In 1991 when Loreena McKennitt released her fourth album, The Visit, she knew she had reached a turning point in her career. Up until then, Loreena had self-financed and distributed her music. The Visit was being released through a partnership with the Warner Music Group worldwide.
“That was the year I felt I had moved from being amateur to professional,” Loreena said. I performed a showcase at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse. They had the media, radio, retail, press and everybody there. [Afterwards], I was driven home by somebody from the record company, and I actually cried in the car because I realized that my life would probably never be the same again. As someone who’s never sought fame and doesn’t feel super comfortable with public-ness, it was a loss of that, I know I was experiencing. But I got over it, and I’ve gone on!”
Indeed, Loreena’s gone on to sell more than 14 million albums, earn two Juno awards and two Grammy award nominations and perform countless tours around the world. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Visit, there is now The Definitive Edition, which includes 4 CDs, one Blu-ray disc and a 32-page booklet, featuring the 2004 re-mastered album, live recordings, radio interviews and performances, and various re-mixes. There is also a 15-track version for streaming and downloading services. Reached at her office in Stratford, ON, Loreena explained how The Visit brought her years of work up until that point to a new level of exposure.
“In 1988, Polygram out of Montreal had asked me to do an artist development exercise. They put up $10,000, and I went into a studio in Hamilton and recorded four pieces. One of them was “Greensleeves.” In ’89 I released my third recording. As a result of the success of that recording, I was touring with a modest amount of infrastructure and people, so Parallel Dreams really brought the attention of the record companies into view.”
By this time in her career, Loreena had developed her fan base and expanded her concert appearances from libraries and church halls, where she performed with just her harp, to small hall concerts, where she performed with a full band.
“I was already on a tempo of doing a recording every other year,” she said. “Whether something came of my record company discussions or not, I was still going to do The Visit. So in that time we did make a deal with the Warner Music Group around the world, and I just got on with it.”
But in spite of her success to that point, Loreena was at a bit of a crossroads musically.
“I was still uncertain as to how strong my original writing was versus staying more squarely in traditional music,” she explained. “I felt those who were in traditional music were performing it far better than I thought I could. At the same time, I had developed a passion for travel writing. When I learned the Celts were this great swath of tribes that had fanned out across Europe and into Asia Minor and dated back to 500 BC, I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder if that direction would suit me more?’ It wasn’t a big conscious decision, but I knew I wanted to explore it.”
In many ways it was a similar intuition and wondering that brought Loreena to Stratford in the first place.
“A decade prior to that, I had just moved from Winnipeg to Stratford, and I was still trying to figure out, was I in the theatre or musical theatre or playing in lounges?” she said chuckling. “But I had cultivated this deep love of Celtic music from the late ’70s, when I was part of a folk club in Winnipeg, and I carried that through. It was like this sensual strand that has continued through [to today].”
The Visit was an influential album not just because of the quality of the music but because it was an album of folk-based music being released on a major record label. Soon other folk performers would look for “the Loreena deal” when negotiating with record companies, deals that gave the artists more control over how they and their music were promoted.
“It might have looked a bit like that from the outside, and I’d love to say that I knew what I was doing, but I actually didn’t,” she admited. “But the process when I came to junctures, and I had a choice of doing [something] this way or that way, I knew what I didn’t want. For example, I’ve never had a manager. I knew I never wanted one, and some might argue that’s good because they consider me unmanageable! That in itself had a huge impact on my career. Some would say that maybe I didn’t reach the scale I might’ve had I had a manager. But the thing was, when one talks about coming into that deal, the significant thing is I had already developed the financial capacity to finance my own recordings. So I didn’t have to borrow money from the record company. I was able to put myself on tour and finance. Most artists when they sign to a record company, they’re borrowing from the Bank of Warner, Universal, Sony, whoever’s around. They’re also borrowing money for their touring support and videos and all that. I didn’t have to do that. The fact I could strike a licensing deal meant [Warner] couldn’t lose. They weren’t putting up money, so it more closely resembled a partnership, and I always treated it as a partnership. I wasn’t like a piece of chattel.”
In putting The Visit: The Definitive Edition together, Loreena said she was glad to see some things hadn’t changed for her over the past 30 years.
“When I think back on some of the lyrics I was writing, maybe [They’re] not spectacular but the sentiments of things that were important to me at the time are still important to me now,” she said. “In 1991 with the piece “Old Ways,” I was feeling there had been an erosion of some of the traditions [from when I first went to Ireland in ’81]. Little did I know it was going to get much worse, just how quickly society would change. Similarly with “Courtyard Lullaby,” again not a spectacular piece but my sentiment that we as a species have lost our bearings in relation to the natural world, that’s certainly captured in some of the lines. That’s a theme I’m very pre-occupied by now.”
Over the last number of years, Loreena’s focus and priorities have shifted to more non-musical endeavours. She founded the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety in 1998 and the Three Oaks Foundation to support cultural, historical and social groups. And in 2000, she purchased Falstaff School in Stratford and has since turned it into The Falstaff Family Centre, to be used by volunteer and not-for-profit community and family groups. She also lead the citizens group Wise Communities in their successful opposition to a Chinese glassmaker establishing a float glass factory in Stratford.
“I don’t know exactly how I got to feel a deep commitment to democracy, but I certainly came to the view many years ago that it does not thrive as a spectator sport. I lived in and around Stratford but I couldn’t really be part of it because of my career path. For me I felt I needed to be part of where I lived and played, a role in shaping and protecting it. The glass factory was probably the biggest civic battle I’ve ever been in. Society is living in a very perilous time, and I think it needs all ‘hands on deck’ to protect the things that are really valuable and important.”
Looking to the future, Loreena would like to release an album of new music but the current state of the music business has made it extremely difficult.
“There’s not a strong business argument because the amount of money you make from recording is so minimal now,” she said. “With the type of approach I’ve been taking over the past couple of decades, where I’ve got this real exotic spectrum of musicians, it’s a very expensive musical footprint. The revenue that now comes in from music sales is just a pittance. The only way you can really stay in is by touring. In fact, we’re in the process of doing some research and development on a European tour that would start next July in Turkey and Greece. We’ll see how the pandemic plays out.”
For more on The Visit: The Definitive Edition, go to loreenamckennitt.com.