“I do feel that music can have an extremely powerful place in our lives. I’ve often compared it to almost like a pharmacy that you can draw upon it to induce or sustain certain moods. I think it also has the capacity to simply communicate via a bridge of communication and of commonality. This has been probably one of the most rewarding and humbling things that I’ve experienced in my career to be able to see how many people around the world, most of whom don’t understand or speak English, are relating and connecting to something beyond the words.”
John: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is Canadian singer/composer Loreena McKennitt. In a career spanning three decades, Loreena’s eclectic Celtic music has won critical acclaim worldwide and Gold, Platinum, and Multi-Platinum status in 15 countries across four continents.
Viv: As stated in her bio, Loreena lives her life, both personally and professionally, according to a list of core values, the top three of which are: 1) Be compassionate and never forget how to love, 2) Think inclusively, and 3) Reclaim noble values such as truth, honesty, honor, and courage. We spoke with Loreena about the release of her 18th album Lost Souls.
Viv: As ever, it’s an honor and privilege to be talking with Loreena McKennitt today for Art of the Song. Loreena, thank you so much for joining us.
Loreena:Well, thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be with you.
Viv: Would you please take us back a little bit and let us know where you’re from and how you got started in music.
Loreena:Well, I grew up in a small town in the middle of the Canadian prairies just above North Dakota, a town called Morden, Manitoba. It was a town about 3500 people, a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Irish, German, French, etc. There was a lot of music in the community. So, I grew up there and I became interested in folk music as a teenager. Then became interested in Celtic music when I was in Winnipeg going to high school and then starting out to be a veterinarian. Then, in 1981, I moved to Stratford, Ontario to work and perform at the Shakespearean Theatre Company there for four years. Then, in 1985, headed off in my solo career and we’re still in that zone.
Viv: It sounds so easy. And it sounds so direct.
Loreena:Well, yes, lots of other little roads along the way.
Viv: I think one of the things that’s so fascinating for me about your songs and your work in studio and your recording process is that it does feel Shakespearean to me. You can feel the influence of great poets and great writers. Can you talk a little bit about the influence on Lost Souls that you’ve brought to this recording? The different poets that you’ve brought. William Butler Yeats, John Keats and, of course, yourself.
Loreena:Well, I wouldn’t put myself in the great poets department. Yes, I’ve been drawn to poetry over the years through a mixture of inspirations. One, that I’ve felt that my lyric writing wasn’t my strongest suit. Secondly, is that once I learned that in the Celtic culture, theirs was an oral tradition, I thought that’d be great to go and find some long narrative poems and stories to give a nod to that oral tradition and try to pull a contemporary mindset and the patience that it takes to follow the narrative of poems. I’ve looked at poetry and what might work for me. Certainly, the story, the wordsmith, the description and how evocative some of that wordsmithing is. Then, very practical things, such as, are the words sing-able? Is the poem structured in a meter where it’s going to be easy or conducive to being set to music? I always liked to feel that poet’s perspective and their eye is brought into the mix as well. I think it also speaks to some of the other kinds of supporting roles I’ve played musically over the years. I’ve written music for film, for dance, for theater and, in a way, when you’re working with lyrics that already exist or poems, one is also playing a supporting role because one of the challenges is how do I support this already-existing piece of art in a way that I can only add to it rather than subtract from it? It becomes one kind of modality amongst a handful of modalities that I add into the composition of songs that I’m recording.
Viv: Lost Soulsis at once timeless as it is timely. The themes that are addressed really came to me as being man’s struggle for meaning in a world where we’re sort of lost between the struggle for material gain and spiritual connection. Could you talk a little bit about that and what the inspiration was?
Loreena:Certainly, with the title, the title started by going back to some songs that I had actually written a number of years ago, “Ages past, Ages Hence”, “Hundred Wishes”, “Spanish Guitars”, and even “The Ballad of the Fox Hunter”, the poem I’d set to music some years ago. I remember thinking “Hmm, these are a bit like lost souls.” And I thought, “Oh, well then that will be the anchor point for this recording and the remaining songs that either get written or collated to support that anchor point.” When it came to the song called “Lost Souls”, it was very much inspired by a short book written by an anthropologist called Ronald Wright and the book is called “A Short History of Progress” and he follows the history of various civilizations as one might follow or study the black boxes of aircrafts that have gone done. As an anthropologist, he suggests that we as a species have the propensity to get ourselves into progress traps and that we might be in one now. And that, certainly since about the turn of the time of the Industrial Revolution up until that time, we seemed to be more engaged in moral and ethical progress than technical progress. But at the turn of the Industrial Revolution, we became much more infatuated with technical progress at the expense of moral progress. The book was written almost 10 years ago, and it was partially angled to support where we’re at from an environmental standpoint. He also touches on the development of armaments where as a species we went from a knife to a sword to a gun to a canon and then to nuclear capabilities, at which point he says that when we developed nuclear capabilities, we developed too much progress. He also points that out to the denuding of the landscape across this planet of trees and how important trees are for our collective survival. For me, 10 years after he published that book, I spent a lot, particularly in the last four or five years, studying connection to technologies particularly as it pertains to child development as well as, of course, the music industry. I have grave concerns about the unintended consequences of all these technologies rushing into our lives and how it’s compromising our sense of friendship and community as well as what is the meaning of our lives. When one comes to that, I also think of a wonderful other book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. It’s a powerful little book as well. So, it’s just merging all these things together with respect to that piece Lost Souls.
