• The Mask and Mirror / Loreena McKennitt

    Interview with the artist on the occasion of her new album release and tour.

Music full of somber depths, spiritual yearning, and timeless echoes: in conversation with Canadian artist Loreena McKennitt on the occasion of the newly released The Mask and Mirror Live album, a recording of her 1994 concert at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of her acclaimed fifth studio album, this release highlights McKennitt’s innovative fusion of Celtic, southern European, North African, and Near Eastern musical traditions. She reminisces on her inspiring travels through Spain and Morocco, where she delved into the history, religion, and rich cultural tapestries of the 15th century, influencing the creation of the album’s lush, expansive melodies. To celebrate this milestone, the artist will embark on The Mask and Mirror 30th Anniversary Tour across Europe, presenting the album in its entirety at renowned venues and festivals. The tour will include 6 dates in Italy, culminating in Milan on July 26th at Teatro degli Arcimboldi.

There are only a few weeks left until you kick off your “The Mask and Mirror 30th Anniversary Tour” and many gigs have already sold out. You’ll be stopping by various venues in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Are you still able to find time in between concerts to enjoy the local cultures that inspire your music so greatly?

Well, tours are not designed for doing much research. We travel in the day and we’re often traveling in the morning, the same day of the show, and then set up. On those travel and show days there’s little, or no opportunity to see or do much. It’s only when we have a day off, when we can plan ahead that we get to enjoy some of the places we visit. Sometimes I’ll hire a guide, go to a museum, or to a great restaurant, something that is indicative of where we are. Beyond that, we stay focused on the tour itself. My research trips are richer with opportunities to deeply experience different things.

Remembering some of your remarkable performances, like the one beautifully filmed at Alhambra in Granada or the live recorded at The Royal Albert Hall in London, is there a specific concert or venue that holds a special place in your heart?

There are some performances that ‘stick out’ for obvious reasons. Of course, the Alhambra is one of them, the Herodion Theatre in Athens another. The many Greek and Roman amphitheaters, such as in Taormina or Ostia Antica too. We often find ourselves sitting in an amazing footprint of history together with the audience. To share that kind of experience in one place at the same time, it seems so rare and so significant. There’s the beauty and the significance of such historical places.
I’ve also performed in some places of natural beauty. Sometimes it’s as simple as the folk festivals back in Canada. Once I started a festival workshop that was tucked into a forested area. The scale or the antiquity aren’t the only variables, but also the richness of the environment, and how does that infuse itself for us as performers, as well as the people who listen. I think back to Ostia Antica when we managed to hire a guide. It was unbelievably rich. It was a significant point of research, that was done in the middle of one tour. I’ve thought of, reflected on and spoken of it in many conversations since. It’s unpredictable when these moments might occur.

From Dante to Yeats, from Shakespeare to Alfred, Lord Tennyson – just to name a few-, literature and poetry references represent a very common trait in your musical journey. How did your extensive and varied cultural background take shape?

When I moved from Winnipeg to Stratford in 1981 to work at the Stratford Shakespearean Theatre for four years, that heavily influenced the kind of visual and theatrical component to my creative impulse and also a deep appreciation of language and of different writers over the centuries. Even as recently as the other day in our rehearsals and I was reflecting on what W.B. Yeats was writing in his poem “The Two Trees”, that there are universal and timeless elements that are often captured in the works of real, strong classical writers like Shakespeare or Tennyson, for example. This is really an examination in a metaphorical kind of way, using trees as the allegory. It’s tempting to become jaded, cynical and negative about oneself or the world, or relationships and so on, and it’s really important to work at keeping that positivity in your personal relationships. The core things that I found about the classical writers are those universal, timeless themes that resonate with people all over the world, and that is what speaks to our needs. That is, we have a need to be loved, to belong, for equality and equity, and self-determination—those are the things that draw me. I’ve also felt that lyric-writing is not my strongest skill, so it’s always nice to have those writers who are far more sophisticated in their wordsmithing to hold half the role. I’ll just play the musical part.

You went to college to become a veterinarian before dropping out entirely in pursuit of a career in music. This is quite the leap. Was music ever a part of your childhood growing up? Can you recall a specific moment in your life that triggered your decision?

