Celtic folk singer
Although she grew up in a rural Canadian community, Loreena McKennitt was credited as one of the artists responsible for resurrecting Celtic folk music. She reached into her own modern environment to create an unusual musical combination of past and present. “In her realm, Celtic tradition joins with contemporary influences to forge an ethereal symbiosis of song,” Anil Prasad wrote in Dirty Linen. “It is not uncommon to hear threads of jazz, pop, classical, and Asian music in her pieces.”
By the late 1990s, McKennitt’s music had reached a wide international audience and could be heard everywhere—from the radio to film soundtracks. She reached the peakof charts across the world, while still managing her own career and her own record label. She used her various talents to take the music industry by storm, not only through her recordings and performances, but through her business savvy, as well.
McKennitt was born and raised in the small town of Morden, Manitoba in Canada. Somewhat isolated, the community included a blend of descendants from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and Iceland. “Itwas a very modest community,” McKennitt recalled in her record company biography. “People came from immigrant stock. Survival was the order of the day, and in some ways, broad cultural exposure was limited. Although my family’s ancestors for the most part came from Ireland, there was very little overt ‘Celticness’ to my upbringing in the sense of music or storytelling.”
Raised by her mother, Irene, who worked as a nurse, and her father, Jack, who raised and traded livestock, Loreena McKennitt and her brother Warren were exposed to music from a young age. She first began performing as a Highland dancer, even before she started school. When she broke her leg in a car accident at the age of five, she began studying music. She took lessons in classical piano for the next ten years and took voice lessons for five years.
As McKennitt developed musically, she played the piano and organ and sang for various choirs. Some of her childhood classmates couldn’t share her passion for music and performing, making it difficult for her to maintain many social relationships. “I went to school with students who weren’t allowed to have television in their house or wear makeup or dance,” McKennitt told Salem Alaton in Chatelaine.
Her adolescence brought even more challenges, not all of them musical. Along with her love for music, Loreena McKennitt had also discovered a strong interest in sports and athletics. “I wasn’t kind of a real social creature like a lot of other girls my age,” she recalled to Peter Feniak in Saturday Night. “And because I felt older and different from many of my school chums, I spent time with my [physical education] teachers.”
She developed a friendship with her seventh grade physical education teacher, and the two spent time together outside of school. Members of the community thought the friendship was suspect, and rumors began to circulate about a lesbian affair or sexual abuse. Although McKennitt defended her teacher and explained that their friendship was above board and strictly platonic, the teacher was dismissed over the relationship. The following year, she developed a similar friendship with her eighth grade physical education teacher. He and McKennitt had long conversations after school about music and philosophy. Soon, the same questions arose, and he was also dismissed from his job for a platonic friendship with an unusually mature student.
In 1975, McKennitt moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she worked part-time in her father’s Winnipeg trading office. She attended the University of Manitoba, where she began studying to become a veterinarian, while at the same time continuing to pursue her interest
For the Record…
Born in Manitoba, Canada, the younger of Jack and Irene McKennitt’s two children; studied at the University of Manitoba, 1975-1977.
Began performing professionally as a singer, 1976; began playing the Celtic harp, 1984; formed Quinlan Road Records, 1985; released three albums, 1985-89; signed distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records, 1991; released two LPs and one EP, 1991-95; released hit album The Book of Secrets, 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Quinlan Road, P.O. Box 933, Stratford, Ontario, Canada N5A 7M3
in music. She found an informal folk society that introduced her to Celtic folk music. The sound sparked something inside her that was the beginning of a major change in her life’s direction. “I heard a recording called The Renaissance of the Celtic Harp by Alan Stivell,” McKennitt told John Diliberto in Tower Pulse. “And when I heard that recording, I was very much smitten by the sound that was created by the harp.”
McKennitt performed her music in clubs around town at night. When she began to make some money from it, she left school to pursue a career as a singer. In 1981, she traveled to Stratford, Ontario, to sing in the chorus for a festival production of H.MS. Pinafore. During her stay there, she dated an actor and singer named Cedric Smith, who performed on McKennitt’s first two albums. McKennitt decided to move to Stratford permanently and performed regularly in the city’s famed Shakespearean Festival.
McKennitt decided she wanted to visit the land of her inspiration and made an excursion to Ireland in 1982. Feniak described what an impact the trip had on McKennitt saying, “It may have taken her two more years, and a trip to England to find her Celtic harp and teach herself to play it, but the trip to Ireland was her turning point. Born Irish at the age of 24.” McKennitt found her harp in London, England. She was in a hospital, and saw it in a music shop window across the street. It was a second-hand harp, and she knew immediately that it was the one for her. She borrowed the money from some friends, bought it, and started teaching herself to play.
