Loreena McKennitt
Loreena McKennitt

Loreena McKennitt In Conversation

Roll back a few decades, to where aspiring musicians were at with their recording careers. It was either get signed to a label, or be a sideman or woman. It was all a dream, one fostered by the Beatles, the Stones, and even earlier – those artists who rose each morning of the day from a stack of 45s and lit up the radio.

There were plenty of slick cowboys; not those who rode the range and slapped the behinds of cattle, but those that hung around nightclubs, record stores, anywhere music of any quality was being made. Then, the big sell, the promise: “stardom.” There was no business like the “bullshit” business.

Getting a record deal and selling 20M vinyl copies was like playing the lottery. There were winners and plenty left on the sideline who wondered why the bus sped past them.

That's why I love singer/instrumentalist Loreena McKennitt’s back story.

It’s 1984: two years before encountering her at CIUT 89.5 radio on the campus of the University of Toronto. I decided to go my way and manufacture my jazz LPs to sell and distribute. Each short step was exciting, yet one cast in doubt. Where do you press?

Who can assemble cover art? How do you get them in stores? I learned the process and it was so practical. The folks behind the operation were just plain ordinary people. The glow quickly diminished and the parasites got kicked to the curb.

When I saw Loreena walking the halls of CIUT with her long-flowing red hair, as she pitched her cassette, I knew someone else had figured this out and I wished her well. Let’s say to the tune of 15M recordings sold around the globe.

McKennitt and I connected just past Remembrance Day and I got to ask her the questions I’ve thought about since last watching her command the heavens hovering above the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City in 2008.

How was “Breaking of the Sword” received over Remembrance Day?

There was this magic happening. I have reservations about some of the detrimental sides of social media, yet it was sort of the upside of how social media can work. People were able to share it and connect with it quite widely. I certainly did a number of interviews on the front end of it. I was at the legion at Stratford, Ontario when people spoke to me about it. I received communications from a number of people in the U.S. military who are serving now,  as well as friends and community from across the country. It’s hard for me to have a very accurate barometer as to what is a significant response. Fifteen to 20 years ago I had a much stronger sense of that.

The video featured historical footage from World War I and World War II with a focus on peacekeeping. 

The video was put together by the Canadian Forces. It was something they wanted to do with the piece. I gave them permission to use the music and they put together their own collage. I know they were rushing against the clock.  I think they would make some adjustments and improve on it after Remembrance Day.

The interesting sentiments that came back to me from a variety of people were that it would be played yearly. I know Bob Buckley - who did the arrangements for the choir - and the Canadian Central Forces Band expressed the thought that if band and choir arrangements were available, it could perhaps be part of a school's portfolio of material commemorating this time of year. 

Your involvement with the military dates back how far?

In 2006, I was invited to be the Honorary Colonel for the 435 Squadron out of Winnipeg. It’s a search and rescue and transport squadron. This was mainly because when the role became vacant, they were looking for other possibilities. Because I come from Manitoba and in 1998 I’d established a water safety fund and interfaced with search and rescue organizations, they thought I would be a suitable person to hold that role.

You’ve been an Honorary Colonel the past 11 years?

Yes. About three years ago, I was retired from 435 Squadron and asked to hold the role as Honorary Colonel for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Are there a set number of ceremonies to attend?

There is a wide array of possibilities that Honorary Colonels can play: one of the main intentions of the Honorary Colonel program is to be a kind of bridge between the civilian and Canadian forces populations. With that in mind, there may be speaking opportunities at rotaries, schools and a variety of ceremonies. I’ve attended award repatriation ceremonies in Trenton; other Memorial services and of course Remembrance Day services, where I lay wreaths and sing the national anthem.

They also draw upon the professional expertise of the people who are holding those roles - for example, Barry Rempel,  an Honorary Colonel in Winnipeg for quite a number of years. He’s the CEO of the Winnipeg Airport Authority. He comes with incredible experience. When he’s working with his commanding officer, he may be invited to come in and share observations and thoughts from his own experiences in running a non-military organization. My primary focus the past few years is the challenges of the families of the Air Force. There are a number they face as the result of them moving around every two, three or four years.

What is the origin of the music that inhabits you?

I grew up in a small town; Morden, Manitoba. It was 3,500 people composed of Anglo-Saxon, Mennonite, Icelandic, some French, but most certainly music was very, very prominent throughout the community. The schools, the 13 churches that existed in those locations, the music festivals, operettas: music was everywhere at a community level as well as a school level. There was no escaping it.

My mother and father enrolled me in piano lessons at the age of five. My piano teacher made it a prerequisite that all her students joined the children’s choir she conducted. 

From a very early age before I became visually literate and before reading music or words, I was singing with the children’s choir. That infused a real depth and familiarity with me of just being involved in music. When I became a teenager, my tastes were developing, and I grew fascinated with folk music, more than the Beatles or Elvis but rather Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary. Then when I became exposed to Celtic music there was something even more infectious in that genre, and I knew I wanted to be involved.

I didn’t set out to do it professionally because I always wanted to be a veterinarian or to work in wildlife or conservation or forestry. Music chose me rather than me it. As my passion for Celtic music evolved and I became more acquainted with that repertoire of music I felt this was something I wanted to at least play for my own enjoyment.

Any private lessons on harp and accordion?

I just picked it up on my own.

I moved from Morden to Winnipeg and in Winnipeg there was an informal session of traditional music about every other Sunday night in a woodworks shop. A number of the members were from Ireland and England and we’d just sit around and have a traditional session. I learned more of the repertoire. I didn’t have a harp at that time, just primarily singing. People came with their vinyl recordings and shared them, and we’d immerse ourselves in the repertoire.