I came to realize, as years went on, that I came from an unusually strong musical community. This was largely because of a German Mennonite constituency that still lives in that area. Music was very strong in all the churches and was also infused into the schools. There were music festivals, talent nights and variety shows. This went on all the time in a very small community of 3,500 people. Even though my household was really, relatively speaking, not musical, my grandmother would come over and play the piano when my brother and I would go to sleep, while minding us. Beyond that, there was no live music in our house. My mother enrolled me in Highland Dancing when I was five, but it was also at an age when our family was involved in a car accident—I broke my legs so I couldn’t dance anymore. She enrolled me in piano lessons, and my music teacher made it a prerequisite that her students also belong to a children’s choir she led. It held an unusually high competency. In fact, it was beyond competent—it was a very high level of performance. This was before I could read words, before I could read music. I felt that the brain-ear synapses were being built before my visual literacy was, which is akin to how most folk music operates. Most people who learn folk music will learn it by ear, and they teach themselves to play instruments. Even though I went on to study classical piano for eight years and learned to read music, and I studied classical voice for about four or five years, I always kept hold of that aural dimension. When I was a teenager in Morden, Manitoba, I was exposed to and listened to the folk music of the day. It was Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and that was before I ever heard Celtic music. It wasn’t until I moved to Winnipeg after my grade 12 year when I visited a folk club and exposed to Celtic music. It was just such an infectious kind of sound.

Attending one of your concerts is a highly emotional moment in which every aspect, from the acoustics to the visual presentation, looks meticulously curated. Even your dresses/outfits always reveal a great deal of research, are you related in any way to the world of fashion?

I have not been a person who is infatuated with fashion. In fact, I would say I’m almost… I won’t say anti-fashion, but I’ve just kind of marched to my own drummer as it pertains to what I wear and how I dress and how that reflects what I’m interested in. Being immersed more in period music or traditional music, I just wanted to wear clothes that had that feel to them. I don’t explore it because of a lack of time to focus on it. But I’ve not been fashion conscious in the least and I see that has applied to my music as well. I’ve never written music for a hit single. I have written music that was pleasing to me, or responded to something innate within me, rather than saying, ‘I’m going to do that’. It’s a conscious, deliberate decision.

In times of Artificial Intelligence and dominance of the computer realm, how much does technology affect your current music production and what do you think will be the role of tradition and cultural heritage in the next future?

There are two very different and big branches to the question. I think of 20 years (or more) from now, after this technological misadventure experiment, or whatever you want to call it. I think we have seen how unregulated technology provides a number of good things and some amazing opportunities, while at the same time some devastating things. When I personally look at the balance sheet of those things, I see the devastating things outweighing the good ones. So personally, I am of a view that I have seen enough of this. I think we are in an emergency situation around the world and that we should put on the brakes like a nuclear moratorium, because it affects everything. I think it’s creating such insecurity in everyone’s world and life, not just those working in the music industry. Of course, the music industry was the first to be struck by unregulated technology. The industry is divided into two parts: one is the commodification part and the second is the performing part. The commodification part has been destroyed. For example, an artist such as myself, who used to be paid 25 cents per song on a CD or vinyl, is now paid 10 cents per thousand plays, or $0.0001 on Google Play. That doesn’t bring in enough revenue to cover the expenses of expensive creative explorations like The Mask and Mirror, or The Book of Secrets, where we incorporated musicians from all kinds of cultures and places. Because it’s unregulated, unprotected, it’s really killing-off a lot of the creative class. I think additionally, there has been this false equivalency that fame means success – and fame does not pay the bills. If there’s not a viable, predictable business model in which creators can live their professional lives, then there’s just not a future for them. There’s a carving out of the creative class which becomes a very, very few top-tier artists. The Taylor Swifts, etc. and then very young people, or very talented people who might be extremely well known on TikTok, but can’t make enough money to support themselves, much less a family. This puts various genres into peril, including folk music. Contrary to what many of the tech companies may want to see, is that people innately have a gravity, like a central point in themselves that they’re now feeling either the damage or the shallowness or the lack of something that’s involved in this and that. They’re gravitating back to some more analog experiences. I think of myself and the musicians that I work with, it’s unbelievable to think that we are like dinosaurs – from the standpoint that we create the music live through human endeavour.

Much of the younger generation has long forsaken its ancestral traditions and is seemingly headed towards unprecedented levels of cultural homogeneity, due to social media’s impact, among other factors. How important is it in your experience to give prominence to the forgotten lore of our predecessors in an age where we rarely take time to reflect on and study the past?

I hope that we’re appreciating that there is a much richer experience which is like a life force, a result of the interaction of human beings to human beings, rather than technology to human beings, or human beings to technology. Everything is being mediated through technology. But we must understand… I think we collectively must grow the maturity of understanding, as to how to use technology to its benefit, where to use it and when. Or, just to leave it alone and get it out of our lives.

You have been very vocal about the progressive downfall of the music industry and its struggle to find a profitable business model in the age of streaming and artists mistreatment. How have you managed to carry on as the founder of an independent label (Quinlan Road) in a profit-driven industry?

