A CONVERSATION WITH LOREENA McKENNITT
In 1985 an album was released on an independent label, Quinlan Road, entitled Elemental. Great title, but even better album. The artist who released that album, Loreena McKennitt could not have had any idea where that release would lead. Over 33 years later, McKennitt continues to astound with her music and she has stayed independent. This has allowed her the freedom to go into directions other artists with the ‘Celtic’ label have not gone. In doing so, she has sold over 14 million records, has held the position of Honorary Colonel of the 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron in the R.C.A.F., has become a recipient of the Order of Canada and the order of Manitoba (her birth place), has been appointed the rank of Knight Of The National Order of Arts and Letters by the Republic of France, and has received Queen Elizabeth’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals. When I ask her if as a little girl growing up in rural Manitoba that she could imagine such acclaim, she laughs.
“I wouldn’t have even known what the Order of Canada was. I never wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be a vet. I studied Agriculture in the University of Manitoba, but never finished my degree as I went into music. But the decision to go into music was always at arm’s length. It was always, ‘I will continue on but on my terms.’ I never planned or knew what I was going to do, but I always knew what I didn’t want to do.”
On May 11, 2018, Loreena’s first studio album of original songs in ten years, Lost Souls, will be released. It is her first album since 2006’s critically successful An Ancient Muse. She has released albums since then, but those were her brilliant adaptations of more traditional songs.A lot has happened for Loreena during those ten years. “Short answer, life happens. I spent some time producing DVDs, Nights From Alhambra (2007) and A Moveable Musical Feast (2008) and we toured a few years during that time. Then in 2009 my mother became very ill and I took care of her for the last two years of her life. Then I thought of a project about India and the Celtic relationship with India, but I realized that would take time. And I hope I to get back to that project and respond creatively . “During this time A lot of people were writing me and asking ‘will I ever release something original again?’, which is a good question. I rediscovered some older songs that didn’t fit anywhere. They were good songs, they just did not fit on the current project of the time. So we put them together for this album. Of course I have re-recorded them with my band.”
The title of the album is also intriguing, Lost Souls. It can mean a great deal to different people. “So the songs felt like ‘lost souls’, and that is one play on the concept of Lost Souls. But the title and the title track of the album came about because I had read a book by Ronald Wright called A Short History of Progress and it was an anthropological examination of civilizations and that we can fall into ‘progress traps’, which is where we are today. He contends that we are more concerned with tactical rather than moral progress. From that came the song and the album title.”
This is her tenth album, and no two albums by her are the same. Her catalogue is rich, deep and full of some of the best melodies ever recorded. She does not stay within any genre, and she has continually been able to release music that is independent and very successful. “There is the creative side, in the studio. I love being in the studio. But there is also the research. The history of the Kells has afforded me an education.”
This education is heard in all of her music. But there is also the business side to McKennitt who has run her independent label, very successfully, for over 33 years. “When I look back on growing up in that small town in the prairies, I appreciate it more and more. I grew up in a farming community, where one has to rely on themselves. Whatever you had, you went out and made it happen, yet at the same time you had a community that helped each other.”
Loreena McKennitt has many communities with whom she works and that she assists. Her band has members who have been with her a long time, such as Brian Hughes (guitar), Hugh Marsh (violin), Dudley Phillips (bass) and Caroline Lavelle (cello). “It goes back to the concept of people and relationships. These artists know your mind like you do, so I don’t need to do a lot of explaining. I know they will just understand. They turn the ideas into something I am wanting. It is a gift and sometimes I find myself just so happy to accompany them and just watch when I am playing with them.”
And in true Loreena McKennitt style, just as she is about to launch her new album, she has taken down her Facebook account, which had over half a million followers. “It reached a juncture, what are the strengths? Is it being used responsibly? Our democracy has been hacked.” A bold and brave move for an artist in this day and time. But again, McKennitt is not swayed by obligation or conformity. She does things the way she sees them and in ways with which she can feel positive about her decisions. As she said, “I would rather have integrity then money in my pocket.”
Loreena McKennitt is a brilliant artist. Her new album is stunning and another brilliant addition to her fantastic catalogue. She is also helping her larger community. Although she does not advertise her philanthropic endeavours, she has been behind such initiatives as The Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety and Falstaff Family Centre to name just two. She has carved out her own genre and she continues to grow and delight her fans.
“This may be my last recording,” comments McKennitt. “There is a price you pay for staying in the game, as my own manager and my own label there is a workload issue. The game has changed.” There is a pause. “But you know, never say never.”