PUBLISHED IN CANADIAN MUSICIAN
When it comes to exploring her Celtic ancestry, Loreena McKennitt leaves no stone unturned.
She’s trekked to the far corners of the Earth following her muse, this one-woman dynamo on a mission of cultural renaissance. Her travels have taken her to London, Ireland, Athens, Istanbul, Sicily and even a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway to inspire her latest masterpiece, The Book Of Secrets.
“With The Book Of Secrets, I feel that it is in some respects a travelogue,” states McKennitt, whose many talents as singer, harpist, keyboardist, composer and recorded artist are equally complemented by her savvy business acumen in self-management and as founder and CEO of the Canada’s most successful independent record label, Quinlan Road.
“I’m not going to put myself in the same category as a travel writer, but it is the kind of function where you’re marrying historical detail with personal experience. By doing that, sometimes that kind of expression allows other people to latch on to corners of history or cultural stratas that they wouldn’t have imagined.”
McKennitt invests extraordinary amounts of time and research into her craft. Details are paramount to the 40-year-old resident of Stratford, Ontario, who admits she is relentless when it comes to gathering background information.
As initially explored on 1994’s The Mask And The Mirror, The Book Of Secrets — the sixth full-length studio album of the impressive McKennitt catalogue — is a continued expedition into researching The Celts after discovering their roots stretched far beyond the Western stereotypes of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. You can hear the results in the Turkish and Egyptian Sufi swirls of such songs as “Prologue” and “Night Ride Across The Caucasus.”
“The whole process of assembling that alternate musical and thematic tapestry called The Book Of Secrets took two-and-a-half years,” McKennitt reveals. “In the first year, I began with an unexplored thread that remained from a previous recording. I discovered that early Celtic tribes came from Eastern Europe, near Czechoslovakia, and decided to anchor myself in Italy.
“I knew that Etruscans were contemporaries of The Celts, a people that heavily influenced the Romans in their social structure, water systems, artwork and even some burial rituals although their language is little known. I based myself out of Italy to follow a Celtic and Irish thread, to gather and weave to ultimately end up with the musical document I have.”
She says her information comes from a number of sources, and she tries to experience them firsthand whenever possible.
“I do a lot of research, sifting through academic and fiction books. Then I try to travel to those places to gather a whole different kind of information — sensual information: the smell of the streets, the sounds, the whole feel of the people. When I wrote ‘Marrakesh Night Market’ on The Mask And The Mirror, being in Marrakesh during Ramadan in that marketplace at night was unbelievable.
“I also gather unusual recordings, study a lot of liner notes and hoard together a composite picture.”
Given that McKennitt’s self-described “eclectic Celtic” is a musical bedspread weaving the classical with the exotic — and that in such earlier songs as “The Lady Of Shallot” and “Stolen Child,” McKennitt has directly adapted the literary works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Butler Yeats, William Shakespeare and other kings and saints for her majestic madrigals — a perception still lingers that argues her predilection for ancient history; the Elizabethan petticoats she wears during a concert performance; or the visual link of simply playing the harp translates into a desire to return to the days of medieval Britain over the technology-ridden land of the Maple Leaf.
It’s a preposterous notion.
“There’s no question I’ve had a long empathetic or sympathetic tendency towards period kind of things, but I also feel I’m quite conversant in a lot of contemporary technology,” says McKennitt. “I also feel it’s easy to romanticize about what life was like one hundred years ago, but I think it was pretty difficult and pretty miserable for a lot of people through disease and hardship and the common basic stuff of survival.
“I’ve never really fantasized or wished that I lived at that time. But I feel very, very interested in sociological themes and various kinds of cultural configurations, and I use the vehicle of my music and looking back in history to explore a lot of subjects, motivated by a lot of philosophical premises. In order to be able to stake your directions in the future sense, who you are, where you come from, whom you are related to, I’ve used the Celtic music and the Pan-Celtic history as a mechanism of that exploration…and ultimately as a creative springboard for my recording.”
It’s a springboard that has found favor with four million souls in 40 countries. Loreena McKennitt’s music has crossed language boundaries, accepted by people who have shared her enthusiasm for connecting with her roots, appreciated her integrity for historical accuracy, and are beguiled by her seamless afghan of Celtic and eastern euphony that unmistakably bridges the centuries.
So it seems appropriate that McKennitt’s studio loft — the epicenter for her best known multi-platinum records The Visit, The Mask And The Mirror, and the brand new The Book Of Secrets — is hidden away in a remote corner of a downtown Stratford 19th century cathedral.
