A seasoned soul


Science And The Secrets of Nature by William Eamon, The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin and I Come From Behind Kaf Mountain by Murat Yagan might not be required reading for the burgeoning pop star, but only if you're not Loreena McKennitt.

Long regarded as Canada's best-kept secret, Scots/Irish McKennitt - who nabbed a Billboard International Achievement Award in 1997 - was born 42 years ago in Morden, Manitoba, her father a livestock dealer and her mother a nurse.

Living a rural, prairie existence - "wheat fields after wheat fields, trees here and there, but very flat with a lot of crops" - and influenced by a love of music from an extended German Mennonite community, McKennitt jettisoned her original idea of becoming a veterinarian at Winnipeg's University of Manitoba when she turned into a "folkie".

Listing several modern folk icons of Canada (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot) and specifically imported music from Ireland, England and Brittany (Planxty, Steeleye Span and Alan Stivell) as her main sources of inspiration, McKennitt came to Ireland to hear traditional music in its "natural" form; in 1982, she spent enough time here to contemplate relocating, but eventually, headed back to Canada, from where she kick-started her acclaimed independently-minded solo career.

Her love of Ireland remains, however, as she now has a small cottage near Lisdoonvarna which she visits occasionally. "It's nothing grand," she stresses, perhaps conscious of the Loaded Music Star Uses Ireland As Tax Retreat syndrome (which, for the record, she doesn't).

"Nothing grand" could be directed towards McKennitt herself. A soft-spoken, mature and resilient person, McKennitt epitomises the word "artist" in the traditional sense. The list of books mentioned above were used as source materials for her 1997 album, The Book of Secrets, as was a winter journey on the Trans-Siberian railway.

We're not talking Steps or Britney Spears, then, but rather a sensitive, culturally aware, seasoned songwriter and performer who uses classical texts and poetry, along with original material, as an eclectic musical palette.

If the idea of setting the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, W.B. Yeats, Alfred Noyes and William Shakespeare to swirling multifaceted/ethnic music is distasteful, it's a safe bet to say you won't like her music. If, however, you like exotic music that engages the mind as much as the muscles, it's probably about time you became a member of the Loreena McKennitt fan club.

"It's not common, setting music to poems such as these, I admit," says the self-managed, self-produced McKennitt, her long, red hair falling over her shoulders, attractively framing her wan face. "As with everything I do, there is a kind of marriage of pragmatism with the creative notions. I don't think my lyric writing, for example, is the strongest thing I do. Also, it's nice to have different points of view as much in recordings as anything else.

"When I'm composing, I like the idea of having a narrative in the songs. One piece frames the next piece - and to frame it one needs to be different, either in key, tone or theme.

"I have an appreciation of the dying art of telling stories . . . you wonder in our modern time how many people actually have the patience to listen. I create the recordings out of what I would find interesting. I'm aware that what I'm making is a public document of sorts, and it's not going to be a totally self-indulgent exercise, but I'm looking to stretch things a bit.

"I know that lengthy pieces come up as a topic of conversation - who out there actually listens to pieces of music that last more than eight minutes? When you get down to it, there is a constituency of people who acquire their music for reasons other than it being an adjunct to their fashion repertoire. There are people who engage in music in different ways and for different reasons, so clearly these lengthy pieces work.

"This, as I'm sure some people are aware, is the antithesis of MTV. Some of the imagery in the poems is very strong. It's what attracted me to the pieces in the first place - that, and how evocative they were. The challenge was to find a musical supplement that would allow these pieces to function."

While her background virtually dictated her interest in all matters Celtic, McKennitt nevertheless went one step beyond the normal boundaries of such preoccupations by embarking on studying Irish history and attempting to create in an impressionistic way her research into her music. The results can be found on more than half-a-dozen records, the latest of which is a double album, Live In Paris and Toronto.

Initially a mail-order item via her record label, Quinlan Road, the record is now available from conventional retail outlets following overwhelming consumer response. There is another, sad reason for this - the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund For Water Search And Safety, a charity McKennitt founded in mid-1998 when her fiance Ronald Rees, his brother, Richard, and friend Greg Cook perished in a boating accident in Lake Huron.

"The Memorial Fund was, in a sense, a necessity for a few reasons," she says. "When the families and I looked at the circumstances of the accident - and in speaking to many other people - we realised there was a lack of education in the area of water safety. When we were putting together the memorial service, we thought that some kind of fund - which would be active in the exercise of water safety education and in search and recovery - would be a suitable tribute to these three men. There was a therapeutic dimension to it, no question."

In the inner sleeve of the CD, a particularly poignant quotation from The Tempest is used as a dedication to the memory of her friend and lover ("And now my charms are all o'erthrown and what strength I have's mine own which is most faint; now 'tis true I must here be released by you.") McKennitt admits that, even 16 months on, it's difficult to know exactly where to begin to explain the extent of her loss.

"The whole experience challenges everything and anything you've ever believed in before, to such a fundamental degree that you hardly know what to do. Some people reconcile these events through religion, but after a certain point you just don't know. You just do not know.

"You don't know what you're looking for," she continues steadily. "You can go on through so much of your life and not think about the profundity of it. I thought I had. I'm sure that it has changed me insofar as it's hard to be moved by things and believe in things with the same conviction. Prior to this event there was still some measure of innocence.

"Now, you feel like life has betrayed you. There were moments you felt like as if you came to a party and there was this person you wanted to spend the rest of your life with at that party, but now they're gone. So what do you do? You put in time. That sounds crude, but it's not as crude as that.

"The essence of The Tempest quote is that you have to let things go. You may never figure out what it's all about, so you have to learn to let things go. In the course of that, you learn to find a special place for that person. I don't think I've got anything about it figured out. Except that I now have over a year under my belt and I don't fall apart talking about it."

Along the way, from studying to be a veterinarian and busking on the streets of Toronto to studying ancient Celtic lore (and selling over eight million records to boot), Loreena McKennitt hasn't spent much time in reflecting on herself. Instead she has focused her energies on realising her insatiable curiosity through her music. As someone who manages herself and her record company (with a staff of 14 split between Toronto and London), she finds the business aspects of what she does stimulating. But it's not the defining challenge.

"The real challenge for me is not to get lured into the false image of the music industry, to remain a real person. I have met too many people in their 50s whose childhood has been prolonged. They don't have to pay a bill, and they don't know how to book an airline ticket."

And with that McKennitt checks her self-booked air ticket to Canada. She leaves in a couple of hours. It's a long flight . . . time to relax and take in a movie or two, inflight, I suggest. "Oh no," she replies instantly. "Long air flights are ideal for getting a lot of work done."