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Loreena McKennitt - The voice of Celtic Secrets

From 'Renaissance Magazine', issue# 19, 2000
By Tim Wilson

International recording artist Loreena McKennitt is known for her mix of Celtic and folk sounds and her experiments with world beat. She released her first acclaimed CD, Elemental, in 1985, while her first album distributed on a major label was The Visit in 1992, followed by The Mask and Mirror, in 1994 and A Winter Garden: Five Songs for the Season in 1995, all of which combined have sold over eight million copies. in 1997, The Book of Secrets reached platinum status in the United States and several other territories. Then in 1998, McKennitt established the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety after her fiancÚ and two friends perished in a boating accident on Lake Huron. And at the end of 1999, she released her first full-length live album, Live in Paris and Toronto, the profits of which went entirely to the Fund.

Although McKennitt has recently decided to take some personal time away from her busy recording and touring schedule, she speaks with Renaissance Magazine about the inspiration behind her music.

Q: There are people who are convinced that you are Irish. Where, exactly, are you from?
LM: My great grandparents came from Ireland in the 1830's, although I grew up in Morden, Manitoba, Canada for the first 17 years of my life. But I have spent a lot of time in Ireland over the years, particularly since the early 1980's, when I became smitten by the Celtic sound and felt a necessity to travel to its place of origin.

Q: What drew you to the "Celtic Sound"?
LM: There's something in the older structure of the music - the rhythmic patterns and the drone aspect of it - that I find engaging. I first became exposed to Celtic music through a folk club in Winnipeg in the late 70s. Its casual nature was attractive to me - how people took turns playing - so that when I ultimately went to Ireland and sat in a pub or went to somebody's home, it wasn't uncomfortable for me to encounter this kind of informal example of people's self expression.

Q: What do you find most interesting about traveling?
LM: The fascinating thin about traveling is that it allows you to pick up far more information on a sensual level. For example, when I was in Marrakesh doing some research for The Mask and Mirror, I would sometimes go into a market during Ramadan when people had been fasting all day long. In the evening when the fast was broken, the market would spring into a cacophony of sight, sound, and smell. To travel to these types of places fills my wood stack, so to speak, in terms of painting a picture musically; in essence, the goal of my music is to rearticulate this sensual energy.

Q: What was your goal in recording The Book of Secrets?
LM: With my previous CD, The Visit, I learned that the Celts were much more than a mad collection of anarchists from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Rather, they were comprised of a vast collection of tribes from middle and eastern Europe, dating as far back as 500 BC. This pan-Celtic history became a kind of creative springboard for The Book of Secrets
But I also wanted to get an even further eastern glimpse of the Celts after I read How The Irish Saved Civilization, which explained how for centuries, medieval Irish monks had been copying ancient classical religious and historical texts into illuminated manuscripts. In fact, Irish monks were the ones who reintroduced classical material back into Europe, and if it had not been for the monks, these important works might have been lost to us forever.
According to what I've read, the first Irish community established in Italy was in the North in a place called Bobbio, and when I found this out, I made a trip to this region. I remember thinking that if one was looking for the equivalent of the isolation that the Irish monks experienced on the Skellig Islands, this was the mountainous equivalent of it. Hence, The Book of Secrets picked up on a thread of how for some, isolation is desirable - or even necessary - to enhance one's connection with the essence of God.

Q: Do you need to be alone to come into your deepest contact?
LM: No; I agree more with the Sufi perspective that you should not remove yourself from the world, but participate in it; that the opportunities we experience in life are the things that cause us to grow. But isolated situations are good for different stages of one's development.

Q: What is the meaning behind the Sufi quotation in your liner notes of The Book of Secrets, that music and singing do not produce in the heart that which isn't in it?
LM: Insofar as there are hidden jewels - hidden strengths (and often people are unaware of their own inner goodness) - my interpretation of this quote is that music, with its invisible and yet powerful forces, can stir up primal feelings that are lying dormant in everyone.
This is also connected to the Sufic concept of "polishing the mirror of your soul," that as you go through life trying to refine your self, strengthening your connection to God, and working towards perfection, one's hidden strengths are all just mechanisms of looking at oneself differently or working one's way through life. So we should not remove ourselves from engagement, or even confrontation with the world. Instead, we should use each of those opportunities to do something good for somebody else.

