Loreena McKennitt on Amplifying the Human Condition Through Song [INTERVIEW]

Loreena McKennitt, currently on a North America, Europe, and United Kingdom tour, is a multi-faceted Canadian artist known for her unique blend of pop, folk, and worldbeat music, often described as “eclectic Celtic.” With over 14 million records sold worldwide, she has achieved gold and platinum status in 15 countries. McKennitt owns her record label, Quinlan Road, and has an extensive catalog that includes hits like “The Mummers’ Dance.” She has received numerous awards, including two Junos and a Grammy nomination. Not just a musician, she’s also an advocate for intellectual property rights and a philanthropist with her own charitable organizations. From small-town roots to global stardom, she’s a self-managed powerhouse in the music industry. Below are excerpts from the interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James: The first piece of advice given to students of poetry is to read – a lot. To read the work of poets that make you jealous, in a good way, that challenge you to experiment and stretch yourself. What are the musicians, artists, and writers that inspire and challenge you? 

Loreena: “I’ve been exposed to Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Alfred Noyes, whose works have appeared in some of my recordings. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits have certainly been inspirations as well. In fact, I recall growing up in Winnipeg, or rather Manitoba, and spending a lot of time listening to Tom Waits. I was particularly drawn to his juxtaposition of words, the way he combines them and how he interplays them with music. For instance, you can have something that’s very harsh in its theme, but paired with an almost serene melody or arrangement. The impression that creates is profound. I’m also influenced by St. John of the Cross, whom I set a poem of his to music. Those would be some of the primary ones.”

James: Tom Waits is a wonderful and unexpected gem that you included because his style is so completely different from yours but still wildly creative. So that’s a wonderful connection. Writing lyrics doesn’t come naturally to all songwriters. What advice do you have for songwriters who are unsure in their ability to write lyrics?

Loreena: “I believe it’s important to tap into one’s own personal experiences. Avoid getting too preoccupied with, or trapped in, copying or emulating others. Each individual has a unique life, history, and path. Dive into that. Start there. It’s essential to delve into the nuances, the microcosms of your experiences. This intimacy can resonate with listeners because people often turn to music or poetry to express feelings they can’t articulate themselves. As a songwriter, you become an amplifier or a surrogate for those emotions. The human condition is universal. Regardless of where you are in the world, people can relate to themes of struggle, love, loss, and more. So, bring your own personal touch to those universal feelings.”

James: “The point you’re making resonates with what I often share with budding poets. Even a small idea or concept can be amplified, especially through poetry and song. It might be more challenging with novels, but with poetry, a simple theme can blossom into a beautiful poem. It doesn’t have to be grandiose.

Poets, unless they’re writing purely autobiographical pieces, do invest considerable time researching to enrich their work. Given the historical undertones in many of your songs, how do you incorporate research into your creative process?”

Loreena: “Research has always been an integral part of my creative process, especially since around 1991. It often starts with traveling to different places. I’ve journeyed across Europe, ventured into Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Mongolia, China, and even took the train from Vladivostok to Moscow. These trips provided me with a multi-sensory exposure to various cultures, which has significantly influenced the imagery in my work. This imagery manifests both in the descriptive words I use and in the musical arrangements I craft.

“Focusing on the history of the Celts and the vast geographical expanse of that history, which stretches back to 500 BC and reaches into Asia Minor, has given me a plethora of poets to draw inspiration from. Though I’ve only scratched the surface, my exposure to Shakespeare during my time at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1981 was particularly enlightening. It introduced me to a master wordsmith who brilliantly portrayed the universal human condition. Whether it’s a piece from ‘The Tempest’ or ‘Cymbeline’ or the rich narratives like ‘The Lady of Shalott’, these works have fit seamlessly into the canon of Celtic mythology and my musical themes.

“When selecting pieces to adapt, I often lean on some pragmatic criteria. Are the phrases singable? Do they maintain a consistent metric rhythm? And does the piece offer compelling imagery? Poems like ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and ‘The Highwayman’ are highly evocative, making them ideal choices. Those are just some of the elements I consider when weaving research into my creative endeavors.”

James: Building on the last question about research, you’ve been asked many times about your fascination with Celtic culture, and how that’s influenced your music. I’m curious about how Celtic languages have influenced your writing, both the distinct sound of Celtic languages, and the words and phrases unique to those languages?

Loreena: “The influence of Celtic languages on my writing hasn’t been as profound as I might have wished. Given that we only have 24 hours in a day, my time often goes into managing my career rather than exploring some of the deeper creative avenues, such as this one. I did start to learn an Irish Gaelic piece, enough to grasp the texture of the language. It’s very singable, I must say. But where Celtic culture really resonates with me is not so much the language itself, but what was important to the Celts. They had a deep reverence for the natural world and especially for trees.