In 1985, McKennitt decided to take her career’s future into her own hands. She asked her family to lend her $10,000 to set up her own record company called Quinlan Road. She recorded Elemental, a nine-song cassette, and sold copies at performances. That same year, she also wrote the musical score for the Canadian film Bayo. She began to get a little discouraged a few months later and sunk into a short bout of depression.
She decided to become an activist for the Stratford Heritage Trust, and continued her music as a street performer at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, Ontario. After reading Diane Sward’s book How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording, McKennitt got her motivation back and started compiling a mailing list wherever she played. Once she had a large enough list, she also approached local record stores with the evidence of her already established fan base and convinced them to carry her tape.
In 1987, McKennitt released her next recording, To Drive the Cold Winter Away, which included rare Celtic winter songs and some Christmas carols. Two years later, she came out with Parallel Dreams, with which she introduced a musical group into her work. By the end of the 1980s, she was selling more than 30,000 through her fan mailing list and local record stores. Since she produced everything herself, she made almost 70 cents profit on every dollar her records made. Her notoriety resulted in a commission from the National Film Board of Canada to score the music for the acclaimed film series Women and Spirituality.
McKennitt made a discovery in 1991 that would again affect her musical direction. She attended an exhibition of international Celtic artifacts in Venice, Italy. Up to this point, she thought that Celts only came from Ireland, Scotland, and Britain. As she walked through the exhibition, she found Celtic art from placeslike Hungary, Ukraine, Spain, and Asia Minor. “It was like a huge door had opened up for me creatively and as a source of inspiration,” McKennitt told Kirsten A. Conover in the Christian Science Monitor. “So I’ve used that pan-Celtic history as a creative springboard.”
Before the release of her next album, McKennitt signed a worldwide distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records. She negotiated a contract that allowed her to keep her own record label, manage her own promotion, and maintain creative control. In November of 1991, she released The Visit in over 35 countries. With her new distribution deal, The Visit reached more people around the world, resulting in gold albums in the U.S., Spain, Italy, Greece, Australia, and Norway.
McKennitt continued touring across the globe and released her next album, The Mask and Mirror, on March 22, 1994. The album was inspired by her travels and research of Galacia, the Celtic corner of Spain. Explaining her goal for The Mask and Mirror, she told Feniak, “This recording, I’m going to shine this flashlight I’ve got on Spain. I’m going to shine it on Morocco, I’m going to shine it on the Gnostic Gospels … on the Knights of Templar. We’re going to talk about astronomy and mathematics.”
The following year, McKennitt released an EP called A Winter Garden, and spent the next two years preparing for her next recording. In 1997, she released The Book of Secrets, her most popular album to date. She used her travels again as inspiration for the album, with research in Italy and on a trip on the legendary Trans-Siberian Express. “The songs on this recording have been assembled like a mosaic, with disparate pieces collected from many places and fitted together one by one,” McKennitt said in her record company biography.
The single “Mummers’ Dance” soon took over airwaves all over the world. In this song’s lyrics, she combined the ideas behind the work of a marionette maker she met in Palermo, Sicily, with the “hobby horse” of the May Day celebrations in Padstow, Cornwall, and a Sufi order in Turkey. She took the chorus and the final verse from an original mummers’ song in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.
By the release date of The Book of Secrets, her record company had expanded its locations with offices in both Stratford, Ontario, and London, England. The album went multi-platinum in 1998 in several countries, including the U.S., Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, New Zealand, and Greece. That same year, DNA’s Nick Batt remixed the song “Mummers’ Dance” in a techno style. Quinlan Road released the remix as a single in February of 1998.
McKennitt used her endless curiosity and interest in history, archaeology, environmental studies, and more, as the fuel for her musical creativity. Her constant ambition and drive paid off into worldwide success without compromise. As Kevin Pope wrote in Canadian Performing Arts, “Partly thanks to her frequent peals of infectious laughter, Loreena McKennitt gives every appearance of being a woman who is doing exactly what she wants to do, and fortunately for us, she does it all very well.”
Elemental, Quinlan Road, 1985.
To Drive the Cold Winter Away, Quinlan Road, 1987.
Parallel Dreams, Quinlan Road, 1989.
The Visit, Quinlan Road/Warner Bros. Records, 1991.
The Mask and Mirror, Quinlan Road/Warner Bros. Records, 1994.
A Winter Garden, Quinlan Road/Warner Bros. Records, 1995.
The Book of Secrets, Quinlan Road/Warner Bros. Records, 1997.
Billboard, October 19, 1991; December 12, 1992; March 5, 1994; August 23, 1997.
Canadian Performing Arts, Summer 1992.
