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Q&A: Loreena McKennitt

Demetris Kollalous

Canada’s Loreena McKennitt established herself as the queen of pan-Celtic music with 1998’s double-platinum smash

The Book of Secrets

, and the two-time Juno winner's seventh LP,

An Ancient Muse

, shimmers with the hallmarks of her transcendent vision.

A notoriously private figure, two events over the last ten years shook Loreena McKennitt’s pantheistic world. The first was the 1998 drowning death of her fiancé Ronald Rees, spurring her to found the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Safety, funded by the sales of her Live in Paris and Toronto CD. The second was a lawsuit she initiated against the publication of Travels with Loreena McKennitt, a self-published book written by a former associate and employee. McKennitt objected to the book’s errors and the breach of a confidentiality agreement in its writing; in 2006, the UK courts agreed with her.

Embarked on a rare tour (and even rarer visit to the South), McKennitt is posed at the top of her career, equal parts muse and music. Evoking the dark soul of the night, the exquisite introspection and otherworldliness of her recordings illuminate her spiritual as well as musical quest; listeners are merely pilgrims on her journey. A soft Canadian accent accompanied her mannered phone conversation, occasionally punctuated by laughter, as she greeted an early-morning interview in a voice warm as firelight. – Margaret Moser

Houston Press: Good morning, and welcome to Texas! What were you doing before this interview?

Loreena McKennitt: I’m in Edmonton at the moment. Been up since about 6:30 this morning, doing some administrative work. I went downstairs to have a bite of breakfast and read the newspaper.

Actually, this won’t be my first time [in Texas], but it was ’92 or ’94 since I was there When you’re on tour, you’re pretty much just arriving and going straight to the venue, straight to the hotel, and then on again.

HP: In other words, you didn’t buy a cowboy hat?

LM: [laughs] No, not yet. My father and my grandfather were livestock dealers, so I come from a lineage of family associated with dealing cattle and ranching. It’s a territory I’m comfortable with. There’s a whole cultural dynamic related to the land and livestock.

HP: Because you travel so much, doing personal research that informs your music and personal interests, what aspects might a research trip include?

LM: Usually it involved reading material beforehand and/or speaking with people who’ve been to or lived in those places, so by the time I get to a particular place I’ve a little homework as to where I might spend my time and focus.

That isn’t always possible. Sometimes I go into a situation or find myself in a situation which has been impossible to predict so you want to roll with what’s going and where it takes you. At the very least, one hopes to scope out where any risk might be, in terms of person. But beyond that, I am open to the adventure and unpredictability and the spontaneity that comes with a particular type of traveling. And I like living my life in that visceral way, where you have a certain amount of structure but there’s also room for the unpredictable. And I would say that is also the way I record.

So in traveling, I can illustrate by example: I learned about these mummies in a place in northwest China called Ürumchi that had red hair and been wrapped in tartan cloth and spoke a language that was in the Indo-European family of languages. In preparation for that trip, I contacted some individuals who had written books about these mummies. So the other aspect that happens when I’ve traveling is I’m gathering information – the light, the sound, the smell, images I try to re-create musically.

HP: You’ve been to such an amazing variety of places, what’s left on your itinerary to visit?

LM: Some of the places I’ve been to, I’ve barely scratched the surface. So there are lots of things within them, other aspects, dimensions, and layers. But in terms of new geographical territory, it would probably have to be India. There are a lot of connections with the Indo-European cultures where the Gaelic language is found within. The Celts had a great reverence for cattle, the way they kept time with their calendar systems, even some of the musical ornamentation points to influences from the Indian culture. We are still learning so much about how we take in information, how it’s processed and presented out there so I think that the fact that we sense certain things means that there are a lot of levels that we don’t understand yet. So that’s one place I would like to spend some time.

HP: Can you give me an example of how one of those traveling experiences translated into a song on An Ancient Muse, for example, “Caravanserai”?