Located just a stone’s throw away from the offices of Quinlan Road, the independent record company that began with a drop of family money, relentless ambition and a copy of Diana Sward Rapaport‘s How To Make And Sell Your Own Record as a handbook. It has since swelled to a yearly multi-million dollar business that employs 11 and has expanded to London, England. The loft continues to serve McKennitt well.
“It’s a very comfortable space,” McKennitt tells Canadian Musician, as the door swings open, revealing stacks of modern and antique instrument cases, tables and a few Victorian-era stringed guitars lining a bench.
On one wall is a colorful mural, as shrouds of curtain hang from the ceiling to buffer sound.
“The acoustics are good. I did some decorating in here that actually soundproofed the acoustics.”
In front of a blackboard filled with telephone numbers and written reminders, the birthplace of McKennitt’s best known multi-platinum albums — 1991’s The Visit and The Mask And The Mirror — is set up with a small eight-track studio, a keyboard and a Macintosh computer.
It is here that the indefatigable McKennitt and her core team of guitarist Brian Hughes, keyboardist and programmer Donald Quan, percussionist Rick Lazar, and fiddler Hugh Marsh gather to flesh out the latest chapters of her path of Celtic enlightenment.
They are her musical companions of choice through their devotion in exploring unique musical frontiers.
“I think that they are all very curious people, and they have an appreciation for things eclectic,” McKennitt states. “They know already that I’m looking for the eclectic combinations, and they’re game to try the different ways to really get into the non-linear kind. Just having that curiosity, that attitude and that openness is fantastic. As very accomplished players, they bring a lot of chops to the table. There’s quite a wide range of talent. Donald is quite proficient on the computer and editing, and Brian is an assistant to me. His area of responsibility for the most part on The Book Of Secrets was co-ordinating the schedules of the musicians and studio and engineer — logistics and timing. It was an immense responsibility, because there were 28 people who came and went. He also offered invaluable assistance when we talked about microphones or certain technical aspects.
“But when it comes to the whole area of choosing music, the whole creative area is mine entirely. I’m there all the time when the tracking is going down, and it has to satisfy me — but he is the person who has worked with me the longest and who I could leave a lot of exercises with and he would know how I want it done. ”
Recorded at Peter Gabriel‘s Real World Studios in Wiltshire near Bath, England, The Book Of Secrets was engineered and mixed by Stuart Bruce and Kevin Killen. An impressive line-up of world class musicians ranging from ex-Pentangle bass legend Danny Thompson, cellists Caroline Lavelle and Anne Bourne, drummer Manu Katche, guitarist David Rhodes and Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy played an assortment of eclectic instruments with names like timba, esraj, serangi and rebek.
McKennitt says she chose Real World for its close proximity to cosmopolitan virtuosos.
“It’s a bit of a paint-by-number process,” she explains. “I mock up many things in this studio in Stratford, but the only place in the world to access a very wide range of eclectic musicians quickly is London. If I need a serangi or a rebek, all instruments that sound similar but have their own cultural and idiomatic voices and textures, London has a lot of exotic players.
“For instance, Brian Hughes plays oud on a lot of tracks. But sometimes you want not just the instrument, you want a musician who plays very much in a particular idiom. On the track ‘Marco Polo’, there are a couple of fiddle tracks. One is Hugh Marsh, but the other is Egyptian fiddler Osama who plays in a style that is not Hugh’s thing.
“I like residential studios, and what was really wonderful and exciting and so much fun is that I had my core team there. Then I brought in Osama and seven or eight kinds of guitar players, David Rhodes — who plays with Peter Gabriel — and Hossam Ramzy would come in and play with Rick Lazar, and he’s played with (Robert) Plant and (Jimmy) Page, and they’re all getting off on each other.
“They’d go into a corner and share and teach each other riffs, or talk about how their instruments function. I know that after Rick met Hossam, he went to Egypt and bought some stuff. So for me, to be this musical social Madam introducing people was a great thrill.
“You have that whole creative environment, and Real World is more than just one studio. They have four other spaces that are set up for different stages and projects. The cross-fertilization in that less formal and social atmosphere has allowed us to really spread our contacts and exposure to different parts of the business.
“One thing I find is unfortunately because of where I live in Stratford, and managing the career the way I do, I feel hopelessly isolated and out of touch. It’s a function of the way I’ve chosen to do things, so it was a wonderful byproduct at Real World to all of a sudden be finding I was at the mercy of a wide range of a convoy of musicians and engineers.”
Real World’s ambience and McKennitt’s financial independence also allowed her to conduct an unusual procedure: she remixed the album twice.
“I used two different engineers — Stuart Bruce and Kevin Killen — because I was interested in sort of a sicence experiment. If you offer the same material in the same studio with two engineers, how will they approach it?
