Q Magazine

Loreena McKennitt on Celtic Music, Her Canadian Heritage and Traveling the World for Inspiration

'It is like creating a meal or a feast for people. It's not complete until you share it. And hopefully, folks like at least a few of the dishes you're serving.'

qloreena mckennittcreditrichard haughton
Source: Richard Haughton

'The Road Back Home' is McKennitt's loving tribute to Celtic history.

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Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt has woven a unique musical tapestry. With a voice as clear and enchanting as a highland stream, she blends Celtic and Middle Eastern influences to create a sound that transcends borders and genres. Her captivating live performances are a community held close together in a timeless atmosphere and critically acclaimed albums have garnered her millions of fans worldwide, making her one of the most successful Canadian artists of all time.

Released in March, The Road Back Home is a live album that serves as an homage to her musical roots. Featuring recordings from her 2023 summer performances at folk festivals in Ontario, Canada, the album captures the energy and intimacy of those live shows, while also showcasing a return to the traditional Celtic sound that characterized her early career.

McKennitt, on the leg of a European tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Mask and Mirror, sat down with Q over a Zoom call, freshly arrived at her hotel in Berlin.

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qloreenamckennittjohn fearnall owen sound
Source: John Fearnall

From Manitoba to the world.

How have things been since you went over to Europe for your tour?

Quite well, given the number of things that can go wrong! But this has been a very, very strong tour, not only from the standpoint of attendance, but I think for me, being the instigator and architect of the tour itself. It seems to be a pretty happy camp at this point. Touch wood! I know we have about another ten days or something, but that's very good, because I think it's a bit like baking. You have to bake with love, and if you have good energy when you're making something, it's bound to spin-off.

This tour is really a celebration of [1991’s] The Visit. Yet you have new material, a new release. What precipitated the thought process for doing this?

Along the way, we were thinking we were going to angle to do anniversary tours and The Visit was released in ‘91. But because of the pandemic, it got punted and then this year is actually the 30th anniversary of The Mask and Mirror. So we're able to keep to that anniversary, doing that tour in the summer.

The Road Back Home was not on the books a year ago at this time. I’ve been invited to perform at a handful of folk festivals in Southern Ontario over the years, and never was really able to do it, and I knew that the only way I could do it frankly was, if I did a different repertoire with a different group of musicians. I wasn't sure where Covid was going, so I said, ‘I think we better wait one more year before we go out on our bigger tours.’ So as I often will do, I'll say, ‘Well, let's record it for at least for our archives. But we'll also record it in the event the performances stand up, we can release it as a commercial release,' which is what we did. So this is how these projects became unusually stacked next to each other, in a short time.

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Source: ℗ © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC/Loreena McKennitt/YouTube

Loreena McKennitt - The Lady Of Shalott (Live from the Juno Awards)

I'm going to say that that's pretty much where you live in a lot of people's minds, seeing you live. Understandably, the feedback must be incredibly satisfying.

Yes, it's been very, very positive. We were in the United States in the northeast last fall and we worked our way over to Minneapolis and then came back up to Canada for four dates. And then we've been on this first chapter of a European tour, both last fall, and this spring. It is like creating a meal or a feast for people. It's not complete until you share it. And hopefully, folks like at least a few of the dishes you're serving.

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Source: ℗ © Universal Music Publishing Mgb Ltd., English Folk Dance And Song So, Rathmines Music Limited, Chappell Music Ltd/Loreena McKennitt/YouTube

Loreena McKennitt - Wild Mountain Thyme (Lyric Video)

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Are people still surprised at this point that you're not Irish?

When I speak from the stage, obviously they can tell my accent is more Canadian, but I'll refer often that I live in Southern Ontario, that I was born and raised in the middle of the Canadian prairie. So, I try to clarify that whenever I can. I mean, the history of me becoming infatuated with Celtic music had much less to do with my family history coming from Ireland and Scotland.

But there was something really infectious in the music itself, and I was first exposed to it at a folk club on Sunday nights in Winnipeg. A bunch of the members were from Scotland and Ireland and Wales. This is back in the late 70s. We were listening to The Bothy Band and Planxty and Steeleye Span. Swapping records, listening to them together, learning some of the material. That was really when I became quite smitten by the music, and then I felt that it was important to try to understand the history, the historical context in which the music sprang. So before I moved on, or actually the juncture that I moved from Manitoba to Ontario in 1981, I took a correspondence course from the University of Waterloo in Irish history. That was very important.

But back to your question. Yes, there still are people who are surprised that I'm Canadian!

qloreenamckennittjohn fearnall owen sound
Source: John Fearnall

McKennitt reconnects fans with the live recordings on 'The Road Back Home.'