To the degree that my perception is somewhat accurate, I feel there are not the circumstances for much success right now. I think it is a massive gamble to put all one’s eggs in the basket of a career. At this point, a musical career… I think it would be highly advisable to keep working at it, developing it, keep studying where the opportunities are. Whether it’s in live performance or various kinds of promotion online or otherwise, but really have a second or third career lined up. If things improve or you win the lottery, then great. But what I do know is if I were to start out now, my career could never have reached the height that it did. In the era that I’ve lived in, it just simply couldn’t have. However disappointing that might be, I would rather give people what I feel is realistic advice and say don’t abandon it all together, but at the same time, go into this with your eyes wide open.

There simply is not the business model properly compensating creators. What’s going to be 10 times worse, is where even legacy artists such as myself are having their work scraped without permission and re-repackaged into some kind of AI output. Not only is that unfair to me, or artists such as myself, it is heading down, I think, to a very shallow, dystopian future.

Your music will be forever unparalleled for a plethora of reasons, not least because of the anthropological research that goes into its creation. What is the catalyst behind this commitment to adorning your projects with a sense of cultural belonging?

Through what I call the excavation of my travels and research, it has been a glorified act of self-education. I never did get a university education after my high school. I realized whether it was spending time with the nomadic people on the steppes of Mongolia, or with people in Turkey, Greece, Spain, China, or on the train across Siberia – that as a species we are pretty much all the same in that we have a need to be loved. We have a need to belong. We have these universal strands of commonality. And there’s a lot more that should be binding us together than tearing us apart. My only word of caution is that we need to be extremely aware and again, I can’t fail to go back to the downside of the internet. It is being weaponized against us, and we must, I feel, move forward with an unbelievable, deep belief that we have more in common than what sets us apart, that we need to see ourselves in each other, equip ourselves with empathy and kindness. If we can hold on to those, we can sail through this real crazy period we’re in. But if we surrender to our basic, base instincts that are more destructive and detrimental, this will not be good for anybody.

Green fields of the Highlands, Middle-Eastern sunrise, the crowded streets of Morocco or Turkey, the colors of the Iberian peninsula… A while ago you mentioned that for every piece of music you’ve composed, you’ve always had a visual reference in your mind to base it on. When you allude to specific places or cultures, do you derive these mental images from your personal experiences, or does imagination play a role as well?

I take a piece like “The Gates of Istanbul”. I had ridden on camels before and I was becoming to appreciate the richness of the Ottoman culture. I wanted to create a piece that represented that. I had and still have, great love for the architecture that involves gardens and water and the sensuality and the sacredness of these kinds of environments – thinking that people coming back from some kind of journey on camel and horseback, with a positive feeling about their return to that glorious environment of pomegranate trees, running water and the cultural feeling of community that you see reflected in food and people and children playing outside and people knowing their neighborhood. Sometimes the songs, or the pieces even like “Santiago”, become representative talking points, from a standpoint that I didn’t know. I mean, that’s a real melody from that period, that represents this pilgrimage route. I didn’t know how to write lyrics to talk about that route so I said, okay – we’ll do an instrumental. Maybe if I spent enough time or got in the right headspace I could have come up with lyrics, but I really wanted the pilgrimage route to be represented in this historical, geographical, religious and spiritual profile of Spain – and all that happens when you have people traveling there. They are influencing food, music, dress. It could be architecture, it could be agriculture. It could be all these things that they bring back to their home communities again. They’re changed by the people they met on that route. Trying to show that ‘meeting people of other cultures’ is not something to be afraid of, but rather to be curious about, and to look for the commonality within the people, you know. It is back to those basics of meeting the needs of being loved and belonging, equality and equity and self-determination. It’s being curious and embracing, rather than being fearful. Of course, living in Canada, so much of recent Canadian history has been one of immigrants and migrants and how Canadian culture has evolved and changed as a result of that, and I think for the better. So there are a lot of contemporary relevancies that would come through a lot of those pieces, and some have to do with imagination, some don’t. When I think of “The Dark Night of the Soul”, when I read that poem in Saint John of the Cross, and him being influenced by Teresa of Avila, who had come from Judaic roots, and this whole politically-delicate reflection – should everyday people have a direct relationship with God: was that permitted, or did you always have to go through an intermediary? I mean, that’s a very political thing. Getting around the politics, you create a metaphorical poem that’s like a love poem. It is like a relentless excavation of history and the timeless questions and issues of our times. I’m looking to real experiences that I have, but then I look to my imagination, as many fictional writers will, to fill in the gaps, to flesh out the piece of work.

In your body of work you moved through various musical genres, are there any new unexplored frontiers that you still want to explore?

