Loreena McKennitt has sold 15 million records – but she’d rather talk about air-sea rescue

The Canadian queen of Celtic music is honorary colonel of the Royal Canadian Airforce. 

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I’ve recently been exploring the best music by which to line-edit copy for this magazine. Jazz works, as long as there aren’t too many notes (no Coltrane). Vocals are generally out – too distracting – with the exception of Celtic music which, with its talk of huntsmen, and ladies holed up in distant towers, recalls a soothing age far removed from the computer. On one of my Spotify Celtic sessions, I came across Loreena McKennitt, who has sold 15 million records and is sometimes referred to as the Canadian Enya. At one point, Enya’s people refused to provide a song for a Warner compilation if McKennitt was on it too. The two have still never met.

A Google image search of the mysterious soprano revealed a red-haired woman in full military uniform. McKennitt is honorary colonel of the Royal Canadian Airforce. She ploughs much of the proceeds of her records into a water search and rescue charity in conjunction with the Canadian coastguards. Each of her albums – there have been ten – is the result of months of anthropological research, conducted via solo travel.  And ten years ago she fought a very public court case in England against an ex-friend who wrote a book about her. Unusually, she claimed invasion of privacy, rather than libel, and won, getting several sections deleted. She lives quietly on a farm in Stratford Ontario, where Justin Bieber was born. I thought it would be good to meet her for lunch.

We order hummus in Queensway: she’s just got off a plane. McKennitt, who sells out the Albert Hall in this country, is quietly spoken and academic. On 1 June, she will delete her Facebook page after years thinking about privacy and the damaging effect of connection technologies on the human brain. “Celebrity is a ghetto and there are a lot of artists who have been quite happy to put themselves in that ghetto but not all,” she says. Bieber comes home to Stratford visit his grandparents. Of Justin she observes, “Males don’t mature until 25 or 30... people who end up on his career path don’t have the foggiest notion what it’s going to do to their mental health.” Leaving Facebook will not damage her sales: “I’m a legacy artist. We will be OK.”

Born into livestock farming in Manitoba, McKennitt studied agriculture, but quit to spend her college money making her first cassette and busked the music, with harp, at Toronto’s St Lawrence market. She financed her releases this way, and built her own tours before Warner showed interest. They were nervous of “this woman wandering around without a manager”, so for a couple of years they tried to find her one. Eventually, she went back to the label and told them: “I am finished with all these blind dates.”

McKennitt’s father’s family was from Donegal via Inverness. She went full-on, prescription-strength Celtic with her music in the early Nineties – her anthropological research makes up for dropping out of college, she says. She stayed with a nomadic family in Mongolia and saw the Celtic knotwork on their saddles. She went to Ürümqi in the north-west corner of China, to a museum with mummies that have red hair.

She’s been reading Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress recently. “He studies civilisations as one would study the black boxes of aircraft,” she says: “Knife, sword, gun, cannon, nuclear – and then we’ve gone too far...” Which brings the other-worldly singer, griot of damsels and ancient times back to connection technology, and its effect on a music industry that was in no way ready for it. She misses record shops – but with her own label, and having always been “90 per cent business woman”, she is sanguine. “As I say, I didn’t really want it that badly in the first place!”

There is, after all, the water search and rescue work to be done – an area of her life which does not, she admits, conventionally blend with her music. In 1998, McKennitt’s fiancé, his brother and a friend were drowned in Georgian Bay, Ontario. I’ve sometimes wondered whether people who immerse themselves in ancient cultures ever yearn to live in another time entirely. “There was a brief period of that,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I mean, life, clearly, is very hard.” 

Loreena McKennitt's Lost Souls is out now on Quinlan Road records

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman