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A Good Traveler
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The good traveler


Loreena McKennitt is what you’d call a showbiz anomaly.

Her concerts sell out and her albums sell big — almost 13 million sold worldwide — yet she shuns publicity and promotional gigs.

She was invited to headline a concert in Winnipeg last year for Queen Elizabeth and a nationally televised audience, and she did it for free.

She jets to locales as diverse as Turkey and exotic as Morocco, yet she thought nothing of returning to her hometown of Morden, Man., (population 6,100), in part to pay homage to her deceased childhood music teacher.

“Morden really stimulated me,” McKennitt says of her homegrown loyalties. “I spent my formative years there, until I was 17, and it was very positive, a very positive experience.”

McKennitt is talking from her Stratford, Ont., home. She is out of breath, having just rushed through the door. She apologizes for being late (she wasn’t), and in her trademark soft, lilting voice, further explains her distinctly un-celebrity-like demeanor.

“(Morden) really stimulated me,” repeats McKennitt, who received the Order of Manitoba last July. “There was a strong musical presence that ran through the community. Festivals, operettas and that kind of performance.”

And then there was her home. Her father, a livestock dealer, and her mother, a public health nurse, weren’t musical themselves, but her grandmother, Gladys, regularly played piano.

“I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles and You Are My Sunshine,” McKennitt says, laughing as she recalls some songs.

It quickly became obvious her love of music was backed by talent. Her grandmother gave her the piano, her music teacher gave her the platform.

“Olga Friesen was a highly creative person,” McKennitt says of her childhood mentor, who passed away last year. “Very unusually so at the time. She directed the children’s choir and we were always in competitions.”

Friesen also gave McKennitt every chance to strengthen her skills and show them off. McKennitt, in turn, seized the opportunity.

“I’ve known, probably since she was 12 years old, that she had something special,” says Catherine Evenson, McKennitt’s childhood Girl Guide leader and a member of the singer’s local fan club.

“She used to perform at the drop of a hat. The Chamber of Commerce, the Morden Corn and Apple Festival …”

Evenson still remembers the effect the young McKennitt had on people whenever she performed.

“The hair on the back of my neck would stand up,” she says, laughing. McKennitt laughs when she hears the accolades, especially since her former singing teacher - who was partial to choral music - wasn’t partial to McKennitt’s style of success.

“I know Olga initially didn’t approve of my folk singing,” she says matter of factly. “But I think once I became famous, or rather, more well known, she became impressed.”

McKennitt is grateful for this hometown support. And even though her father has passed away and her mother now lives on the West Coast, she still finds time to make it back to Manitoba to visit her grandmother in Morden and brother, Warren, in Winnipeg.

Last spring, she returned home for a special banquet in her honour, organized in part by Evenson. But instead of soaking up the praise, McKennitt, as is her nature, turned the tables around. In front of 400 people, she paid tribute to Olga Friesen with a video in her honour.

Asked how strange it is to see the now-famous singer making time to return to her roots, Evenson shrugs it off.

“That’s just part of Loreena,” she says. “She still has family here.”

McKennitt is an exception to the rule in another community, too — the music industry.

Not only well known as an “eclectic Celtic” singer, songwriter and harpist, she stands out because she’s never gone the business manager/agent route. To this point, she has single-handedly financed and managed all her business affairs, with almost a dozen staff working for her.

That means she’s had complete creative control over her image, her music and her publicity.

What’s more, she’s extremely good at it. She’s produced eight albums, released three music videos and has millions of fans worldwide.

“A lot of successful artists pay lip service to their fans, but Loreena genuinely believes in respecting the consumer, giving them value for money and offering good service,” says Ian Blackaby, McKennitt’s London, England-based marketing consultant.

“From what they tell us, her fans seem to feel a stronger connection with her than with heavily mediated, multi-platinum star performers.”

McKennitt gently laughs at the kudos she’s given.

“It feels sometimes like a runaway myth,” she says of her reputation as a sharp entrepreneur. “But I do think I have strong business instincts, for what I chose not to do, rather than for what I do.”

Things like not wanting to get caught up in the larger-than-life world of artist management.

“A lot of it is a fashion commodity, a manufacturing kind of business, and I just didn’t want to be a commercial set factory,” she explains.

“There was a danger of distorting what the music was, what I was. So by default, I managed myself.”

Ironically, her strong sense of business management may have been too successful for her own good. Claiming her life is now “90 per cent administrative, seven per cent creative and three per cent personal,” she’s just hired a general manager to take over some of her business responsibilities in the new year.

“The success of my career has outgrown the infrastructure of me,” she says. “So I’m busy restructuring it.”

In part, that meant taking a personal hiatus from music to recover from the much-publicized 1998 death of her fiance, Ronald Rees, in a Georgian Bay boating accident. While his death rocked her into musical silence, it didn’t stop her from using her fame in other ways.

She started a water safety memorial fund for Rees and helped lobby for tougher boating rules on behalf of the Canadian Coast Guard. Two years ago, she bought a derelict building in Stratford, with plans to refurbish it and open a support centre for mentally challenged Canadians.

And then she traveled. Not to Club Meds or the coast of France. As usual, no typical celebrity trappings for McKennitt. Instead, she lost herself in archeological sites in countries such as Turkey and China, found herself in Siberia and spent time living with a family of nomads in Mongolia.

After all of that, McKennitt says she found what she needed to get back to her music.

“It was all very fascinating,” she says. “It’s always hard to find out how these trips will manifest themselves ... but I’m translating them into a musical form.”

She’s slowly working on an album she hopes to start recording in the spring. It will be her first full recording since her 1997 work The Book of Secrets.

In promoting The Book of Secrets, McKennitt referred to the words of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

The album sold more than four million copies worldwide. “I feel really privileged,” McKennitt says with her typical graciousness. “Very positive.”