John: How do you think this progress you’re talking about has affected the music business?
Loreena:Well, I guess in terms of reflecting on the state of the music industry, in Canada I read in one business assessment the music industry has gone from a 22-billion-dollar industry into a 6 billion dollar one since 1998. I think from an artist standpoint, where it’s been most punishing in this collapse of an industry is the compensation that artists, and I’m not talking about labels but I’m just talking about artists. For example, on vinyl, you might get paid 27 cents per song or CD 27 cents per song or a digital download from Apple might be in the realm of 24 cents per song. But, once you get into the streaming services, the amount of money that artists get paid plunges down to 10 cents per thousand plays or less. Or let’s say YouTube which might be 0.00087 cents, something quite ridiculous. For my part because my career got started when it did and I’m kind of like a legacy artist, I’m ok and I’m really grateful for that. But I’m concerned about artists coming up. There are a lot of pundits that say, “Oh, just go touring and sell merchandise!” But in actual fact, that is not conducive to good relationships at home or family life nor do I think it’s fair that artist’s creativity should not be able to be commodified in a fair and respectful way. So, there are monopolies in the tech world now. The music industry, of course, was the first industry to be hit. Now I don’t think there hasn’t been any industry that hasn’t been struck by it. So, I do fear not only for the music industry but for our privacies and our democracies. I’m very, very encouraging of legislators and regulators to really get on it and perhaps address these monopolies and put more regulation that can protect the viabilities of industries and people’s employment and so on.
Viv: Listening to the CD, your voice is crystalline. I have to ask; how do you cope with vocal health to go from the sublime to the practical if we can make that leap in this one single moment?
Loreena:Absolutely. I sang in a children’s choir starting at the age of 5 and a lot of that repertoire was classical music. Then, as a teenager, I studied classical voice, so I developed an instrument in my voice. When you study classical voice properly, you also study how to protect it. I’ve also realized basic things of human health of being rested but knowing how not to sing incorrectly where you could develop, let’s say, nodes on your vocal chords. So, I can sing many, many hours in the day and feel none the worse for it. But I do attribute a lot of it to my classical vocal training and even though I don’t work in the classical music realm but rather in a folk or world music, I bring a lot of that technique and that sensibility to that music.
John: Could you talk a little bit about how a song comes together for you in the studio? Is that a collaborative process?
Loreena:Essentially, there’s how it comes together before we get into the studio, which is important to speak of because there’s a lot of research and reading books and I develop an image, like a picture in my mind’s eye, that becomes the reference point for then going into the studio. It’s kind of like some painters go and take photographs of what they are ultimately going to paint. And my canvas is not a physical canvas. It’s a sonic place. So, that is for me, the very first step. Creating and signing off on that image or that picture so that when I go into the studio and I choose the instruments and the players, I keep referencing that picture in my mind’s eye and say, “Does this support that picture?” So, for example, with the “Ages Past, Ages Hence”, there was a kind of iciness that I wanted for some of the high end and I brought in the nyckelharpa as an instrument, which has a very raw kind of edge to it that a violin would not be able to achieve. So that kind of decision is informed by that picture. When we get into the studio, for sure there, I will speak to the musicians in terms of the imagery or the feel and then we spend time exploring different things that they may offer me as a response to that and I’ll pick and choose or steer them in this direction or that until the time that we get what we want.
Viv: Being a musician and entering a studio and playing this song and then actually playing to a vision and producing yourself at the same time, I have a question about the time in preparation that it takes to create an album as substantial as Lost Soulsor, certainly, any of your albums. Can you talk about what sort of creative process that you might bring to bear on the preparation for entering studio?