LM: I am fascinated [with] places and times where cultures meet and challenge one’s identity. I’d gone to Turkey three or four times leading up to An Ancient Muse. One trip was far too short but I went to a place near the Black Sea with very interesting Ottoman architecture, then over to Cappadocia then down into Konya then over to Ephesus. From time to time on the Anatolian plain, I would come across these fortified structures in varying states of decay. Some were very well-preserved and some were just skeletons, almost like beached whales in the archways that remained [laughs].

They were essentially places where itinerant merchants stayed as they traveled across the plains, a feature of the Silk Road itself. The travelers could get food, rest, collect themselves. Wrapped around these caravanserais would be bazaars comprised of local people. That was part of the underpinnings of “Caravanserai,” different cultures passing through, interfacing with more sedentary cultures with food, music, language, ideas.

HP: When you look for poems to set to music – you’ve chosen “The Highwayman” and “The Lady of Shalott,” among others, and recently “The English Ladye and the Knight” – what attracts you to them?

LM: There’s a lineage of steps that’s as pragmatic as it is conceptual. I really like the idea of a narrative within the body of a recording, so it begins with the feeling that for my stuff – and I’m still a music consumer – that likes to experience certain genres of music 45 to 50 minutes lengths of time before shifting to another artist or genre. The next thing I look at is what ways there can be diversity of songs or a way songs can be diverse themselves and still complement each other. Falling within the folk or Celtic tradition, they were an oral society and didn’t write anything down.

I love being told tales, yet I’d say my lyric writing, my narrative writing is not the strongest thing, so I’ve gravitated to finding other poets and poems whose subject matter may loosely fit within the overarching theme of the recording. That’s another exercise that occurs early on in the construction of the recording, trying to find the title, around which it functions like the top knob of an umbrella. So the narrative becomes one kind of experience.

The next stage of criteria deployed [laughs] is the imagery: are the lyrics sing-able? Are the phrases sing-able? Those are what go into choosing poems.

HP: Your music is so spiritual; it resonates deeply in the heart and the soul as well as the imagination. It’s used at weddings, funerals, in churches, for memorials like 9-11, celebrations, anniversaries… How do your fans communicate how intensely personal it is in their lives?

LM: We get a fair amount of correspondence, and when we are touring and I sometimes have the opportunity to meet folks after the concert. It’s absolutely fascinating, more frequently than not. I find in speaking with them I think, “Whew, I wish I lived here and we could go to dinner or have a cup of tea with these people. They’re not mindless fans; they come from all professions and occupations.

Within that, they’re very curious about my music, they venture with me how they have connected with it and themes I am exploring for my own self-edification. [laughs] They say “there’s something there I really related to” or “it helped me” in some way. That part is gratifying to hear because in the end, I regard myself much more of a conduit and a catalyst than a ‘stand-alone artist,’ shall we say.

HP: And it’s gratifying to be a conduit and a catalyst.

LM: Yes. And I think anyone who’s shared what they’ve discovered with someone else or places they’ve been or experiences, enjoys that excitement. I don’t consider myself an academic or an authority; it’s really an amateur process for my own self.

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When I was working on the Mask & the Mirror, and focusing on the Spanish history via the Celtic corner of Galicia, I really was confronted with trying to dissect and analyze the sense of religion and spirituality. I came to my own personal conclusion that the human species has a need to be spiritually engaged in ways that it may not understand and that religions were sort of man-made institutions in response to that need..

HP: There’s a picture on your website of your four dogs sitting on the porch. Doesn’t it break your heart to leave them to go on tour?

LM: Yes, it is, particularly since they don’t have the capacity to understand what one is doing or why one is doing it. They live their little lives on a direct and immediate kind of level [laughs]. It is with great difficulty that I leave them. The good news is that I live on a farm, and there are people that are there to look after them. They have a great life in a rural landscape.

Loreena McKennitt performs 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 8, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 713-629-3700.

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