Chatelaine, March 1995.
Christian Science Monitor, October 1, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, November 14, 1997; February 20, 1998.
Maclean’s, March 28, 1994; December 26, 1994; December 1, 1997.
People Weekly, January 12, 1998.
Playboy, October 1994.
Publishers Weekly, November 21, 1994.
Saturday Night, February 1994.
Tower Pulse, November 1997.
http://www.innerviews.org (September 23, 1998).
http://www.quinlanroad.com (September 23, 1998).
Born: Morden, Manitoba, 17 February 1957
Genre: New Age
Best-selling album since 1990: The Book of Secrets (1997)
Hit songs since 1990: "The Mummer's Dance"
Loreena McKennitt conjured rustic images of knights, forests, and pagan ceremonies with her Celtic-influenced roots-revival music. An inquisitive, nomadic artist, she explored Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East looking for sounds that would blend with her trusty harp and ringing soprano.
Born of quintessential Canadian-prairie Scotch-Irish stock, McKennitt took piano and voice lessons growing up, but thought she really wanted to be a veterinarian. She attended the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg to pursue that field; however, she was smitten with performing and composing. In 1981 she moved to Stratford, Ontario, and joined a folk music club. Several of its members were Irish, and they piqued her curiosity in Celtic music. Intrigued, she traveled to the Emerald Isle in 1982 to immerse herself in the music.
Returning to Stratford, she performed in public places for tips. She picked up How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording, by Diane Sward Rapaport, a book she still credits for helping her get off the ground, and began building her own music business from scratch. She founded the Quinlan Road label and released her first cassette, Elemental (1985). She followed that with the Christmas-themed To Drive the Cold Winter Away (1987) and Parallel Dreams (1989). She also kept a database of listeners and kept them informed of her latest projects.
By the end of the 1980s McKennitt was making more than 100,000 Canadian dollars per year on her own and was in a good position to negotiate when major labels came calling. She finally chose Warner Bros., which allowed her to keep her own label and sell her albums at shows, as she had always done.
Her Warner debut The Visit (1992) features pensive, serious songs that greet listeners with folksy cello, violin, and bagpipe playing. McKennitt's voice betrays a slight Irish lilt acquired from her annual stays in Doolin, Ireland. "All Souls' Night" commemorates the Celtic New Year with slow, violin-led formality. Her voice takes on a wailing drama on "Bonny Portmore," featuring violins and bagpipes. Cementing her love for anachronistic beauty, she sets the nineteenth-century Alfred Lord Tennyson poem "Lady of Shalott" to music. With a major-key, midtempo melody, the song is a bright moment on an album full of shadows and mystery.
McKennitt turned to Spain and Morocco for inspiration on The Mask and Mirror (1994). The urgent "Marrakesh Night Market" pulsates with the Middle Eastern percussion instruments balalaika and dumbek. "Mystics Dream" continues the Mediterranean theme, while the traditional "Bonny Swans" and musical version of Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats's poem "The Two Trees" hearken back to her Celtic roots.
A popular artist in Canada since the late 1980s, she would finally break through in the United States with The Book of Secrets (1997). The crossover was thanks to noted engineer/producer Nick Batt's remix of "The Mummer's Dance," one of her most rhythmic songs to date. "Mumming" refers to a tree-worship ceremony practiced by pagans. On this album she achieves a more natural, pan-New Age fusion of her disparate influences. She writes most of the material while again setting a poem to music; this time, it is a twangy, minor-key take on Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman."
When performing live, McKennitt dazzles audiences with her strong, piercing soprano and her Troubadour Lever harp, a utilitarian pedal-free model made for the wear and tear of traveling. A few Irish music purists griped that she was a foreigner appropriating their music, but she responded that Celtic music itself is heavily informed by migration and cross-cultural influences.
In 1998 tragedy struck when her fiancé, Ronald Rees, was killed in a boating accident. Devastated, she nonetheless was determined to make something positive out of the calamity by creating and raising money for the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety.
She also poured herself into helping new artists on Quinlan Road and in 2003 performed at a tribute event set up by her hometown of Morden. With her busy schedule, no follow-up to capitalize on The Book of Secrets was immediately forthcoming, though in 2003 she vowed to begin another album as soon as she had time.
McKennitt, along with artists like Enya and Michael Flatley, helped spark a revival of interest in traditional Irish music during the 1990s. She may not have convinced everyone that bagpipes are hip, but she did manage to remind listeners of the timeless beauty of acoustic string and percussion instruments.
Elemental (Quinlan Road, 1985); The Visit (Warner Bros., 1992); The Mask and Mirror (Warner Bros., 1994); The Book of Secrets (Warner Bros., 1997).