Grammy spec­ta­cle a wild ride for Celtic harpist Mcken­nitt

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Nick Patch

TORONTO — The last time Loreena McKen­nitt had a seat at the Gram­mys in 2008, a DayGlo Kanye West rapped Stronger in the dark, a still-in-re­hab Amy Wine­house beamed in a per­for­mance from a Lon­don stu­dio, and a col­lec­tion of Joni Mitchell cov­ers by Her­bie Han­cock up­set its fizzier foes to win al­bum of the year.

In other words, the whole thing felt a bit sur­real. And McKen­nitt en­joyed ev­ery minute of it.

“I’m not, in a va­ri­ety of ways, I sup­pose, a con­ven­tional per­son in the mu­sic busi­ness ... and so any time I’ve gone to Los An­ge­les, and I haven’t spent much time around award shows, it’s a bit like go­ing out for Hal­loween,” the multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist says with a laugh down the line from her of­fice in Strat­ford, Ont.

“The live show was spec­tac­u­lar.... Even from an an­thro­po­log­i­cal stand­point, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing,” she says. “It’s like go­ing off to planet Mars for a few days.”

Well, let’s hope she has a full oxy­gen tank — McKen­nitt is head­ing back into the red planet’s or­bit.

The soon-to-be 56-year-old is nom­i­nated for a sec­ond time go­ing into Sun­day’s 55th Grammy Awards, this time for best new age al­bum for her live record­ing, Troubadours on the Rhine.

The nom­i­na­tion came as a pleas­ant shock for McKen­nitt, not least of all be­cause the Celtic-in­flu­enced master of the harp, ac­cor­dion and pi­ano had never really con­sid­ered her­self a new age artist be­fore.

She notes that while in Europe the term is ap­plied to the di­verse likes of Peter Gabriel and Tori Amos, in North Amer­ica, “new age” con­jures a less savoury con­no­ta­tion (McKen­nitt doesn’t name names, but let’s face it: many think of John Tesh).

“(Here), it’s rep­re­sented a dif­fer­ent mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion, which is more at­mo­spheric and less about the lyrics and less about the ar­range­ments or the eclec­ti­cism. It al­most has a very medic­i­nal qual­ity, new age — you know, you just want peo­ple to re­lax.” That doesn’t mean she’s un­grate­ful. She didn’t nec­es­sar­ily record Troubadours on the Rhine with lofty ex­pec­ta­tions. McKen­nitt has of­ten found a mu­si­cal muse in her trav­els but back in 2010, she was more or less con­fined to work­ing close to home be­cause her mother was se­ri­ously ill (Irene McKen­nitt died in 2011). With­out room to roam, she recorded the al­bum of tra­di­tional songs, The Wind That Shakes the Bar­ley, in the his­toric Sharon Tem­ple.

She was on a pro­mo­tional tour in Europe to sup­port that al­bum when she agreed to a one-hour per­for­mance at a Ger­man ra­dio sta­tion. In front of 200-300 fans, McKen­nitt — she of the red­dish-golden mane and gilded so­prano voice — sim­ply cap­ti­vated, and the re­sult­ing live ra­dio record­ing be­came Troubadours on the Rhine.

A pretty ca­sual be­gin­ning for a record that would even­tu­ally earn McKen­nitt her sec­ond ca­reer Grammy nod. This recog­ni­tion is dou­bly de­light­ful for McKen­nitt be­cause she’s not just an artist, but also her own la­bel boss.

She’s man­aged her own ca­reer since the “very, very be­gin­ning,” McKen­nitt says, since she was busk­ing on the streets of Toronto.

She founded her la­bel, Quin­lan Road, in 1985, and steered her­self through her com­mer­cial hey­day in the 1990s — when The Visit, The Mask and Mir­ror and The Book of Se­crets racked up multi-plat­inum sales at home and abroad — and into her 2006 re­vival, which fol­lowed the nine-year hia­tus she took af­ter the 1998 drown­ing death of her fi­ancé.

So she main­tains the dual role of artist and ex­ec­u­tive, one which al­lows her com­plete con­trol but pre­vents McKen­nitt from be­ing able to sim­ply in­dulge what­ever artis­tic urges arise with­out con­sid­er­ing the bot­tom line.

“It’s kept me very grounded,” she said. “I study bud­gets. I deal with HR is­sues. I look at lo­gis­tics, I look at de­sign­ing tours, and I in­volve my­self down to pretty minute de­tails — in­clud­ing in what or­der what cases will be loaded into the trucks, or the di­men­sion of the mer­chan­dise case.”

Such dou­ble duty re­quires much more work. But, she says, it’s worth it, even if it’s lim­ited her cre­ative out­put.

“Some years ago, I felt I’d rather man­age fewer creations and make sure they’re looked af­ter well and max­i­mized, rather than cre­at­ing more but re­lin­quish­ing the con­trol of those creations to oth­ers.”

Still, McKen­nitt knows as well as any­one just how dra­mat­i­cally the mu­sic busi­ness has de­clined over the past decade.

She’s real­is­tic about the fu­ture — “I think we can safely nav­i­gate our way through this for a cou­ple years, af­ter that, I don’t know,” she fore­casts glumly — but can only hope her niche re­mains in­tact.

“It’s a col­lapsed in­dus­try, pe­riod,” she says sim­ply. “I’m still stand­ing be­cause even though our pie has shrunk along with ev­ery­body else’s, I don’t split it amongst other band mem­bers, there’s not a man­ager who’s tak­ing their piece, etc., etc.

“So in the rem­nants of the mu­sic in­dus­try, and at this stage of my ca­reer, I’m still able to be vi­able and do what I love do­ing and do it in the way I like do­ing it.”

The Grammy nom­i­na­tion cer­tainly helps. So when she at­tends the show this week­end, she won’t be fret­ting about whether she’s go­ing to win — she’ll just try to en­joy the spec­ta­cle.

“That’d be the real ic­ing on the cake to win but at the same time ... the fact that peo­ple even knew of this record­ing — be­cause it’s not like a huge com­mer­cial project — and cared enough to en­sure that it got even nom­i­nated, I think I feel very grate­ful for that.”

At this point, sim­ply ex­ist­ing in the in­dus­try can feel like hon­our enough.

“One prob­a­bly needs an award th­ese days just for still stand­ing in mu­sic,” she said with a rue­ful laugh. “Just for still breath­ing.”

Maybe she won’t need that oxy­gen tank af­ter all.


Loreena McKen­nitt’s live al­bum is nom­i­nated for a Grammy in the new age cat­e­gory.

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