Stuart, for example, in the rhythmic pieces, strengthened the strings and the legato part of the track, where Kevin was really pulling out the punch in the drums. It’s like building architecture. With Kevin Killen, he was focused on the voice and he wound up lifting it up out of the mix in a particular way. He’d pan things, and the equalization was treated in such a manner so that it clearly left a space around the voice to come out. Stuart went at it differently. It was like going to university.
“What’s really important is that I learned that an engineer’s personality can make a big difference. If you get an engineer who is introverted, the dynamic and the stance of recording occurs in a way that may not be as conducive as an extrovert who is quick to move microphones. It’s bad enough having one musician waiting for the tape to roll, but to have six or seven while you’re trying to keep their crispness, vitality and inspiration alive…you need an engineer who is right there with you and anticipating your needs. So an engineer who is good at tracking might be hopeless at mixing.”
Musically, McKennitt’s only relied on one dead guy’s classic lyrics for The Book Of Secrets.
“This time around, I’ve only used the lyrics of Alfred Noyes‘ The Highwayman, and although I’m tempted to go back to Shakespeare, there’s always a danger that you’re repeating the same themes,” she explains.”I really wanted to cast the net in a different way, and I was looking for Italian or Spanish material. When you get into the translations, I just couldn’t quite find the right lyrics and meter.
“On this recording, all the music and the lyrics with the exception of ‘The Highwayman’ are written by myself. The reason I’ve used other writers in a classical domain in the past is I wanted more sophisticated classical perspectives and voices woven into the work. I felt it gave it more body, and more significance. It was a narrative, not of convenience, but I want to hear how Yeats feels about a certain subject, or Shakespeare or Blake.”
McKennitt says there’s no set pattern to her musical methodology.
“There’s no predictable order,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll find the lyric first, and I’ll let them speak to me in the same way I compose music for film and theatre. For film, I’ll look at a rough cut and I’ll let it give me its first impressions and its voicings, its color and its character, and then I’ll try to find the musical map — the musical line and rhythm. I’ll have melodies hanging around, and if I really want that melody in the work, I’ll try to find a writer who addresses this theme. It’s tricky.
“It’s of great concern to me that I’m able to address the theme or subject, and its language. I’m not the best person as a lyricist, because more often than not I feel I’ve fallen short from what I wanted to say. I would say that ‘Dante’s Prayer’ on this recording came the closest to the wordsmithing that I liked. You’re really causing words to resonate in culmination with the phrase, ‘I tilled the sorrows of stone.’ I like ‘the sorrows of stone.’ It makes sorrow resonate in a different way, having sung it. ”
So, how did a Prairie lass from Morden, Manitoba end up as a musical globetrotter?
“My father was a livestock dealer and my mother a nurse, and it was a very rural, Prairie kind of household,” McKennitt recalls. “Morden was very central. There weren’t a lot of cultural events around it, but there was a lot of music and a very strong Mennonite community. So that I feel that my musical influence really came from that extended German Mennonite community, and the festivals and the operettas. Particularly my piano teacher. She was a very strong influence. The soul of her own creativity was so much wider than you would expect of anybody coming from that community.”
Although McKennitt’s own household wasn’t brimming with musicality, it wasn’t until her teens and a move to the University Of Manitoba in Winnipeg to pursue her interest in becoming a veterinarian that she turned into a folkie, soaking up Peter, Paul & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, Judy Collins and of course, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
“When I went to Winnipeg, I took my Grade 12 in piano and from that time until I moved to Stratford I was part of a folk club. We’d get together once every Sunday, and a number of the members were from Ireland. That was the first time I was really exposed to Celtic music. They brought their recordings, and I started to tap into The Bothy Band, Planxty, Steeleye Span and Alan Stivell.
“That was the previous big wave of Celtic music. After I heard it in the folk clubs, I felt I had to go to Ireland and hear it in its natural form.”
Her university stint lasted only three months, and in 1981, McKennitt relocated to Stratford for what she thought would be a short stay.
“I was invited to be part of the theatre’s Gilbert And Sullivan production. I left all my household effects in Winnipeg thinking I’d be here just for the summer.”
After auditioning for the acting company at the Festival Theatre, McKennitt realized that Stratford would be home for a while. She became interested in Celtic music a year later, and spent February of 1982 in Ireland, contemplating relocation.
Instead, she stayed and decided to investigate a solo career in 1984.
“I figured out recording was an important possibility,” she says. “So I borrowed some money from my family, armed myself with this wonderful book by Diane Rapaport and wrote and recorded Elemental in a studio near Elora. And that was the beginning of this path…”
It was also in 1984 that McKennitt began playing the harp, although she modestly feels that her prowess on the instrument has been somewhat overblown.