Q: So you've discovered a connection, then, between Celtic and Eastern philosophy.
LM: When I was reading From The Holy Mountain, author William Dalrymple touched upon the question of illuminated manuscripts coming from the east, and the migrations through Europe and North Africa, describing how we have lost so many threads of those historical connections, and why the illuminated manuscripts that we now associate so strongly with Ireland and Scotland - The Book of Durrow and The Book of Kells, for example - actually had their historical roots in the East.

Q: What are some of the more specific inspirations for the songs on The Book of Secrets ?
LM: The Lyrics to "Skellig" tell the story of an elderly Irish monk in the seventh century, who spent most of his life in the isolated religious community of Skellig Michael, on the west coast of Ireland. The setting of the Skellig Islands is unbelievably harsh, and even now, to take a boat over there is a risky endeavor. The monk of the song finds peace only after "many a year perched out at sea." In this song I wanted to capture this sense of isolation as the contact point with that essence called God.
Then in 1995, I traveled by train across Siberia. Though my intention was to find a solitude which would allow me to work out the themes for this recording, I was drawn in and distracted by the tableau of humanity which passed my window. At the same time, I had begun to make my way through Dante's Divine Comedy. Something about all those souls I had seen and met seemed connected to Dante's words, and became the inspiration behind the song "Dante's Prayer."
The "Mummers' Dance," on the other hand, links the work of a marionette-maker I met in Palermo, Sicily, with the hobby horse of May Day celebrations in Padstow, Cornwall, and the teachings of a Sufi order in Turkey. All of these tangents came together around the folk custom of mumming.
Likewise, "La Serenissima" was inspired by Ian Morris' dazzling description in Venice of the extraordinary pageant that greeted Henry III of France as he arrived in the "most serene" city in 1574. He described how the king was greeted by floating arches, rafts of glass-blowers creating figurines, paintings, and all the pomp of the period, the imagery of which I recounted in this song.

Q: You have also mined English literature beautifully for a number of your songs - "The Lady Of Shalott" on The Visit and "The Highwaymen" in The Book of Secrets, for instance. What inspired you to put classic verse to music?
LM: Classical material gives my recordings weight and a different perspective than my own; I've never felt that my lyric writing was the strongest aspect of what I do, so that has been my inspiration for using the poetry of sophisticated writers such as Shakespeare, Blake, or Yeats.

Q: Have you ever been in a place where you felt that you had been before in another lifetime?
LM: Reincarnation certainly comes up in the material from time to time, particularly with the Celts, whose philosophy was similar to the Native American's feeling that the souls of their ancestors where inherent in every living thing, and, as a result, respect for the natural world was paramount. But I can't say that there's been any place where I have felt a special connection, nor have I felt that I ever wanted to live at another time, especially when you consider what life was like 500 years ago. It is easy to romanticize the past, but life was hard back then, and its duration was relatively shore compared to one's life expectancy now.
Although I feel blessed to live at this time, there is a lot to be learned from the past, such as finding the strengths in history that we might have lost in our highly technological society. This struck home for me in the past three years, as I now believe that I need to reconfigure how my time is spent, and allow more time for reflection and for digesting all the information that modern life throws at you. You can't just absorb all this information without the time to interpret and digest it.

Q: What inspired the title of The Book of Secrets?
LM: Science And The Secrets of Nature, a book which discusses the history of science and the Islamic brotherhoods in North Africa, also tells how the medieval Arabic culture was studying astrology, astronomy, mathematics, and alchemy in order to identify a harmonious balance within substances, as well as in the self. But according to the book, as this information came west, people became more careful about how these secrets were handled. One can extrapolate this dilemma to our day and age. Do we want to give out recipes for atomic bombs on the internet or in the newspapers? How should this type of information be handled, and who should have control of it? It was from that book that I first landed upon the title of the CD.

Q: However, some may read the title of The Book of Secrets as more personal.
LM: I've chosen not to document myself in my music because I feel that history is far more important than I am. The Book of Secrets is rather a personal document of my own exploration, and were I not to sell one recording, in one sense this wouldn't bother me because I've learned so much about myself and have grown so much in the process of creating the album. My personal growth is far more important to me than worldly success. In fact, have begun to realize that the world is far more complex than I have ever imagined. When you examine the history behind situations, you begin to find that you cannot disconnect yourself from the culmination of our collective histories, and, as a result, there is much to bind together as a race.