A musical entrepreneur whose beguiling recordings of Celtic and world music are eagerly awaited, singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt has twice won a JUNO Award, and twice been nominated for a Grammy Award. Her soprano voice has been called “crystalline” and “ethereal,” and Zoomer magazine calls her “one of our nation’s true musical treasures.”
McKennitt’s original songs and her skilful musical arrangements of time-honoured English and Irish poems, such as Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and W.B. Yeats’s Stolen Child, are part world music, folk-roots and Celtic Wave infused with a classical finesse. Her music is simultaneously contemporary yet eternal.
Born in Manitoba in 1957, McKennitt grew up in a small town, where she sang in a choir and studied classical piano and voice. In 1975, she moved to Winnipeg to study veterinary science, but before graduating, she discovered a passion for Celtic music and soon found herself performing in Winnipeg clubs.
Since then, McKennitt has pursued a decades-long quest of discovery into the ageless music and nomadic history of the Celts. Relocating to Stratford, Ontario in 1981, she appeared as an actress, singer, and composer for the Stratford Festival, including The Tempest (1982) and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1984). In spring 2001, she returned to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival as composer for the critically acclaimed production of The Merchant of Venice.
After learning to play the troubadour harp, in 1985 she embarked on a solo music career, founding her Quinlan Road label and financing her Irish-based debut recording, “Elemental,” by busking in Toronto.
Self managed, McKennitt decided early to focus her songwriting on her passion, Celtic music, rather than autobiographical songwriting. After forging a distribution deal with Warner Music Canada and along with it, the global Warner network, in 1992 she won her first JUNO Award for the multi-platinum album “The Visit,” and the first of three nominations for Best Female Vocalist. A second “Best Roots” JUNO followed in 1994 for “The Mask and Mirror,” exploring Celtic connections to Spanish and Arab music.
She followed this with “The Book of Secrets” and its JUNO-nominated single The Mummers’ Dance, its chorus borrowed from a traditional Oxfordshire song. The album became her highest-charting effort, at No. 3 on Billboard and selling over four million copies worldwide, of which over two million were in the United States. Her hit The Mummers’ Dance earned a BMI Award and is now a SOCAN Classic. The album featured McKennitt’s inventive fusion treatments, combining keyboards, harp, and acoustic and electric guitars with world-music instruments (bodhran, bouzouki, kanoun, oud, tabla, etc.) and early-music instruments (hurdy gurdy, viola de gamba, shawm), imaginatively melding the traditional with the contemporary. Her subsequent albums “An Ancient Muse” and “Troubadours on the Rhine” both earned Grammy nominations.
McKennitt has sold more than 14 million records world-wide. Available in more than 40 countries, her albums have garnered critical international acclaim, and gold, platinum, and multi-platinum awards in 15 countries across four continents including Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Greece.
Her journey of musical exploration has seen her perform at the Mariposa Folk Festival, Expo ’85 in Japan, London’s Royal Albert Hall, Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival, the Vancouver Winter Olympics opening ceremony, Carnegie Hall, the Istanbul Jazz Festival, a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth in Winnipeg, and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.
When recording traditional songs and poems, McKennitt respects their authenticity. She asks herself: “How do I support this already-existing piece of art in a way that I can only add to it?” And when recording her own material, she explains, “I develop an image, like a picture in my mind’s eye, that becomes the reference point for then going into the studio.” She feels strongly that music has the power to communicate, to bridge cultural and linguistic differences.
Among McKennitt’s many honours are the Orders of Canada and Manitoba, the Western Canadian Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, and Billboard’s International Creative Achievement Award. She continues to contribute to various civic and charitable endeavours. As the founder of the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund she has raised more than $4 million for water safety initiatives. She also founded the Falstaff Family Centre, a community hub and resource for families and children in Stratford and Perth County, Ontario, and more recently launched the grassroots organization Wise Communities Stratford to encourage civic engagement. She is also currently Honorary Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and in 2019 was awarded the Canadian Forces Decoration (CD), representing 12 years of service.
In 2010 McKennitt released the studio recording “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” Consisting of traditional Celtic songs, this album is a stirring and inspirational return to her roots. Her live recording, “Troubadours on the Rhine,” released in 2012, received a Grammy nomination. McKennitt’s most recent studio recording of original songs, “Lost Souls,” explores a broad and bold array of influences from Celtic, and Middle Eastern, to the poetry of Yeats and Keats and instruments from nyckelharpa to a military band. “Live At the Royal Albert Hall” was recorded on tour in 2019, featuring songs from “Lost Souls” as well as curated favourites. In 2021 McKennitt marked the 30-year anniversary of her ground-breaking album “The Visit” by releasing a special Definitive Edition package including archival materials.
McKennitt’s most recent recording, the seasonal album “Under a Winter’s Moon,” was recorded live in Stratford, Canada, in December 2021. The album features 15 seasonal songs performed by McKennitt, interspersed with seasonal readings.
McKennitt is a voice of caution regarding technology’s impact on songwriters’ earning power. Former Music Canada President Graham Henderson, upon endowing her with the Artist Advocate Award, said, “From the day she chose to retain her master rights, and do it her own way, she has been a passionate, devoted advocate for musicians’ rights.”