Loreena McKennitt

An ethereal presence both visually and aurally, who transformed the harp into a pop-music instrument without subverting its natural tone, McKennitt studied piano in Winnipeg with Olga Friesen and voice with Elma Gislason, and performed in musicals and folk clubs.

McKennitt, Loreena
(photo by Ann Elliot-Cutting)

Loreena McKennitt. Composer, singer, harpist, pianist, actress, b Morden, near Winnipeg, 17 Feb 1957; honorary D LITT (Wilfrid Laurier) 2002, honorary LLD (Manitoba) 2005, honorary LLD (Queen's) 2005.

Life

An ethereal presence both visually and aurally, who transformed the harp into a pop-music instrument without subverting its natural tone, McKennitt studied piano in Winnipeg with Olga Friesen and voice with Elma Gislason, and performed in musicals and folk clubs. At 17 she sang at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Further studies included a brief apprenticeship in 1985 with Guy Wolfendon, composer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England.

McKennitt moved to Stratford, Ont, in 1981 although she travelled frequently, often busking on the streets of Vancouver, Toronto, and London, England. Her busking contributed funds toward her first recording, Elemental, and reflected an entrepreneurial spirit that also led her to create her own record label, Quinlan Road. Throughout her career she managed her own affairs and marketed her music through her company.

In 1998 McKennitt took an extended break from music and founded the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety. She was also active in fundraising for earthquake relief in Greece and Turkey. In 2002 she founded the Falstaff Family Centre in Stratford to house volunteer and non-profit groups. She also founded the Three Oaks Foundation, a charity that funded cultural, environmental, historical, and social groups.

Recordings and Publications

From her earliest recordings (Elemental in 1985 and To Drive the Cold Winter Away in 1987), McKennitt displayed a distinctive combination of Celtic materials, original songs, and contemporary settings for lyrics by Shakespeare, Tennyson, Blake and others. Her harp-playing has been a contributing element in her popularity, distinguishing her from other female singer-songwriters of the period. The languid, timeless quality of much of her work helped define the so-called New Age movement in popular music that effectively balanced harder-edged genres in the last two decades of the 20th century. Her seventh recording, The Book of Secrets (1997), marked a significant commercial breakthrough in the USA, led by the success of its single, "The Mummers' Dance," as remixed by DNA's Nick Batt. Her 1999 recording Live in Paris and Toronto was her most recent release, as of 2004.

The book Hearts Collide: The Lyrics of Loreena McKennitt (Alpha O Press) was published in 1991.

Theatrical and Film Work

McKennitt appeared in and/or prepared music for productions at the Stratford Festival (eg, Blake, 1983; Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1984; The Merchant of Venice, 2001), the Blyth, Ont, Summer Festival (Lilly, 1986), the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (St Stephen's Green, 1988), and the Young People's Theatre, Toronto (Kidnapped, 1989). She also wrote scores for the feature films Bayo (1985) and Heaven on Earth (1986), and for the NFB's To a Safer Place (1987), Goddess Remembered (1989), and Full Circle (1992). She also contributed music to the soundtracks of the films Léolo (1993), Highlander III (1994), The Santa Clause (1994), and Una Casa Con Vista Al Mar (2001). Her television soundtracks include The Mists of Avalon (2001), Due South, and Northern Exposure.

Performances

McKennitt performed at folk festivals (eg, Mariposa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg) and in concert across Canada, and at Expo 85 in Japan and the 1991 Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. She performed widely with her band throughout the early 1990s. McKennitt and her band embarked on their last major tour (to Europe and the USA) in spring 1998. After that, McKennitt's live appearances were infrequent and often linked to a charitable cause or special event. In 2002 she performed for Queen Elizabeth as part of Manitoba's celebration of the Queen's Golden Jubilee. The following year, she joined composer Philip Glass, singer-songwriter Rita MacNeil, and others at the National Arts Centre for a concert sponsored by the Sierra Club of Canada.

Awards

Loreena McKennitt won Juno Awards for best roots/traditional album in 1992 (The Visit) and 1994 (The Mask and Mirror). She was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2004.

Music of
Loreena McKennitt

Further Reading

  • Marck, James. 'Loreena McKennitt: harpist and songwriter draws soulful ballads from the well of Celtic tradition,' Toronto Now, 12-18 Apr 1990

    Miller, Mark. 'McKennitt and the Winter Garden: not the odd couple they seem,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 13 Apr 1990

    McElfresh, Suzanne. "Turning timeless, lilting melodies into pop stardom," New York Times, 3 May 1998

    Winegarner, Beth. "Loreena McKennitt's 'Secrets' of success," San Francisco Chronicle, 10 May 1998

External Links