Q&A

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.

Prog - - Contents - Words: David West Por­trait: Richard Haughton

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.

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