“I certainly don’t consider myself a harpist,” she says modestly, noting that the only use of harp on The Book Of Secrets is on the track “La Serenissima.”
“I would say that I’m a singer and I accompany myself on the harp.”
She initially picked it up perform on a William Blake play in Stratford, and later “Two Gentlemen In Verona.”
“I more or less taught myself,” she recalls. “I took about six lessons, but my lifestyle didn’t really allow me to study because I was running around so much. So I taught myself all the bad habits.”
Stating a preference for the Troubadour Lever harp built by Chicago-based Lyon & Healy, McKennitt says the instrument is tough, rugged and affordable.
“It’s no so much designed as a folk instrument, but a student instrument for classic harpists. It has most of the range of a classic harp, but it doesn’t have the pedals. Most beginners can’t afford the huge financial investment of the classical harp, and all the logistics that go with trucking it around, so this harp is a really good casting of the waters. ”
“They’re built like workhorses. There’s nothing fancy about them, but for somebody whose traveling a lot, they’re very practical and very sturdy. They can take a lot of abuse, and still retain the quality of the tone and the sound.”
McKennitt says harps built with nylon and gut strings serve better as accompanying instruments, although they’re much more difficult to keep in tune. She also claims they’re easy to learn.
“I think a lot of people are daunted by the numbers of strings, but I equate it to learning how to type, where you develop a sense of distance between keys,” she explains. ” With the harp, you’re just learning how to develop a sense of distance between the strings, like a guitar or a fiddle. It’s a very pleasant instrument to learn on . It’s not like the trumpet or even the violin, where just to make a tone that sounds pleasing is a whole exercise onto itself. A person who doesn’t know how to play at all can touch the strings of a harp and create quite a soothing sound. So I think getting over the hurdle of creating offensive sounds on the harp is better than the bagpipes.”
When it comes to her gloriously delicate siren’s voice, McKennitt says she applies two golden rules of maintenance.
“When I’m on tour, and even when I’m not on tour, the big key items are rest and exercise. Also for me, diet. Because what I eat, how much I eat and when I eat has much bearing on what I’m feeling, as well as the quality of my sleep. Being rested and physically fit I think is the greatest investment any musician can make, because almost no matter what you’re playing, there’s a lot of physicality involved if you’re going to play it well and you want to have access to a full range of dynamics and expressions and posture and technique — all of that is really, really important.. So I try to look after those things. I stay in hotels where I can go to jog easily, and I’m very disciplined about my rest.”
McKennitt says even road life allows her six to eight hours of sleep at night. And prior to any performance there’s the vocal warm-up.
“Before a performance, there are vocal exercises and actually speech exercises that I learned in the theatre…stretching my mouth and practicing my diction. Again, making sure that the machine is aligned. For me it just makes it much more exciting to hit the deck running with the first song. People pay a lot of money, sometimes they travel a lot of distance, and it’s laziness to go out on stage and not be ready. You really have a responsibility to your audience.
“Usually I like to have water at my dispensation, but also a lemon drink like hot lemonade with honey. Not having anything sweet or milk just keeps the phlegm down in your throat.
“I’m also a vegetarian, and we’re at the point now where our contract riders usually state fresh fruit and vegetables and juices. I get my dairy through yogurt in the morning.”
Loreena McKennitt indicates that a 1998 tour to support The Book Of Secrets is a likely scenario, and expresses surprise that her devotion to Celtic music has brought her down this exciting career path.
“In a sense, I feel like a lot of things have been predetermined,” says McKennitt. “I never aspired to be a singer. I always wanted to be a veterinarian. But you have to be open to things that you might end up trying, to pushing a square peg in a round hole. If your design, your sensibilities, your instincts and talents are kind of leading in this direction, why not follow it? “That’s what I’ve done. I flirted around with musical theatre and different musical styles, but the music that really seemed to connect me the deepest was the music of a certain period of style. Not just Celtic music — I love baroque. It was involuntary. Even though I trained classically for ten years, I found that when I’d be listening to Steeleye Span or some of these traditional groups, there’s a tonality, a phrasing, an interpretation that goes with those idioms that I found myself plugging into.
“So I feel in a sense that I’m still following my instincts. I don’t have material aspirations. I want to use the music to explore a lot of themed subjects about life in this world that are fascinating to me. Through recording, if I can allow other people to come along on that voyage of discovery, then great.”
No wonder that a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu‘s Taoist philosophy precedes The Book Of Secrets‘ liner notes: “A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
Sounds like he was thinking of Loreena McKennitt.