“In my collection of recordings, many songs touch upon this reverence. Some are explicitly about trees, like ‘Two Trees’ by W.B. Yeats or ‘Bonny Portmore’. However, the influence doesn’t necessarily stem from the language itself, but more from the broader cultural philosophy and ethos of the Celts.”

James: The raw materials of poets are words, phrases, empty space, and the position of words on the page. As a musician, you have additional tools including a diverse array of instruments such as hurdy gurdys, fiddles, percussion, Greek lyras, lutes, and of course, harp and piano, to name just a few. When writing a song, how do you approach crafting the soundscape, and how do lyrics influence the sounds you choose?

Loreena: “My approach traces back to a process I’ve developed over the years. It begins with pinpointing a specific geography of the Celts I want to focus on. A prime example of this is my work for ‘The Mask and Mirror’, where I started with the region of Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain, a Celtic territory. But to study Spanish history and Galicia, you can’t overlook the role of the Moors. My travels to such places provide a sensory overload – from smells to sights and sounds, all these elements come together to create a vivid mental picture.

“There’s a distinct image, almost like a snapshot, in my mind for nearly every song I’ve created. This mental picture acts as an anchor from which I build the soundscape, painting it with various instruments. For instance, during my time at Peter Gabriel’s studio, ‘Real World’, I had access to a diverse array of musicians and instruments. If I needed an esraj player or a unique bowed instrument, I could easily find them. My goal was always to match the sound and personality of an instrument to the image and mood I was trying to evoke.”

“For ‘Gates of Istanbul’ from ‘An Ancient Muse’, I aimed to create an image of a heat mirage, that shimmering effect one sees above the ground on a hot day. I collaborated with my fiddle player, who is more of a violinist, to experiment with different effects to recreate this image sonically.

“As I moved further East in my musical journey, I found myself drawn to Eastern or Middle Eastern instruments. However, my exposure to Celtic music, like listening to the Breton harpist Alan Stivell who blended traditional Breton instruments with more modern ones, allowed me to explore outside traditional bounds. His music gave me the freedom to experiment, but regardless, the choice of instruments and how they’re played is crucial in evoking a sense of place in my music.”

James: In “All Souls Night” you wrote:

“Figures of cornstalks bend in the shadows
Held up tall as the flames leap high
The green knight holds the holly bush
To mark where the old year passes by.”

It’s impossible to read these lyrics without hearing the music that accompanies them. How do you create balance between the music and the lyrics, so they reinforce and complement each other?

Loreena: “My process is very ad hoc. Sometimes I start with phrases, words, or images. Other times, I’ll begin with a melody. For me, I just build out from there. There are certain images, for example in ‘All Souls Night’, that were really important to capture. I wanted to touch on some of those traditional festival markers that connect with the pagan world and the natural world. However, after a certain point, I can’t really describe how it all comes together. This is why I often talk about ‘the visit’. I prepare myself through research, travel, and reading. Then, it’s like waiting for the inspiration to visit for the next chapter. It’s somewhat unpredictable, similar to fishing. You can have the best rod and the best spot, but that doesn’t guarantee a catch.

James: You’ve created songs using the words of other poets, “The Stolen Child” by Yeats and “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson are two examples. What are you looking for in a poem, perhaps by talking about the decisions behind selecting these two poems. 

Loreena: “Firstly, I’m not inclined to sing or write what I’d describe as abstract, odd time signature pieces. So, rhythmically, the poem should typically fit within a 3/4 or 4/4 time signature. Another factor is the presence of certain vowels. From my classical training, I’ve learned that vowels are preferable to an abundance of consonants. It’s one reason why Italian, with its rich and melodious vowels, is so beautiful to sing. You also want to avoid words with too many syllables, as they can be challenging to incorporate into a song. One to three syllables is ideal.

“Moreover, the choice of words is critical. It’s such an intricate subject, especially when you consider translations. For example, when I explored ‘Dante’s Inferno’ or ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ by Saint John of the Cross, I realized some translations are not only more singable but also more evocative. They seem to better capture the essence of what I aim to express. So, there are many considerations that influence my selections.”

James: Another example, “The Ballad of the Foxhunter”, also by Yeats, opens with the lines:

“Lay me in a cushioned chair;
Carry me, ye four,
With cushions here and cushions there,
To see the world once more.”

When adapting a poem to work as a song, how do you approach editing the poem to ensure the poetry works when set to music? 

Loreena: “It’s crucial to ensure that the melody and emphasis align correctly. You don’t want misplaced emphasis in the song. To those deeply involved in the process, these nuances are evident. But for many, this might not be an obvious consideration. For instance, with ‘The Lady of Shalott’, I believe there were more verses than we used. Incorporating a lengthy poem was already a gamble. Despite loving the detailed descriptive landscapes, I had to consider the contemporary audience’s attention span. Editing is essential to keep the narrative flowing.

