Loreena McKennitt - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Though usually considered a Celtic artist, Canadian singer, composer, harpist and multi-instrumentalist Loreena McKennitt has expanded her musical influences and reach over the course of her career to include elements of new age and other world music traditions, including Mediterranean and Middle Eastern music.
Loreena Isabel Irene McKennitt was born in Morden, Manitoba, Canada to Jack and Irene McKennitt on February 17th, 1957, and shared the household with her parents and older brother Warren. Her father worked as a livestock trader, while her mother was a nurse. Coming from a mainly Irish and Scottish background, Loreena took up highland dancing at a young age, but had to give it up due to injuries she sustained at age five in a serious car wreck. When dancing, young Loreena found herself drawn to the music, so when she could no longer dance, she asked to take music lessons. Her grandmother's piano was brought to the house, and she began taking lessons from her teacher Olga Friesen, who also made Loreena join a local choir. She continued taking lessons and singing in competitions with the choir well into her teenage years. Considering her music to be just a hobby, she instead wanted to follow her interest in and love of animals and decided, upon graduating high school, to study veterinary science at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Her studies didn't last too long, and soon she was working in her father's office in Winnipeg and frequenting folk clubs during the evening. It was during this period of time that McKennitt discovered the wide range of Celtic folk music, and became fond of artists such as The Bothy Band, Planxty, Steeleye Span and, especially, Breton harpist Alan Stivell. Wanting to follow her muse, she decided to move to Stratford, Ontario in 1981 and auditioned for a role in that city's annual Stratford Festival of Canada. Though she didn't get the role, she stayed put in Stratford and eventually bought a used harp from a pawn shop and began studying the instrument in earnest. The instrument was a Lyon & Healey Troubadour leaver harp, a sturdy no-frills harp that could be transported relatively easily and would stay in tune and was designed more for student classical harpists than for folk music. The harp, however, was perfect for McKennitt, and she continues to use it up until this day. She soon became proficient on the instrument, and to raise extra money towards releasing her own album, she was often found busking in and around the Toronto area, especially at the St. Lawrence Market, where she would often take advantage of the acoustics in the foyer of an old building there. After being inspired by Diane Sward Rapaport's book How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording, she set up her own label, Quinlan Road, and started making her own tapes to sell at her performances and through mail order.
In 1985, having only played harp for a few years, she released her first album Elemental (Quinlan Road), an album she reportedly wrote and recorded in just one week in a barn on a farm in southern Ontario. What was almost more surprising than her accomplished harp work, was McKennitt's fully developed voice. Most artists seem to take time to work up to a style, but McKennitt had already developed her strong, clear voice and a style that took equal parts from traditional contemporary Celtic music and new age music. Influenced by travel she undertook to Ireland, the album was a mix of traditional folk songs and McKennitt originals, including music she set to poems by Yeats and Blake. Elemental was received warmly by Celtic music fans the world over, and McKennitt's reputation soon spread outside of Canada. For her next album, McKennitt wanted to compile a group of seasonal Christmas songs from around the world, and wanted to record the album exclusively in churches. Many of the songs that would appear on To Drive The Cold Winter Away (Quinlan Road)(1987) were recorded in Glenstal Abbey during a tour McKennitt embarked on to Ireland. The album featured guest vocals from Cedric Smith and viols playing from Shannon Purves-Smith, but was otherwise completely performed by McKennitt. The album became a holiday favorite, and raised McKennitt's profile even more. One of the songs off of the album, “Snow”, was later included on a Windham Hill Records compilation, Celtic Christmas (1995). McKennitt followed up her holiday album with a new collection of mostly original compositions, Parallel Dreams (Quinlan Road) in 1989. Parallel Dreams expanded the scope of McKennitt's musical vision and sound, as she used more musicians on the album to help her flesh out her arrangements and began steps to bring in other influences besides Celtic music. One example is the song “Huron 'Beltane' Fire Dance”, which celebrates both the Gaelic Beltane celebrations and the Native Huron festivities in Canada. Also in 1989, she was given the privilege of gaining a commission from the National Film Board of Canada to compose music for their film series Woman and Spirituality. Each of McKennitt's albums sold progressively better than the previous, and for a label basically run from McKennitt's kitchen table, the workload to keep the label running while also touring, recording, and maintaining inspiration was becoming immense. When she was offered a distribution and manufacturing deal by major label Warner Brothers, she took it.
