The multi-platinum-selling singer, harpist and global musical explorer returns with an album that’s both old and new. Prog follows the long and winding road that led Loreena McKennitt to Lost Souls.
Multi-platinum-selling Canadian progger and global music explorer Loreena McKennitt brings us up to speed with her ambitious new project.
F or someone who wanted to be a veterinarian as a child, Loreena McKennitt has enjoyed a spectacular career in music. Since emerging from the Canadian folk scene in the mid-80s, McKennitt has captivated audiences with her blend of Celtic, flamenco and Middle Eastern influences and that hauntingly beautiful voice. Her gorgeous new album Lost Souls is her first collection of original material in 12 years. Prog finds out more…
It’s been a long time since you released an album of your own music…
In 2006 I released An Ancient Muse. We did the concert at the Alhambra, we toured for a couple of years, then from 2009 to 2011 I looked after my mother in the last two years of her life. Following that I wanted to research the next chapter in the history of the Celts and that would take me to India, Rajasthan, and that was incredibly rich. I thought that was going to be the next recording of original material but once I started working at it, I realised it was going to be more complicated than I thought I had time for. I said to my colleagues, “I’ve got these songs that go back but that have not been put on a recording.” I thought, “They’re a bit like lost souls,” so that’s how I came up with the title.
In a way it’s a compilation of material that was developed in different times and different circumstances. Now, at this stage of my career,
I’ve got the resources to bring in great musicians and hurdy-gurdy players and nyckelharpas so
I can give them the arrangements that I want, whereas 10, 20 years ago I would not have been able to do that.
How important is the right setting, like Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, to the creative process? I find my whole creative sensibility is very much impacted by how close I am to the natural world. Being able to work in a residential studio in the countryside is a good starting point and that part of Wiltshire is just so gorgeous. The studio itself, the big room, has this big window and there’s a pond in front of that. It’s so nice to have the natural light come in and we watched swans and ducks and bluebirds and herons. There’s something really grounding about that psychologically.
Almost every song that I’ve ever recorded, there’s a visual in my mind. It might be a still picture, it might be a little vignette, so when I go into the studio, it’s like a painter with a canvas and their palette, except I use instruments. I’m trying to get either the right instrument playing the right idiom or getting the right feel. It’s less that they go off in an odd direction than the process of trying out different elements and stitching them in seems to be quite protracted. I think that’s partially because I produce my own music and that’s only every 12 years now it seems!
Is it tricky to maintain your objectivity when you’re performer and producer?
I usually get to a saturation point where I don’t know up from down and I don’t know if it’s good or bad, what’s missing or if anything is missing. You feel helpless with it because you have to pass the track by other people and say, “How does it feel to you?” It feels like you’re searching for compliments but in actual fact you’re saying, “Does this feel complete?” There are so many choices.
Is it vital to have the musicians together in the studio?
I know that with technology you can fly in parts, but I love the whole spirit of getting together with people. It might be just my own indulgence but if I’m going to work hard, I want to enjoy working hard. I want to enjoy being with people. It’s not all about a direct line from here to there to make a commodity. It’s about enjoying the process along the way.
Is that approach in danger of being lost?
From an anthropological standpoint, I think it’s just devastating. Music is this extraordinary, unique and potentially powerful medium that then became commodified into an industry, that in itself shifted how people engage with music. They thought, “Well, I don’t have to learn to play the piano, other people will perform it,” so it ceases to happen casually within families and communities. It’s now more for artists.
Certainly, this time I became really quite frustrated with the technology, because although with Pro Tools you can take literally hundreds of takes, unless you’re extremely disciplined and you’ve got really good note-taking, you’re just pushing a lot of work down to the mixing. The great thing about working in tape is that you knew what it cost, you knew you only had a certain amount of time. In fact, I would argue that it caused musicians to play even better because now so much can be technically fixed by the engineer.
Then there’s the shared experience. There’s something about playing off each other rather than intellectually laying track after track. It speaks to something almost primal about sharing and reacting to the music you’re hearing.
Do you find making music more enjoyable than touring? Creating music often involves travel and research and reading and ruminating, then the very tough task of trying to come up with not only ideas but unique points of view. I don’t feel my wordsmithing is the strongest thing that I do, which is why I revert to dead poets from time to time. Then the next phase is bringing that into the studio with the musicians and that glorified process of working with them, which is like a musical feast. But it’s a very different process than the comfort, frankly, that comes with touring. You never know when you’re developing a piece where it will end up and if it will end up well. By the time you get to performing, all that anxiety has gone away. Now you can just relax and have fun.
Lost Souls is out now via Quinlan Road. For more information, see www.loreenamckennitt.com.