canon of Shakespeare, which is why I picked up some Shakespeare along the way. But then I looked at some classical writers, like Tennyson.

Songfacts: Can you list a few of the songs that you wrote lyrics to that you're proudest of, as far as being able to really be a lyricist?

McKennitt: There's not many, I will say, and part of that is tested when I have to go and perform it on tour and you've got to sing the same song every night. But one would be "Dante's Prayer" off of The Book of Secrets [1997].

I mean, "The Mummers' Dance" wasn't anything too spectacular.2 It was kind of written in a more traditional format in a way. Not incredibly sophisticated, lyrics or ideas. Whereas with "Dante's Prayer," I think I came close to capturing something that had a little bit more depth to it.

Songfacts: Have you written songs in response to seeing a movie or reading a book?

McKennitt: Yeah, most certainly. Once I discovered that Celtic history part, I was traveling, but I was also reading a lot of books. Some academic books, some were travel-writing books. There was a song I wrote, "Night Ride Across The Caucasus," and that was based on a book by Murat Yagan and had been introduced to the Sufi path through equestrian riding in Caucasus. I remember reading that book and feeling so struck by this whole journey he had taken and wrote this piece "Night Ride Across The Caucasus."

There's another piece in The Book Of Secrets called "Skellig," and that's based on Thomas Cahill's book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, and that was about monks who ferreted away in their obscure locations, copying out the classical literature.

So, yes, I've found it wouldn't be uncommon to take inspiration from books. The piece "Tango To Evora," the evolution of that was, I had been commissioned to write original music for some films from the National Film Board of Canada that were a series of films on women and spirituality, and that melody came up through that. I kept the piece, the melody, sort of in the closet after that film was done, but when I came to make The Visit in '91, I thought, Maybe I'll go back and get that piece out and we'll rearrange it.

And what was great about that, it went on to be covered by many people around the world. In Turkey, Greece, Israel, Iran. That was for a film, so when I wrote that actual melody, I was working with a rough cut of a film.

Songfacts: Quite a number of your songs are poems put to music. I wonder, when you read poetry, do melodies come into your head while you're reading?

McKennitt: Sometimes. Not anything right away. Usually, I look at it and then if it's something I'm going to sing, I look at it for technical criteria. Does it work in terms of the cadence and are the words singable? Those kinds of things.

Then I'm also looking for the imagery. When I think of "The Lady Of Shalott," there's stunning imagery. The words in that poem are very evocative and the cadence of it all can be sung. So once I've digested the imagery and sat with that for a while, then it would be like going fishing. I sit down and try to come up with some melodies, and sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't. With that piece, and with many pieces, what it looks like at the end is not necessarily what it looks like at the beginning. You might add a minor section here or do various things like that, but I usually sit with the sentiment of the poem or the book for a while.

Songfacts: I noticed how you've been nominated for Best Contemporary World Music Album and also for Best New Age Album. How does the New Age label sit with you? Did that bother you?

McKennitt: It did, actually. It did bother me. I understand why categories got invented in the first place, from an organization standpoint of people going into a retail store and wanting to find music in a organizationally efficient way, but there's a down side of that.

In the '90s, I learned what New Age was in North America, and New Age was something very different in Europe. I remember Peter Gabriel and Tori Amos also sitting in the New Age bucket in places like Spain sometimes. I appreciated that in some places it had a wide meaning. I have nothing against New Age music, I think there's a very meaningful place for it.

What I thought was New Age was mostly lyric-less music that was primarily there to evoke a feeling and didn't draw attention to itself through lyrics or dynamics. It was just there to create an atmosphere, and I felt that my music was more than that. I remember one point in the '90s, when Billboard was putting my sales in the New Age category, I wrote them and told them to take it out of that category altogether, which they ultimately did.

Songfacts: Let's talk about some of your collaborations. What are some of the most memorable collaborative writing sessions that you can recall, where you worked with other artists to create something?

McKennitt: I really haven't collaborated with many. There's a collaborative dimension to my work when I'm with the band in the studio or when we're rehearsing, you know. I might say, "Here's the melody, here's the chord structure, here's the imagery." For almost every piece of music that I've written and recorded, I've had an image in my mind, like a snapshot that I'm now wanting to paint with the instruments and the arrangement.

So, for example, in An Ancient Muse there's a piece "The Gates Of Istanbul," and part of the imagery was imagining this campaign coming from the desert towards the gates of Istanbul and there's people on camels and there's horses and everything. And I said to my violinist, Hugh Marsh, who is incredibly talented, "Hugh, I'm looking for a sound that would evoke that mirage when it gets really, really hot and you can see those dancing kind of waves above the surface. Can you come up with something like that?"

I performed and recorded with The Chieftains, which was fantastic.

Songfacts: Your music has been featured in many films. Are there some films where you feel like you were kind of a fish out of water?

McKennitt: No. Having spent a few years in the '80s working on films, I loved the experience. Same with the theater, because the last two years working at a theater here, I was working as a composer. The third year, I composed recorded music for this one-man play on William Blake, and I composed and performed live music for the production of Two Gentlemen Of Verona. What I loved about that was, I could bounce off the script and the choreography creatively. And similarly, when I was working with films, I realized how that imagery affects me emotionally, so the role is not to take over the scene, but to compliment and support the emotional objective that the director has. The fun was composing some elements for the Tinker Bell film. I parked myself down there in the Disney compound and came up with melodies and was able to be part of the team for about a week with them giving me feedback on this and that. That was fun. And similarly, The Santa Clause, that was a similar one down there.

Songfacts: Do you ever get the urge to do music that is outside of what you're known for, primarily Celtic and other world music? Do ever get the itch to do rock or blues?

McKennitt: I do. Even if it's just an exploratory exercise. I wish I had much more time even for my own development, whether made for the public view or not. Even in the classical sense, there would be some simple, classical things... I'm trained classically, vocal-wise. There are other things that are just beyond my capability. Jazz, for example, I'm happy to be a spectator on that.

Songfacts: With your retrospective out, when you started, did you imagine 30 years on with all of those accomplishments?

McKennitt: Not in the least. I started off thinking I wanted to be a veterinarian. My whole career is an unintended consequence, but it is quite sobering to think of where I was at in '91, with The Visit. Really, it was that year I recognized I was crossing over a threshold of working as a solo artist.

I've never had a manager. I've always run my own career and I have my own staff here. I really felt that shift that year, when the Warner Music Group took up that recording and it really exploded within a year or two.

October 20, 2021
Much more at loreenamckennitt.com

More interviews:
Candice Night
Victoria Williams
Mike Scott of The Waterboys

Footnotes:

  • 1] Planxty was a traditional Irish band fronted by Christy Moore (back)
  • 2] "The Mummers' Dance" is one of McKennitt's most popular songs. Released in 1997, it was the theme song to a short-lived TV series called Legacy. (back)

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