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First Play and Q&A: Loreena McKennitt, Lost Souls

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Andrea Warner

A quick picture of 2006: MySpace was still the most popular social networking tool. Spotify did not technically exist. Nobody had ever heard of Justin Bieber. It was also the same year that Loreena McKennitt released An Ancient Muse, her last album of original music — until now.

You can stream McKennitt’s new album, Lost Souls, five days before its release this Friday, May 11, exclusively via the CBC Music player. You can pre-order Lost Souls here.

Twelve years is a long time in almost any industry, but in the music industry particularly, it’s a wildly long — and usually risky — wait no matter how rapturous one’s fanbase. But McKennitt has never followed the so-called industry rules, defying again and again the way things are “usually” done in favour of her own deliberate and specific method of DIY. She manages herself. She produces herself. She began by busking on the street and building a mailing list of people eager to know what was next for the ethereal harpist who is equal parts pioneer, anthropologist and entrepreneur.

Because of McKennitt’s command of her own career, she is one of the most empowered and successful musicians Canada has ever produced. And yet the mainstream tends to overlook her contributions, recalling only her surprise hit, 1997’s “Mummer’s Dance,” and not much else. But McKennitt regularly tours the world, selling out shows all over the globe, and it’s not as if she’s spent the last dozen years in some kind of seclusion.

She was taking her time, digging deep in her ongoing study of the Celts, and working toward something that still hasn’t quite materialized. Instead, she ended up drawing from her past as well as her present to compose Lost Souls, a record that explores loss, isolation and obsolescence, but also love, life and passion.

CBC Music spoke with McKennitt by phone to talk about Lost Souls, technology, grief, being a producer, the music industry, and what it’s like to get back in the studio after 12 years.

It sounds as if this is a record that's more of a survey of maybe the last 20 years of your life as opposed to a summary of the last 12 years.

Yes I think that would be fair. I had actually hoped that the next studio recording of original material would have been a product of a trip that I made to India a few years ago in pursuit of the history of the Celts, but it was just going to take even longer to do that and people were writing and saying, "Are you ever going to release something original again?" [laughs].

I had some songs in the closet, so to speak. It's not that I didn't like them before, it was just they didn't fit in the various recordings and that they kind of languished as lost souls themselves. At that point I also came to the title. The one that would have gone back the longest would have been the "Manx Ayre" tune. It was actually an instrumental that I used to play busking on the streets…. And I was commissioned to write a piece for the commemoration of Vimy for last year and that was the "Breaking of the Sword" piece.

I was wondering about the "Breaking of the Sword" piece. I don't like to assume that songwriters are writing everything from a personal standpoint but it feels like a lot of the album is actually about processing goodbyes.

Once I came across the title I did want to make sure that most, if not all, the songs in some way were kind of a take on that title. I think I was probably lucky from a design standpoint because those first five songs came from different directions and they just happened to be what was in the cupboard. Over the course of my career I've certainly been drawn to material that has certain kinds of loss involved in them.

In an interview we did five years ago you described yourself as not a very confident songwriter, which I thought was really interesting. Has your relationship to songwriting progressed or changed throughout your career?

It's hard to know where to begin on that but you know, I always wanted to be a veterinarian. When I became involved in music it was through the traditional music and after that I had to think about did I want to become a sort of singer-songwriter or something else? Technically I am a singer-songwriter but I've not drawn from my own personal life very much. There's a little bit here and there, but on the most part it has resembled more an act of musical travel writing. I go and research and travel, exploring a certain subject — which has primarily been the Celts and everything that is personally around them. Then we bring some contemporary relevance to some of the history that I'm learning as well as some of my own personal experiences.

I split my duties so severely…. So much of my time I spend as a manager, so I don't spend nearly as much creative time as I would like and when I do it's really, I find it very hard.... It's a frame of mind, a state of mind. I know the circumstances which I'm more likely to be creative but it's like I know the places in the lake and the time of day to go and I'm more likely to catch fish but doesn't mean I'm going to. I think the insecurity comes from a lack of doing it all the time and having great respect for people who were really fine wordsmiths.

You produce your own music, right?

I produce my recordings, that's always been the case, but I don't produce anybody else's work. I'm more than I can manage but I had to have good assistants. It's a very organic process. I write the pieces and I will often get together with Bryan Hughes, who not only works with me as a musician but he will be kind of my deputy in the studio. I really go in with a vision and every song has a picture and I go into the studio trying to paint that picture with the palette of instruments and the musicians playing in their respective genres. It's like creating a recipe from scratch and there's a lot of scratching out and going back and trying this and then finally. Frankly, we stop primarily because we've run out of time in the budget and we just say, "OK, well this is a snapshot."

I'm sure if I was a really experienced producer doing this all the time things would probably go a bit quicker and I try to make notes of lessons learned after each recording session but I know even with this one a lot of time was spent dealing with the technology in the studio. The technology has developed and evolved so quickly even in the studio environments and there aren't manuals, there aren't systems. Everybody's got their own method of doing things, including how you save a file. At the same time, you can have limitless takes and I'm trying to bring the discipline that was forced on us of analog, saying, "No, no just because we can take 20 takes, I don't want to take that many." I want to do three or four and make a choice and move on.

We talked a little bit about privacy last time as well and then today I got the announcement that you were leaving Facebook and the more than 547,000 fans that have liked your page. But you've also had a mailing list yourself from the beginning, so I feel like you were a bit ahead of the curve in that, creating a community.

It just seemed like common sense at the time when I started out promoting my own concerts back in ’86 and ’87 at libraries and church halls and city auditoriums. It just seemed like when you have people near you, you want to make sure that you stay in touch with them and so I would always have a table at the back of the hall and I said anybody who would want to add their name to my mailing list, please put it there and we'll send you something. And then I also put in little bounce-back cards in our recordings and people would fill them in and send them to us and I'd have somebody here at the office entering them into a database and we'd be sending off our little newsletters to people.

When the digital technology and social media came on board, at first blush it looked like this was an unbelievably inexpensive and efficient way of staying in touch. But I've been studying this for a decade now, technology and its unintended consequences, and I think most people are really just starting to feel it wouldn't see the other side of this stuff.

Technology has been a big part of your research though, too, your ability to travel and go to places and there’s an anthropological aspect to a lot of your work. I'm so interested in your relationship to academia and social sciences.

I have a real appetite and curiosity for it. I would have loved, I think, to have gone on to study formally after high school even if it was not veterinarian study. So this career path has been a very rich method of compensating for that. When I got interested in the traditional folk music, you realized that you couldn't separate the folk music from the political, economic and social circumstances from which it sprang because there was a lot of that woven in. All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I started to see the relevance of history and some of these other subjects.

It explained a lot that I either wasn't taught at school or I just didn't get it, but when I came to the traditional music, I got it and from that point forward I thought, "Wow, I'm going to use this history of accounts as a glorified excuse to educate myself and along the way I'll draw upon my creative energies and spin that into music that I can share with other people and make a living from." The dividends of this have been beyond just monetary ones; they've been a real education and yet I feel I've only scraped the surface of it.

Pre-order Lost Souls.

Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner


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