I moved to Stratford, Ontario in 1981 to work at the Stratford Festival. I worked there for four years and while doing that, I was still informally playing Celtic music. It was February 1982 I acquired a harp and started developing a connection between the repertoire I was learning and teaching myself on the harp so by the time 1985 came along I developed a convergence with the music and my ability to play it and then make my first recording.

From the beginning, it seems you had a sense of business and a sense of ownership of yourself.

I was lucky. My father was a livestock dealer and he had his own little business. I grew up in a household where one of my parents ran their own business. He would commute from Morden to Winnipeg about three days a week. He had a small office at the stockyards and a secretary that did bookkeeping. I left my agricultural studies at the University of Winnipeg after three months because there were a number of performing opportunities available to me and wondered how far I would go with music. I was already in Winnipeg when my father asked me to come to his office and had his secretary train me in certain office administration; invoices, doing book-keeping, etc. My father and I would talk about business principles and processes. Being exposed to this, I was somewhat comfortable within a business framework when it came to my music and manufacturing cassettes. After busking in the streets in Toronto, notably at the St. Lawrence Market – I had a fellow named Ken from Sam the Record Man phone me and say he had people coming in the store asking for cassettes and wondered if we could set up a consignment arrangement. I said sure, but you’d have to instruct me how to price them.

So, the next time I went to Toronto, Ken helped me understand pricing.

Did you go through Roblan Distributors?

Yes, I went through Roblan’s. Once they saw the turn over of cassettes they spoke to their people. It was, as I said a consignment arrangement, but the turn over was so significant and relatively fast, I then approached them about different terms. There was a thirty to sixty-day wait period and it affected my cash flow. Roblan’s wasn’t my only national distributor. There was the Vancouver Folk Festival distributor. I’ve forgotten what their name was, but they also handled a lot of small shops across the country.

Sales were outstripping the payment arrangement and that was the trigger that showed me I’d outgrown that grassroots arrangement. The good news was, everybody honored what they owed me and that wasn’t a problem. From a cash flow standpoint, I could see if this was to continue to grow, this would be an issue.

The various record company reps were going to these stores, including Sam’s, and probably there was some sort of conversation when someone from Sam’s would say, “you should check out this Loreena McKennitt. We are selling a lot of cassettes and dealing with her directly." That was about 1990 – 91 and then most of the record companies approached me.

It was Warner Music Canada that recognized the fact that I’d already developed a capacity to finance my own recordings. I’d already financed my small tours, so in a sense, I didn’t need them because I’d already built a stable, and reliable business. They were the only record company that was prepared to recognize that. That formed the basis for a fairly unusual partnership that we had for quite a number of years.

I never took advances from them. I financed my own recordings.

I always tell your story to my students at the Harris Institute. How did you from figure this out at the beginning of your career and determine how your future would play out?

I went in on a partnership level. Warner brought expertise, resources and the like. I brought the creative. I financed so there was no financial risk to them nor was there any investment. It just changed the dynamic of the platform of the relationship.

How did the recording thing mirror the live touring plan?

I’d already developed a considerable mailing list – a method of communication and a whole grassroots connection either with retailers or distributors. I understood at that point, we are talking 1985-1990, the correlation between touring and releasing.

The touring started out in a grassroots way. I played in church halls and city auditoriums. Then, as things grew, I was able to hire more musicians and more crew. Up until 1990, we were self-propelling. I remember doing a 29-or-30-day tour across Canada. I’d be building the whole itinerary and dealing with the cashflow, paying everything and renting the equipment, making all of the travel arrangements.

In 1991, I pulled my operations out of my home from the back of our farmhouse and took on an office in downtown Stratford. I took on staff.

One of the most amusing things was, as this project was going out to the Warner affiliates - especially Warner Brothers Records, I remember when I’d go down to Los Angeles and they got over the fact there was no manager and had to deal with the artist, which they found quite unnerving. For a few years when I’d go down, they’d be setting up meetings for me with prospective managers. It was always kind of a blind date experience.

I remember one of the last episodes I undertook -  and I don’t remember who the manager was - I said, "this is what I’m doing already for myself in Canada and Europe -  but I’m looking for assistance particularly in marketing and promotion in the United States." I set out that what I was looking for was a business person.

The gentleman leaned back in his chair and said, “you know something, if you think I’m going to work for any artist, you’ve got another thing coming.” I said, “I’m sure your other artists would be interested hearing you say that.” I left and never went back and said to Warner: "This might be a capping element to my career, the fact I don’t have a manager. But I’ll put it this way; I’m unmanageable and we are just going to have to accept this is the way I’m going to run my business. I’ve got staff and we’ll do the best we can. I may not eclipse Enya, but we will do it on terms I feel comfortable and I’ve got to have control."

Do you do most of the arranging?

Oh yes. I’m responsible for the whole creative stance. Once that’s been established and we rehearse the tour, I conduct the entire process. I do a similar thing in the studio.

Do you have a highlight?

That’s kind of like asking about the definition of success. At this stage of my life and career, the explanation for me is that what I’m doing is meaningful:  for me, success is any evidence my music has meaning. That can manifest itself in many ways, but most obviously it’s the people who experience my music and that it’s less about ego, since I always wanted to be a veterinarian. People would write me and say my music helped them come through a very difficult time, or "I played your music when I got married. "Then I can say to myself - my life and work have meaning!

Leave a comment