Loreena McKennitt Plays Celtic Harp Music for the Modern Age at Segerstrom

About 2,500 years ago, Plato wrote that “[societies] must look for craftsmen who have the innate gift of tracking down…fine works of art…which imperceptibly [guide] them…until they are assimilated to, familiar with, and in harmony with the beauty of reason.” Loreena McKennitt fits the bill of Plato’s description of the essential artist. Prior to producing her Celtic, World, and New Age albums, she performs extensive historical, folkloric, and cultural research on her subjects. Her labors have resulted in legions of devoted fans, recognition from numerous musical academies, and a series of unique non-musical accolades.

This Sunday, McKennitt will make a rare appearance at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts as she continues her recent series of intimate performances (she will sing and perform on her harp with the accompaniment of long-time collaborators, guitarist Brian Hughes and cellist Caroline Lavelle). In advance of this performance, the Weekly had an opportunity to speak with McKennitt regarding the role of research in her art, her creative process, and the humanitarian benefits of one of her many honorary appointments.

OC Weekly (Scott Feinblatt): Your concerts are known for being just as much about storytelling as playing music. What started you on the path of contextualizing music with history and storytelling in general?

Loreena McKennitt: I fell madly in love with Celtic music when I was living in Winnipeg, in the late 70’s. Then when I moved to Ontario in ’81, I continued to research Celtic music and so on, but it wasn’t until about 1991 that I attended an exhibition in Venice, that was the most extensive exhibition ever assembled on The Celts, and it was a result of that that I learned that they were much more than this mad collection of anarchists from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and so on, but they were this vast collection of tribes that had fanned out across Europe and into Asia Minor and dated back to about 500 B.C. So, [basically] since ’91, I’ve chosen to travel to many of those places. One of the very first places was to the Celtic area of Spain, up in the northwest corner, called Galicia, but once I made my way to Spain, I had to travel to Morocco to see — because so much of Moroccan and Arabic influence had come to Europe via Spain. My travels have also taken me to Mongolia, Northwest China, Turkey, Greece, etc. I have also used that pan-Celtic history as my creative springboard since about 1991, so when I’m performing certain songs, I also stop to, I suppose, impart a bit of the history that I’ve learned but also share some of the anecdotes of my travels so that all the stories behind the songs become the experience.

In terms of how you discover and experience various aspects of Celtic history, to what degree does the current state of the world affect your creative process?

There are impediments, shall we say, to the multiple phases of my creative process. First of all, a few years ago I did go to Rajasthan, in India, to pursue the research for the next recording project, but it’s become much more difficult and risky and unpredictable in traveling around the world, so I’m extremely grateful that I did a lot of it when I did. I mean there’s still lots of places I think one can go with relatively little risk, but I think one of the other huge impediments, frankly, comes from the collapse of the industry, and that’s because we’re living in a time of unfettered connection technology — meaning that the budget that I might have set for recording The Book of Secrets in ’98 or An Ancient Muse in 2006, I would never dream of setting now because they were just as the collapse of the industry was taking place. The higher the risk that you’re going to get a return on that investment because we all know streaming…paying artists ten cents per thousand plays doesn’t really cover it, and of course our industry is really the first of many, many industries now. I was listening to a very interesting program on our [Canadian] public broadcasting this morning about the newspaper industry. I think we all have a good sense of how that is too, so the state of the world is now a very complex weave of things. I personally feel that the scale and state at which it’s been careening into a kind of almost anarchy; there’s a direct relation to the speed and scale that these connection technologies come into everyday life and have broken apart all manner of things: business models, the compromised family, child development, education, medical things, etc. — along with delivering some very significant, positive advances as well.

On a lighter note…

Yes! [laughter]

You’ve researched and written material inspired by the history and art of Europe and Asia; have you thought of writing about the US or Canada?

It’s interesting because I think that, historically, it has been one of the most valuable things that people write about their own backyard — that they reflect their own place in time and a lot of their own personal experience. I can’t see that it was a real conscious decision [to focus on the areas that I’ve focused on], in one sense. It’s true I love the Celtic music; I became fascinated by the history, and I see, when I look back on the past 20 odd years, that what I’ve done has more closely resembled an act of musical travel writing than it has been a kind of autobiography, which [is how] a lot of artists approach their work. I wouldn’t put myself as a journalist, but I think that I’ve taken a keen interest in the history of not just Celtic music or Celtic history; [however, this area] has really just become the vehicle through which I’ve been able to learn and experience so many many other things about the world.

This next one is not a music question, but what can you tell us about being appointed as an Honorary Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force? [In addition to her numerous music awards, Ms. McKennitt has a very impressive list of national recognitions, degrees, and ranks]

Of all the learning experiences in my life, this has certainly been one of the greatest because I don’t come from a military background. I knew very little what our Canadian forces — and particularly our Air Force — do for Canadians and the international community. So when I first became an Honorary Colonel for a squadron out of Winnipeg, I flew around with them. They’re a search and rescue and transport squadron, so my activities: I’d fly around in a C130 Hercules in search and rescue training exercises, air-to-air refueling, transportation of goods all the way up to (almost) the Arctic Circle — they were involved in disaster relief and so on, so [it’s really been a] massive education for me. The intent of the Honorary Colonels in the RCAF has been to be a sort of bridge between the military and civilian life, so information and learning can help both ways. It also continues to be an incredible honor as I come to know a lot of the folks who are serving as well as their families. They make a huge contribution, and there is considerable compromise and sacrifice, and I’ve been a bit dismayed how I — and, I feel, a lot of Canadians — still don’t have full appreciation of what these folks do. Just on Saturday night, in fact, I delivered a speech at a fundraising event in Winnipeg. [These folks have helped] military families, and the overlay that those families experience on top of the challenges of contemporary family life.

Is there anything that you’d like to say about your upcoming show at Segerstrom Center for the Arts?

I’ve really looked forward to touring and largely because I’ve looked forward to any of those opportunities to meet people. I happen to feel that my audience are people that — were we to live closer together — would probably be a lot of my friends, largely because I’ve found that many folks share my curiosity about a lot of things. It’s always a great pleasure to meet folks, and we’ve not been in that particular part of the world, so it’s always nice to go someplace we haven’t been.

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