Loreena McKennitt doesn’t want to sound like she’s complaining—but she certainly is. “I’ve been home from overseas for a week and I haven’t had time to do more than pick up a quart of milk,” says the exasperated singersongwriter during a recent interview in her Stratford, Ont., office. Adds the street busker turned record executive: “I was in here at six this morning and won’t leave until 10 or 11 tonight.
I’ve eaten in restaurants every day since I’ve been back and can’t remember when I last soaked in a tub.
It’s not a lifestyle I want to continue.”
Has success spoiled Canada’s celebrated Celtic songstress? Or has the toll of managing her own career— with global sales of her recordings now reaching the four million mark— simply been too great?
Down the hall, McKennitt’s Quinlan Road Productions staff is busy fielding calls about the boss’s latest, self-produced album. Like 1994’s The Mask and Mirror, The Book of Secrets took its creator to far-flung locales— including a journey from Vladivostok to Moscow aboard the Trans-Siberian Express—as McKennitt continued her musical exploration of Celtic culture (which may have originated as far east as the Russian steppes).
But the new album is different in several ways. A richer, more exotic mix of European and Middle Eastern sounds, it may also prove, paradoxically, to have the greatest massmarket potential of all McKennitt’s five releases. At the same time, the recording represents the end of an international distribution deal with Warner Music—one that the artist is in no rush to renew. Admits McKennitt: “People say to me, ‘Loreena, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Here you are, maybe at the pinnacle of your career, and you’re not going to sign with anybody?’ And I say, ‘Right. I need a psychological break. I’ve been building this [career] brick by brick since 1985. I’m 40 years old. It’s not a crisis, but there must be something else to this existence on earth.’ ” McKennitt’s career is definitely soaring. Two of her earlier albums, The Visit and The Mask and Mirror, sold more than half a million copies each in the United States. And that success, combined with major sales in such places as Spain, Italy and Turkey, earned McKennitt Billboard magazine’s International Achievement Award. Now The Book of Secrets, recorded sporadically over 18 months at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios near Bath, England, seems destined to eclipse that. Already, U.S. reviews have called the album McKennitt’s strongest and
most evocative to date. And one song, The Mummers’ Dance, is now enjoying airplay on mainstream rock radio stations in Montreal, Halifax and Toronto. Warner Music Canada executives are confident that the album’s worldwide sales will reach one million by Christmas. “Loreena’s one of our crown jewels,” says Km Cooke, the company’s vicepresident of artists and repertoire. “She’s a remarkable talent with tremendous focus on both the creative and business sides.” Trouble is, that split focus has taken a personal toll on the artist. Curled up on a chair in her office, the exhausted red-haired singer concedes that this is the price of selfmanagement. But, with folded arms and the sleeves of her rust-colored turtleneck sweater pulled over her hands, she is adamant that her course has been the right one. “There’s been so much time and passion and energy put into this project,” says McKennitt, “it seems reckless to relinquish that into the hands of people who might not understand it or care about it to the same degree.” Although she gives credit to Warner for helping push her albums into 40 countries around the world, McKennitt firmly believes that the success she is now enjoying can be attributed mostly to her own efforts and those other 10-member staff, who work from Quinlan Road offices in both Stratford and London. ‘We’re driving this thing, cheerleading it all the way,” she says firmly. Without significant radio or video airplay, it’s up to us to find all the back doors and side doors to reach people.”
Although those doors include the use of print and electronic promotional materials, McKennitt most effective marketing tool has simply been her music and an almost reverential word-of-mouth response to it. With The Book of Secrets, listeners will recognize the similarity of The Highwayman, based on a poem by Alfred Noyes, to other narrative poems the singer has set to music, such as The Bonny Swans and Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot. And hypnotic songs like The Mummers’ Dance, with its droning hurdy-gurdy, and the moody Skellig, with its melancholic fiddle and tin whistle, will delight fans of McKennitt’s more classically Celtic work. But some of the album’s strongest material stem from the artist’s quest to find the roots of Celtic culture. Marco Polo, a stirring, otherworldly jam session of drummers and string players, was sparked by an exploration of Sufism, the mystical offshoot of Islam. And the dark Dante’s Prayer uses a chilling piece of Russian Orthodox choral music to convey the desperation of people she witnessed on her Siberian train trip. Throughout, McKennitt sings in her haunting soprano, occasionally providing accompaniment on harp, accordion or piano.
McKennitt, whose interests range from archeology to urban design to environmental studies, seems at times as much a scholar as a musician. Her new CD booklet includes journal-like entries, detailing her travels through not only Russia but also Italy, Greece and Turkey, and the discoveries she made while researching each song. Listeners can even write to Quinlan Road for a complete bibliography of the books that influenced McKennitt, including such esoteric tomes as William Eamon’s Science and the Secrets of Nature. While that may all sound rather lofty for pop music, McKennitt says she actually sees herself as a kind of travel writer, putting to music what some of her favorite authors—Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and Jan Morris among them—do with prose. “What I’m really doing,” she adds, with a laugh, “is making up for my lack of formal education after high school. I have this insatiable curiosity and I’ve found a way through travel and music to feed it.”
McKennitt’s passion for history extends to her personal life. Her Stratford office is on the second floor of the town’s former newspaper building, part of a row built in 1881 which McKennitt and others recently fought to have declared historically significant. And on the rare occasions when she is at home, McKennitt lives with her two dogs in an 1830 stone farmhouse, on 160 acres south of Stratford, which she purchased three years ago. Being able to getinvolved in local issues, something she did when she first moved to the theatrical town in 1981 in order to take part in Stratford Festival productions, is part of the reason McKennitt wants a break. “I want to be able to go to council meetings and be part of the community,” she says. “I want to know my neighbors and be a normal person. And I’d love to get involved in the festival again, but my current life doesn’t allow for that.”
After completing The Book of Secrets, McKennitt had figured out a way of taking time off before touring. Then she saw the artwork for the CD fall behind schedule, jeopardizing the release date. The record executive in her took over. She promptly postponed her planned 50-date fall tour and set to work putting things back in order. “I didn’t have the heart to watch the record die,” she says, “not when I’d spent so much time researching and recording it.” For now, McKennitt intends to see through the marketing plans for the album, including flying her Stratford staff to London to meet their English counterparts in what she calls Quinlan Road’s “unconventional convention.” Then she has to decide whether she’s going to go through with an Italian television project and tours of Europe and North America next year. It’s not going to be an easy choice for the artist who has done it all her way and won a fanatical following in the process. But clearly something has to give. “Maybe I can shift my activities to performing for theatre or scoring for films,” McKennitt speculates. “All I need is something thaï takes me less away from home.” □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.