I know that the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. Every culture has micro-cultures, and those micro-cultures have their own historical roots, it is endless. The most significant recent research trip that I took was to Rajasthan, and that must be about seven years ago. I felt there were things about Celtic history that were pointing to some of the very earliest influences coming from that part of the world and I was really interested to explore those. Whether that would end up being true or not… I didn’t finish all the research. I had some exceptionally rich experiences that have very important contemporary relevance, in considering who are indigenous peoples. There was a group authentically identified as (I believe) the last indigenous group of people in India, who performed at this event, or how stories were told through tapestries behind dancers. The interplay between these — they were like scrolls, almost of different knowledge. So, if you’re talking about people who were not literate, which is not a shameful thing, just simply there was another way to capture history. Then of course there was the incredible Sufi festival where I encountered children in the caste system, even though I believe India has outlawed that modality. They still had a service they were providing to their patron family, and this was to memorize their genealogy. Every time a birth, a marriage, or a death happened in that patron’s family, there would be somebody from this family to memorize that genealogy. You can imagine what that involved over centuries of the evolution of a patron family. That’s amazing. I mean, it goes back. I think of the bardic or the Druids, the Celts and the Druidic traditions where all those laws were memorized. It would be like memorizing seven years of law now, and the power and the mechanisms of memory. You know how you have rhymes, but you also have physical things that prompt as a record. When you think of our contemporary times where we are offshoring so many facts and even knowledge to technology that is owned and operated by a handful of individuals and companies, what an incredible act that is, to divest ourselves of something. There are many things that I feel have very contemporary relevancies.

Of the exceptionally rich experiences you said you had in Rajasthan, were any of them musical and if so could you viscerally feel a connecting of dots to the Celts?

The first thought of curiosity was between a style of singing you’ll find still to some degree in the west coast of Ireland called Sean-nós singing. It’s highly ornamented. I’m not a musicologist and I would love to spend time with various musicologists, but some of the rhythmic patterns of the bodhrán. “Da da da da. BA da da da da ba da da da da” have commonality. Too, there are very close similarities to some of the tabla and the other kind of drumming patterns, which is why when I have gone into the studio I’ve welcomed those things at the same time. And it’s like a math saying, do these actually line up, or can they integrate, or how do they feel together? I think some of the burial customs, the funeral pyres, the way time is kept, there seem to be similarities between some of the earliest Celtic tribes and some of what’s happening in India. It’s an exploration that I began, but I haven’t really returned to, partially due to personal and professional things and frankly, just the lack of a convincing business model that says if I’m going to go and invest a lot of money and time in another recording, that there is a business model that will compensate for that.

“The Mask and Mirror” marked a significant turning point in your career. In a few weeks, you’ll be performing every song on this masterpiece 30 years following its release as a celebration of the newly released “The Mask and Mirror Live” recording. Do such major revisits of your earlier work solicit any significant variations when performed live?

Not so much in the arrangement. It’s been a fascinating exercise, to go back to what I was focused on at the time, 30 or more years ago, what was catching my attention, and through the lens of Spanish history that brought forward the questions of the difference between spirituality and religion, given that, I believe that we as a species need to be spiritually engaged. That exploration has only widened the more I have been introduced to and become familiar with Indigenous people in North America, taking on board their worldview, and then reflecting on how that connects back to some of the ancient Celts, who also had a very strong connection with the natural world. They had a whole alphabet that was based on the different qualities of trees. They believed in a version of reincarnation, that their ancestors may be embodied in the trees, or the salmon in the stream. However mythological all that might seem, they innately observed, without the benefit of science, that our existence is dependent on a harmonious and symbiotic relationship based on humility and gratitude, and not on dominance and hubris. I am bringing forward what I feel are universal lessons through the lens of history, that I started exploring in The Mask and Mirror. I think of those people that we stumbled upon in the desert in Morocco. They were out there in the middle of nowhere, and I had simply asked, was there any music that I could hear. The proprietor of the little auberge said, ‘well, there’s a couple of brothers who are living with their family’, down what you couldn’t even call a road. You had to follow the telephone or the hydro wires to get to this place. And we got lost. What was going on there that night I thought, oh, my heavens. When we went back to the place, I could see in the distance these lights kind of moving back and forth and there they were, these two brothers up on top of their house in the middle of the Moroccan desert, swinging their lanterns and giving us signals because they could see the headlights. We were kind of going off in all directions. They could not speak a word of English, I could not speak a word of their language. Yet we could sit down for an evening of music. You realize the unbelievably unique nature of the medium of music, and how it’s the authentic representation in real time by real people together in one place. That is the pinnacle of the experience and that is what makes touring so exceptional.

Find your tickets here: loreenamckennitt.com/tour/

The Mask and Mirror / Loreena McKennitt

Credits:

Artist: Loreena McKennitt / @loreenamckennitt
Interview: Marco Giuliano / @marcogiulianoph
Assistant: Sedef Nihat / @sedefnihat

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