21st April 03 The Morden Times
From a prairie spark to a global flame
by Lorne Stelmach
As Morden prepares to welcomes star musician Loreena McKennitt
home for a gala in her honour this weekend, the Times begins a series of
articles in tribute to her.
The following feature story appeared in the August 26, 1996 edition of the Times
when she was interviewed on the occasion of a visit to her hometown.
Even the greatest of world travelers might be envious of the schedule that
Loreena McKennitt keeps up.
“I was doing a rather eclectic group of dates,” the Morden born musician
said during a recent interview.
The Montreal Jazz Festival was followed by another festival in Istanbul, Turkey.
And then she was off to Greece, back to Canada, off to Italy for two shows, then
to London, England to work on new material.
As much as she has become a real globetrotter, however, she still draws
inspiration from her prairie roots.
“Growing up in the prairies, there’s that sense of distance. There’s a lot
of blank pages in the geography,” McKennitt said on the eve of her homecoming
to Morden (in August, 1996), where she sang O Canada as part of the opening
ceremonies for the Safeway Manitoba Summer Games.
A kind of vitality
You don’t recognize it so much as a child, but McKennitt said much about life
on the prairies provides “a certain kind of vitality.”
There is a contrast that she sees as a strong motivational influence.
“I think, for me, part of the ingredients that have proven Manitoba to be an
excellent breeding ground for people in the arts is that you’re isolated
enough, and yet, historically, there’s been a very interesting cross section
of culture groups.”
McKennitt, whose next record (Book of Secrets) will be released in 40 countries
worldwide, said “coming from a Mennonite community, there was always a strong
emphasis on music and singing.”
She felt there was a recognition of the importance of striving to be broader
human beings - “to be exposed and involved in a wide range of things.”
She remembered how Paul Sigurdson and one of her music teachers, Olga Friesen,
once wrote an operetta.
“They brought in dancers from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet; that’s pretty
remarkable for a town of 3,000 people to have that level of inspiration and
Inspiration for the young McKennitt, who described herself as a tomboy, came
partly through two music teachers - Friesen and Neil Hoeppner. She described
them as extremely influential.
“Both of them were examples of strong expressions of creativity, and they were
driven by a spark.”
The Celtic spark
The spark for McKennitt came when she first heard the infectious rhythms of
She left Morden after Grade 11, and the folk clubs of Winnipeg helped to lead to
her abandoning her plans to become a veterinarian. She realizes in hindsight
that that career path couldn’t have happened for her.
“I don’t think, for starters, I could have happily inhabited the university
kind of complex.”
McKennitt, whose father Jack ran a livestock business now operated by his son
Warren, moved to Stratford, Ontario in 1981. There she became involved with the
theatre, and her interest in the Celtic world led her to visit Ireland in 1982.
She has continued to travel there on a regular basis since.
She built her freedom to explore and create music that mattered to her through a
very practical “nuts and bolts” approach - and with a book entitled How to
Make and Sell Your Own Record in her hands.
McKennitt began busking in the St. Lawrence market in Toronto. Along the way,
she compiled names of people who showed interest in her music, and she then had
a ready audience when her first record was released.
Money from her record sales helped finance the next recording, and her concerts
continued to help build her following. When her third record, Parallel Dreams,
was released in 1989, her handcrafted network of fans led to sales of over
Warner Music Canada came calling in 1991, and they reached a deal with McKennitt
that was an unusual and remarkable one.
She retained the right for her own Quinlan Road label to continue to finance and
distribute the records, and they would “simply license the finished master
(recording) to them.”
In the beginning, McKennitt didn’t have any vision of where her fascination
with Celtic music would lead her.
“I really had no idea what was possible or even where I was heading
towards,” she commented.
“You really needed a recording…that was a really important, practical piece
in the puzzle.”
Once she had a record for people to hear, she said “everything seemed to spin
off that.” And she found she didn’t need huge, sophisticated marketing
“It was kind of a process of proving to myself and to them (Warner Music) that
there was a market for this, and they’ve been happy to leave me go to it.”
With her record sales now topping three million worldwide, she said “they have
realized there is a market for this.
“The whole thing is far beyond what I could have hoped or imagined,” she
added. “So I feel very lucky to be doing what I’m doing and doing it the way
I’m doing it.”
A dynamic force
May creative people will tell you there is a dynamic force that moves through
them when they create their next work.
Defining her creative process may not be easy, but McKennitt said she has
“come to know better when those sparks may come.
“But there’s sometimes I can be standing in the middle of an airport, and a
melody will just cross my mind.”
The process of creativity can be elusive, but McKennitt said she has learned
enough about herself to construct the proper circumstances for it to happen.
“The challenge for me is to do a lot of the intellectual and research work for
my music, and then put myself into this very forgetful kind of state,” she
“That can be difficult, being involved at the same time in the administration
of my career.
“I just check out. When you are relaxed enough… the creative impulses
and possibilities seem more profuse. I don’t know if more profound,” she
added with a laugh.
McKennitt said you often need to find a different view of things and ideas.
“Things can strike you in a different way than when you’re looking at
them,’ she continued. “It reminds me, as they say in the theatre, you learn
the script, then you throw the script away.
“You become too familiar with things, and you take it for granted and lock
into one perspective of things. I call this shuffling the deck.”
Record stores have been in a quandary as to how to classify her music. It can be
found filed under anything from pop or folk to world music or new age.
“I call it eclectic Celtic,” she responds with a chuckle.
“I don’t know. I think categorizations are unfortunate necessities,” she
added, because some people need a point of reference to start from.
“The dangers of that are I think most artists’ work is distinctive to
She likes to think of her music as world music because “its influences are
drawn from various parts of the world.
“I try to avoid the new age territory because I think that the new age music
as a genre is fundamentally different from what my music is.”
She was surprised after a concert in Berlin when a writer with a German heavy
metal magazine asked her if she knew “how well known you are in heavy
“Geez, that’s news to me,” she responded, as the thought set off another
chuckle. “But I guess there’s an aspect of the gothic imagery.”
McKennitt follows a simple ground rule as she charts her future and career: “I
can continue doing music that is of interest to me and on my own terms.”
Her next record will follow along the same stream as on The Mask and The Mirror.
“I think it will remain sort of eclectic in its musical arrangements, but
still more or less anchored in the Celtic past.
“But the Celts, as I learned about four or five years ago, came from Middle
and Eastern Europe as far back as 500 BC, and I’ve used that pan-Celtic
history as a creative springboard.”
As well as planning and working on her record, McKennitt recorded music for
television and also anticipated her music being used in more feature films.
It all just happens as opportunities arise.
“I’ve actually come this far without having any particular goals, except to
realize the potential that is inherent in this music,” she said.
“It’s gone far beyond what I could have imagined or hoped. I’m still
prepared to let it lead the way.
“I would also like to arrange a bit more time for myself and for doing things
that are unrelated to the business.
“I mean, it’s more than a business,” she explains. “This is my love and
passion, but my love and passion also involves a lot of business.
“I would like to get back and re-anchor myself into the community.”
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