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Loreena McKennitt: Canada’s unexpected godmother of DIY music

Andrea Warner

Loreena McKennitt’s name doesn’t typically come up in conversations about DIY music, a label that’s often reserved for punk or indie, but it’s time to set the record straight. McKennitt is a badass — a regal, harp-playing, feminist, DIY badass at that.

Though she may no longer be a household name — after all, McKennitt’s breakthrough hit, “The Mummers’Dance,” was released in 1997 — she’s actually the head of her own mini-empire, Quinlan Road, which has survived the relative collapse of the music industry. McKennitt has sold more than 14 million albums to date worldwide, while retaining total control over her music and her business since she started out in 1985.

“I don’t think about it very often, except in situations like this,” McKennitt says with a smile, sitting in a studio at CBC Vancouver, in town for another sold-out show on her tour. “I was always a tomboy, I played with the boys all my life, I was never intimidated by them. I don’t take much time to think about it from a female or feminist point. It’s just, ‘OK, there’s the guys again in the music business, great, well, I’ll just argue with them this way.’ But I think it is true that I’ve established a kind of track record of my own, and I’ve probably taken it to far greater lengths than many would be inclined to.”

Despite her success, McKennitt’s not convinced of her role as a pioneer.

“I think people give me much more credit than I deserve,” she says, laughing. “I’d love to say that I knew what I was doing when I set off, but it was more that I knew what I didn’t want.... When I got into the clutches of the music industry, I thought, well, I guess I’m going to go into it on my own terms. I didn’t even exactly know what my own terms were. I was late teens, early 20s, just making my way into my adulthood and just trying to think —  I was more responding to things than knowing where I was going and how I wanted to do them.”

McKennitt, who originally wanted to be a veterinarian before falling “madly in love with Celtic music,” worked with the theatre in Stratford, Ont., from 1981-84. When she wasn’t invited back for '85, she borrowed the money her parents had set aside for her vet studies and took to a barn to make her first recording, Elemental. From busking and cassette sales, McKennitt made enough to afford her next record and by her third release, Parallel Dreams, the major labels came calling.

“Unlike most artists, I had developed the financial capacity to finance my own recordings, and I’d kept a mailing list,” McKennitt says. “I didn’t have to go to the bank of Warner or MCA or wherever to finance my recordings, so that put me in a very different footing for my contractual arrangements, which, in the end, were more like a licensing deal rather than an artist’s deal where you are one of a handful of raw resources that the record companies put together to create a recording.”

Her financial resources, the mailing list, and her firsthand connection to her fanbase afforded McKennitt a tremendous amount of freedom. She thinks financial control is not just critical for women artists, but every creative person. 

“For centuries, if not longer, particularly in Western culture, women were not encouraged to worry about business or finance," McKennitt says. "They weren’t even allowed to pay the household bills. There’s a kind of coddling that can happen, where you feel, ‘Oh, business and all of this stuff is beyond my understanding.' And there’s a lot of encouragement by many of the forces around different kinds of artists to primarily focus on their creativity.

"It seems like a reasonable game plan, but at the end of the day if you don’t understand all the forces that come to play in your career and the monetization of your talents or skills — the music industry is a collapsed industry. When you’re sitting in the epicentre of it on a day-to-day basis like we do, and internationally speaking, I’ve not seen any viable, predictable business model on which to go forward on. I actively discourage people from getting into the music business as a primary thing and to develop a secondary skill set, do it as a hobby, because it’s a very convoluted business.”

Admittedly, McKennitt’s success is both a combination of luck, instinct, talent and determination. Even her big breakout moment, when “The Mummer’s Dance” became a huge hit, crossing four radio formats to became a Celtic/folk/world/dance phenomenon, could be attributed to those factors.

“When we were working in England in the studio, I was working on a bunch of other tracks and I was still writing 'The Mummer’s Dance,'” McKennitt says. “I’m not a very confident writer and I invited in my fiddle player Hugh Marsh. I played a bit for him and I said, ‘Hugh, I’m working on this new piece and I’m not sure whether I should continue working on it or not.’ So I played him a bit of it and he said, ‘Oh yes, I think you should keep on writing that’ [laughs]. When the tracks got down to Warner Bros Records in California, someone said, in the middle of the A&R department, ‘You know if we remix this just a little bit, it would provide more opportunity.’ I said, ‘I can be open to that, but I don’t want the remix to totally distort or mislead the public. If they go and buy my recording, this will be the only thing that will sound like it.’”

Having made only one major-label compromise — particularly one that paid off so handsomely — is almost unheard of in a career that spans almost 30 years and is unlikely to slow any time soon. McKennitt is continuing to push her Celtic exploration into new territories, having recently spent time in northern India doing research for her next album. This October she’ll head to Latin America for the first time, with shows in Argentina and Brazil, with at least seven backing musicians in tow. It’s an undertaking that few other musicians could pull off, in no small part because of the financial cost of such a sizable tour. But McKennitt, of course, operates by her own rules.

“Sometimes I think of Sheila Copps, and I remember her getting up in Parliament and saying, ‘I’m nobody’s baby!’” McKennitt laughs. “I’ve got that quality about me. I want to understand how things are done, I want to understand why they’re done this way or that way. I like transparency and accountability and the more I knew about the music industry and business, the more I realized there wasn’t any. I just found my own creative corner, as well as my own administrative corner.”

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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