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Your viewpoint is so intrinsically bound into the DNA of Celtic music that it would be hard to separate that right now.

I think the other really significant piece in the evolution of my career, shall we say, is that I attended an exhibition in Venice in around ’90 or ‘91. That was the most extensive exhibition ever assembled on the Celts at that time. I learned that the Celts were much more than this mad collection of anarchists from Scotland and Ireland, and Brittany and Wales. There was this vast collection of tribes that had fanned out across Europe and into Asia Minor, and dated back to 500 BC. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of these artifacts that were in the Eastern Bloc countries were brought into this exhibition. It was quite striking. I was kind of at a fork in the road. I was very aware of other groups that were doing the traditional music, and I thought they were doing it far better than I could.

So, I decided I would throw my hat into the ring of using Celtic history as a creative springboard. But I was writing more original material, based on that journey of following the history of the Celts, wherever and whatever the experiences took me. The Road Back Home is the closest of going back to the very, very beginning in that folk club in Winnipeg, and revisiting those kinds of tunes.

Source: ℗ © Universal Music Publishing Mgb Ltd., English Folk Dance And Song So, Rathmines Music Limited, Chappell Music Ltd/Loreena McKennitt/YouTube

Bonny Portmore (Introduction)

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Are you often approached for musical collaborations?

No. I'm approached by people in other mediums, like film or theater. I'm at the very beginning stages of collaborating with some people on a new theatrical piece that has an environmental sentiment that was inspired by these nuns in the United States that protested the pipeline.

How much attention do you pay to trends in music?

I live under a rock. [Laughs] I've held such strong, if not harsh feelings towards the Internet. I don't have a smartphone. I don't get on social media. I mean my music is available on streaming services. But I don't go there myself. I've slowly, as the past couple of decades have happened, become much more isolated in terms of knowing what's going on out there.

But even when I was less isolated, the music industry didn't represent much that I wanted to refer to or take inspiration from. You know, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I never dreamed about being a singer. I've never been a club kind of person. I've always kind of struck out on my own. I don't have a manager, we have a little team of people. So, that does create a certain kind of isolation. But I think the other part of that, as I mentioned, I probably spend 70 percent of the time in a management capacity and administrator, and maybe 30 percent as an artist. It depends on the year, and whether we're touring. But when I've set out to make a new studio recording, that's usually at least a three-year project. I'll go travel to places to gather influence and do research. I go to Spain, Italy, Turkey, Mongolia and Russia. Then that takes time just to record, and then get the artwork and all the bits and pieces.

But there's not a strong argument these days to be making the kind of music that I was doing in the 90s, because the unregulated Internet broke the one half of the industry where you could commodify your music. Artists such as myself used to get paid 25 cents per song on vinyl or CD. Now we might get 10 cents per 1,000 plays on Spotify or point zero zero one three cents on Google Play with all these things. So the music that I was making in the 90s is quite expensive because I'm bringing in the tambura player, the sitar player or the Egyptian drummer and the piper from Ireland, and fuse all these things together. Because it's such a unique arrangement, you need a lot of time. You're testing the combinations of things. And it's time-consuming. And it's expensive. It was viable before the Internet came. We've been recycling material. Frankly, that's where things are at.

Source: ℗ © Peermusic Publishing/Loreena McKennitt/YouTube

Never-Ending Road (Amhrán Duit)

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Even if you revisit an anniversary, that's still viable today.

For me, I'm okay with touring and there's good business to be had. I just feel terribly for people starting out, and I have people come to me and say, 'Hey, we know that you were one of the very first independent artists and did it all yourself. Can you explain how you did it, and how we can do it now?' I said, 'Well, to be absolutely blunt about it, if I were to start out now, there is absolutely no way that my career could have reached the height that it did.' It was only possible in the window of time that I was doing what I was doing. Now that's not possible. So, my concern lies more for current and future artists, as well as the general population that is getting a very distorted rendering of music, because of the monopoly of these these tech companies.

Do you have issue with the fact that people can pick and choose and make a playlist or are you happy as long as your music is being listened to and consumed, and people are coming to see you?

I would see it as a declining benefit. Because for me, having a a spectrum of songs over, let's say 50 or 55 minutes, you develop a relationship with the artist. It even goes back to the tactile things, where you've got the artwork, and you can see where it was recorded, and who played on it. You became much more engaged with the ingredients of the creation.

I think the more that music is reduced into these almost disposable, almost anonymous files, is missing a large part of what used to be and it's also at the expense of the artists. I think it's short-shrifting the public in terms of the richness of that experience. That you can get to know artists in different dimensions of their creativity. For me, it's all about the relationships.


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