McKennitt took advantage of the larger budget she could use to record her next album, The Visit (Quinlan Road/Warner Bros.), released in 1991. The album was a wide-screen version of the musical vision McKennitt had been working on for some time, and the integration of folk elements with more modern instruments was seamless. The album swung from the Pagan celebration of “All Souls Night”, to an interpretation of the traditional “Greensleeves”, to an 11-minute emotional adaptation of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem “The Lady Of Shalott”, to the tango-influenced “Tango To Evora”, all mixed in with McKennitt's own gorgeous compositions. The album became a hit with fans of Celtic, new age and world musics, and started creeping into the mainstream as well. McKennitt gained more exposure in Europe in 1993, when she was asked to open for revered rock/new-age performer Mike Oldfield. The Mask And Mirror (Quinlan Road/Warner Bros.) was McKennitt's next release in 1994, and showed McKennitt's sound-world expanding even more while her lyrical concerns swung more and more towards spiritual matters. Influenced by her time traveling in and studying Galicia, a heavily Celtic region of Spain, McKennitt brought various ethnic instruments into her mix from around the world including bouzoukis, balalaikas, hurdy-gurdy and various percussion instruments and included traditional Celtic songs mixed in with her own adaptations of poems by Yeats and Shakespeare and strikingly original compositions like her own “Marrakesh Night Market”. McKennitt followed up this release with another EP of Christmas and holiday songs done in her highly original style, Five Songs For The Season (Quinlan Road/Warner Bros.)(1995), that mixed songs featured on her earlier To Drive The Cold Winter Away release with new workings of holiday standards. Though it had been bubbling under for many years, McKennitt's big commercial breakthrough came with her next album, The Book Of Secrets (Quinlan Road/Warner Bros.), released in 1997. Recorded at Peter Gabriel's Realworld Studios in England, the album was a further distillation of McKennitt's Celtic, Italian, Middle Eastern, Spanish and new age influences, and spawned the hit single “The Mummer's Dance”, which charted in numerous countries, including the U.S., where it reached #18 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart. The album also sold extremely well in the U.S., Canada and the rest of the world, going on to sell more than four million copies. The success of the album helped pave the way for a world tour, which she embarked upon from October of 1997 until May of 1998.
At the top of her game and enjoying her success, McKennitt was in England in 1998 mixing a live album, Live In Paris And Toronto (Quinlan Road)(1999), when she received word from Canada that her fiance Ronald Rees, his brother Richard, and their friend Gregory Cook were missing after setting out on a boat trip on Lake Huron. Upon returning to Canada, she learned that all had perished and entered a period of mourning. Believing in the concept of being motivated by whatever life brings you, whether good or bad, McKennitt set up the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety, in honor of her fiance and friends, which now funds research, education and general programs to promote water safety and helps to purchase equipment used in marine rescues all across Canada. All of the profit from the sales of Live In Paris and Toronto, which totaled around $3 million dollars, was donated to the fund. During her time of mourning, she also became more involved in her hometown of Stratford, and purchased an old elementary school in town and turned it into the Falstaff Family Centre, a center for community and children's activities. Because of her charitable activities and high public profile, Loreena McKennitt was awarded the Order of Canada in 2004, the highest civilian honor a citizen of Canada can receive.
During the early 2000's, McKennitt rarely performed live and didn't release another album until 2006, when she released An Ancient Muse (Quinlan Road/Verve), a collection of songs that were inspired by the cultures along the ancient Silk Road in Central Asia and the Middle East. While still keeping elements of her signature Celtic-derived style, she employed a small army of international musicians to contribute to the album such instruments as oud, kanoun, nyckelharpa, tabla, udu drum, Irish and Greek bouzouki, cello, Turkish clarinet, uilleann pipes, and many more. Even though there was a nine year break since her last studio album, her audience was still there and the album sold over 19,000 copies in the U.S. alone in it's first week of release. A live album, Nights From The Alhambra (Quinlan Road/Verve), was released in 2007. Documenting a September 2006 stand of shows at the Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra, Granada, Spain, the album showcased songs from throughout McKennitt's career, including songs from An Ancient Muse, with her 13-strong support band backing her up.