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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!

Yet your music ties in other elements: there is a distinct Middle Eastern quality to it as well. How did that influence get stitched to the sensibilities that came from your Scottish and Irish background?

As I was learning more about the history of the Celts. I went to an exhibition in Venice and realized that they were all over Europe, Asia Minor, and Turkey. There were so many groups that were drawing from the Celtic nations that I set out to explore the history of the Celts wherever they were. For “Mask and Mirror” I started to visit Spain and Morocco, then traveled in the Middle East and incorporated what I saw and heard into the music. On the album “Book of Secrets” I went further there because I was getting a bit of confidence that people would accept that branching out, the expansion on what it is to be Celtic. I’ve been to Turkey to an archaeological dig and saw the Celtic connection in the artifacts. That gets incorporated into my music as well.

Do you consider yourself a mystic? Many associate your music with a certain mysticism.

I would not. I think there are people who devote their lives to that. I have an appreciation for that but I don’t consider myself one. I suppose I am a conduit to it if people.

Are there any influences in your music that would surprise people?

Not really. I was keen on Tom Waits and Kate Bush in the Eighties as well as Peter Gabriel. Because I have recorded at real World so much, I have had the benefit of watching Peter fuse these diverse cultures. He’s like Paul Simon in that way. Fusing those cultures is something I like. There are pop influences I like but I never set out to imitate them. If anything, it gave me a license to expand the boundaries of my own music.

Does the experience of looking back inspire anything for you going forward? What can fans expect next from you?

Creatively, there are strands I have dangling out there that I need to explore. I just returned from Rajasthan and there are great influences there that I’d like to explore. I’ve had a steady tempo of things since 2006. I know people are waiting for something new. I am aware of that. However, I am so heavily involved in the management of what I have that I am looking forward to getting the operational house in order first. The music industry has collapsed to such a degree the question is how could you create something like I have in the past and make it work in this marketplace.

I would imagine that would limit someone like you. You were known for lush packaging and promotion.

It touches everything because you have to apply a realistic budget. It goes from flying people in from Greece and other parts of the world to get these influence and then taking a staff like that in a road. All those creative choices: hiring a choral group, etc. It all is cost prohibitive. People are out there with just an acoustic guitar because that’s all they can afford. I mean, I am lucky and have certain economic things in my favor, so I will be okay in the long run. I’m not the only one trying to find that balance. Music is such an exceptional medium of communication and right now the economics threaten that. 

For more information on Loreena McKennitt, log onto www.qunlanroad.com

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