Loreena:It’s more haphazard than I want to admit in some ways because I think it’s compensated in my lack of experience after a certain point. You obviously want to go into the studio with the lyrics written and the music. Sometimes I don’t even have all the lyrics written. They’re still being worked on while we’re in the studio. But, preferably, I’ve gotten to that point with most of the songs. Then it’s aiming very specifically to certain musicians, many of whom I’ve worked with before, because I know they can quickly understand and interpret where I will want to direct them and get it within a very, very close range of that spot. So, in fact, this is probably one of the quickest I’ve made a recording for a very, very long time. My first recording in 1985 was made in a week. Recorded and mixed elemental. But, after that, they took more time. We only started recording this a year ago, or maybe less, it’s the end of May. Now that we’re releasing within a year, that’s quite something. As I say, the key is from the leap from before the studio and into the studios, is actually the musicians that I’ve invited in that are such a high caliber and who’s musicianship I know and I know how quickly they can jump onto an idea and I can work with them and get it to where I want it to get to.
Viv: Loreena, what would you say is different about this particular recording?
Loreena:It’s a recording of original material, which has not occurred since “An Ancient Muse”, but what it isn’t is the next chapter of the history of the Celts. This recording has four or five songs that I liked very much at the time but kind of got disqualified along the way because they didn’t fit in with a certain part of the mandate of the history of the Celts. So, for example, “Spanish Guitars in Night Plazas” and “Hundred Wishes” were created around the time of the visit, but I realized they didn’t fit in where I was at with the respect of my Celtic quest at that time. In fact, they tended to be songs that had a bit more personal dimension to them rather than the history of the Celts. Let me see, “Pagan Trees or Witches” now “Hundred Wishes”…no “Ages Past, Ages Hence”, these are all the working titles I keep tripping over. (Laughs). That piece was written maybe 1989, 1990. I was listening to Kate Bush at the time and I was very curious to see, I really like the angular approach to some of her music, and I wanted to explore that. So “Ages Past, Ages Hence” came from that. This recording is a compilation of songs that were assembled some years ago and then some pieces that were written quite recently. When I think of “Breaking of the Sword”, for example, that was a piece that I was commissioned to write. It’s not a kind a piece that I would normally be drawn to compose, but when I was asked to perform part of a commemoration of a First World War battle in Vimy Ridge in France, and this commemoration occurred a year ago, I wrote that piece for that event. So, it’s a real eclectic collection of songs. With “Sun, Moon, and Stars”, of course, that is a more recent piece and I think speaks to my own enduring love and fascination with not just Middle Eastern music and Mediterranean music, but also some of the ancient knowledge that used to exist. I want to take advantage of every opportunity of reminding myself and others of some of that ancient knowledge that we don’t have to always rely upon GPS to get us places. I’m holding my luddite card to my right-hand side. You don’t see it.
Viv: Listening to your music, I find that I am connected to a worldview that is inclusive. It’s a visceral experience for me and I feel connected across cultural boundaries. Do you find that music has a role in the healing of the wounds that we have culturally?
Loreena:Well, I’ve come to appreciate that music has so many incredible qualities and capacities. It truly is, as everybody reminds us, an international language. In a way, I’d love to study the science of it. Maybe even the neuroscience of it. The reluctance I do of that is that it could be that when you understand things, you start respecting it less and manipulating it more, But I do feel that music can have an extremely powerful place in our lives. I’ve often compared it to almost like a pharmacy that you can draw upon it to induce or sustain certain moods. I know I have over the years. Not with my music, of course, but with other music. I draw upon it to sustain or induce a particular feeling. So, to heal, it has that quality and I think it also has the capacity to simply communicate. Be a bridge of communication and of commonality. This has been probably one of the most rewarding and humbling things that I’ve experienced in my career to be able to see how many people around the world, most who don’t understand or speak English, are relating and connecting to something beyond the words that is being imparted through it. So, as I’m getting to the sunset of my career, and I’m thinking “Wow, this has been so extraordinary to have spent my life working in this medium, and hopefully it’s been to the greater good.
Viv: What would you offer to someone who was trying to find their creative voice, as a word of wisdom or something to jump start them into their creative path?
Loreena:A creative path could be anything, really. Here’s the thing. Many people talk about artists, but I think people might be working in their own garden and creating something beautiful. There’re practical things. When I look back on my own trajectory of my life, there’s no question from a very young age, I was trained to acquire certain skill sets. You’re never too old to learn. You can always learn a new skill set. It could be calligraphy. It could be an instrument. It could be gardening. It could be cooking. It could be all manner of things. I think to have a certain skill set to a certain degree allows you to then articulate things and feelings and ideas within yourself that probably many people have and would relate to. These acts of creativity do become like bridges of communication. I highly encourage people to not stop drawing upon and nurturing that part of themselves.
John: Loreena McKennitt, thank you so much for talking with us today with us on Art of the Song.
Loreena:It’s been a great pleasure.