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The Journey of the Legendary Loreena McKennitt

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After 14 million albums sold, a pair of Juno Awards and two Grammy nominations, Loreena McKennitt is celebrating the 30th anniversary of her storied career with The Journey So Far—The Best of Loreena McKennitt. The comprehensive retrospective comes in CD, digital and vinyl versions, with a deluxe edition including a second disc, A Midsummer Night’s Tour. This disc features highlights from the live performance recorded at the Zitadelle in Mainz, Germany, in July of 2012—a return to the city in which the 2013 Grammy nominated Troubadours on the Rhine was recorded.

A successful self-managed maverick since her early days busking on the streets of Toronto, McKennitt established her own Quinlan Road label and publishing company and has produced albums in various locales—including a barn in Southern Ontario, a Benedictine monastery in Ireland and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio in England, where she recorded four of her albums.

Ms. McKennitt’s extensive traveling in pursuit of the history of the Celts, from Mongolia and China to Turkey and Siberia, has shaped her distinctive eclectic Celtic sound, which marries Eastern, Middle Eastern and Celtic musical traditions with her own lyrics and those by great poets like Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Along with Clannad and Enya, McKennitt has created a new genre of modern Celtic music that feels like it has been around forever. I spoke with Loreena about the road behind her and what lies ahead for the legend. Here’s how it went:

Do you have any advice today for the Loreena McKennitt that got her start 30 years ago?

I would pretty much advise doing what I did. At the same time, I’d like to say that I knew what I was doing would turn out but I didn’t (laughs). It was all instinct: I knew what I didn’t want. I was infatuated with Celtic music and history and avoided the conventional record label/management. I avoided conventional pop music as well. Lucky for me, there were people out there looking for this kind of music.

You have had your own record label for many years. Many people might have thought you were odd not pursuing the big fat record contract but now everyone’s independent during this digital age. Who’s laughing now?

There are some artists that have looked at what I have done and gotten some inspiration from it, particularly now since the current record business model is in such a catastrophic state. I tried working with record labels back in the Eighties but to their credit, they admitted to not knowing what to do with me and how to approach the audience I was seeking. So, we parted as friends and I haven’t looked back. I am also grateful that I never needed a label to bankroll my music with an advance. I financed it myself, so each unit I was paid on was a whole different financial basis.

Your music has been used in film, which makes total sense because it seems so well suited for cinema. What has that process been like for you?

One has to accept that you are playing a supportive role in a situation like that; you’re part of a creative team trying to support someone else’s narrative. As a result of serving that, you work within imposed parameters of time, sentiment, and vision. I find it challenging in a pleasing way. I meet with the director and talk in broad strokes and then watch footage if its available. I then work with the director to narrow down the directions you can go. It’s a similar vibe in theater as well. When I am on my own, my music is formed on the sensual and visual textures of my travels and my life. I then try to interpret that through music.

Give me an example.

I remember trying to record the song “Caravanseri.”I tried to create a musical version of the image I had of the heat coming off the desert sand. You talk to your fiddler about it and he comes up with this amazing mood that totally captures it. I love that process!

I’ve gone to Celtic festivals and there is really a number of factions inside that circus tent: Wicca, Irish Catholics with shamrocks painted on their cheeks, bagpipers, the whole nine yards. What does Celtic mean to you?

I have in a very amateur way taken a keen interest in the Celts and spent a lot of time pursuing it all over the world. In a cursory level, I see certain qualities in myself that academics would attribute to what it is to be Celtic. What would they be? Fearless. Creative. Stubborn-minded (laughs). Not always the best in strategy: the Romans walked all over them. It is an ancient cultures.

It is an ancient culture but people might think your kind of music is ancient as well. But yourself and Clannad mixed modern and ancient textures 30 years ago to create this New Age genre that hadn’t existed before. I don’t think you get the credit you deserve for creating an entirely new genre.

Well, thank you. It was a genre that was starting to grow as opposed to me starting it. Clannad was certainly an influence on me. This idea of contemporary instruments being subjected to these ancient rhythms was something I was a fan of starting out. Clannad and Alan Stivell was another huge influence. It was traditional music that rocks it up a little bit. It’s pretty sobering to see this influence, particularly someone who never intended to be a musician--I always wanted to be a vet!

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