“In ‘The Highwayman’, I used the Boron, an Irish drum, to mimic the galloping rhythm of the highwayman’s horse. However, when the military enters the story, I incorporated a crisp snare drum. These musical choices help capture the narrative’s essence. There are different layers and techniques to consider when setting a poem to music. One of the most intricate tasks for me was to create the desired atmosphere and capture the poem’s psychological essence. Back in 1998, we worked with multiple tape reels and experimented with various versions.”

James: “It’s fascinating how you craft longer songs and maintain momentum. Many bands struggle with this, but your extended tracks feel perfectly timed.”

Loreena: “The real challenge is keeping it engaging. Many of these poems are compelling and deserve to be heard. In earlier times, people were more accustomed to focusing and listening for extended periods. Just consider some Indian music compositions that can last a very long time. But in song adaptation, it’s all about texture, color, and rhythm. Even if listeners aren’t consciously aware of these musical shifts, I’m always very mindful of them.”

James: I recently interviewed the songwriting duo, Daniel Ash and David J. from the band Love & Rockets, about the role that audience feedback plays in their creative process. For poets, early feedback from reciting poems is critical. Interestingly, Daniel and David had contrasting views on how audience feedback impacts their songwriting. Given the complexity of the music you create, how do you approach feedback during the creative process? Do live audiences play a role?

Loreena: “Well, there’s the method I use and then there’s the one I wish I could. Ideally, I’d develop and rehearse the songs, performing them a bit to get feedback. That’s what I wish I could do. However, I’ve never really been able to. I spend about 70% of my time managing my career, leaving only 30% for my artistic pursuits. So, when we’re in the studio, I often find myself still writing. For instance, while working on ‘The Book of Secrets’ in May ’97, I began working on ‘The Mummer’s Dance’, which later became a hit for me. I had only a fragment of it, so I asked Hugh Marsh, a talented violinist I collaborate with, for feedback. His positive response encouraged me to continue with the piece. This underscores the importance of sharing one’s work to gauge its impact.”

James: Your albums are more than a collection of songs. They have unifying themes and sources of inspiration. In “The Mask and the Mirror” the CD liner notes include journal entries about your travels. The song “Marrakesh Night Market” includes the note: “I am struck by the hooded features of men as they pass through the lights and shadows: they look monk-like,” and the song includes the lyric:

“The lessons are written
on parchments of paper
They’re carried by horse from the river Nile
says the shadowy voice
In the firelight, the cobra
is casting the flame a winsome smile”

I’m fascinated by the editorial choices required to create a cohesive album, more than a collection of songs. When in your creative process does a vision for that album emerge, are you writing songs to fill an album, or does the album emerge from the songs?

Loreena: “This inspiration comes from my travels, from reading, and from listening and watching various sources. As I encounter interesting moments or stories, I try to excavate some of that history and weave it into the songs. There’s a critical point in the process where I feel it’s like constructing an umbrella: the title and concept form the top, and the songs are the spokes branching out from it. I like to decide on a title relatively early on to ensure that the songs cohesively come together under that umbrella. There are other pragmatic decisions too; for instance, if there are lengthy songs, I prefer to have an instrumental piece before or after to give the listener’s mind a break.

“I recall an experience from ‘Marrakesh Night Market.’ I had been in Marrakesh in ’93 during Ramadan and stayed right in the main square. The vivid imagery I encountered each night, from the cobra and snake charmer to the bustling life that came alive at sundown when people broke their fast, left an indelible impression on me. The atmosphere was electric, filled with people coming from the mountains. It felt both exquisite and exotic. I felt an overwhelming urge to capture what I was witnessing in that night market.

“Similarly, songs like ‘Dante’s Prayer’ were largely conceived during my travels. I was on a train from Vladivostok to Moscow in December ’95, all alone on the Trans-Siberian Express. As I was reading some of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and observing the landscapes and situations outside the train carriage across Siberia, it all began to ruminate, percolate, and marinate in my mind, eventually finding its way into my music.”

James: I once asked an artist how they overcome writer’s block or sense its onset. Their advice was to leave the house. Leaving your house can mean taking a flight or, if resources don’t allow for it, simply walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It’s all about refilling that pool of inspiration.”

Loreena: “That was probably one of the most pivotal lessons I discovered about myself in relation to creativity. That’s why I often need to depart from my home. There’s a certain familiarity, a muscle memory tied to my living space. It keeps me grounded in daily chores and routine, tying me down in a way. However, when I travel, especially by train, there’s a release. I remember when I was working on ‘The Book of Secrets’, I stayed in this charming old villa in Tuscany. I would spread my books all over the dining table, immersed in them. When it was time for a break, I’d take my tape recorder and notepad, and drive around the countryside. The ever-changing visuals while driving invigorated my creativity. It felt far more liberating than, say, getting on a plane where you’re enclosed and can’t witness the gradual change in surroundings. Moving, experiencing different environments, disrupts the mind’s tendency to fixate, and there’s a unique creative freedom in that.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Loreena recite lyrics from her catalog.

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