Loreena McKennitt Discusses Her Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction

Loreena McKennitt

Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame this week. Photo: Quinlan Road/Richard Haughton

The induction of Loreena McKennitt — Celtic-fusion singer-songwriter and Member of the Order of Canada — into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame not only took place on International Women’s Day (March 8), but was also presented during the inaugural Women in Music Canada Honours Awards. The 66-year-old Stratford, Ont., resident will also get a permanent exhibit in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame at the National Music Centre in Calgary.  

The Grammy nominee and Juno winner is a unique case study in the Canadian music business, a woman who plays the Celtic harp and composes a kind of magical medieval sound infused with Celtic and Middle Eastern elements. Her lyrics are either poetic or she arranges topline poems by such English and Irish greats as Yeats, Blake, Shakespeare, Tennyson, or a Spanish priest like John of the Cross, OCD. A multi-instrumentalist who first learned piano as a child and then taught herself to play harp, she also brings in other instruments, from the accordion to the traditional Irish bodhrán.  

Born in Morden, Man., McKennitt moved to Ontario in the ’80s. There she formed her own record label, Quinlan Road, in 1985, to control her career, which took off in a big way with 1991’s The Visit, 1994’s The Mask and the Mirror and 1997’s The Book of Secrets (which yielded a Top 20 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 and a Top 10 single in Canada with “The Mummer’s Dance”). To date, she has sold some 14 million albums.

While the details have yet to be announced, McKennitt plans to release two catalogue titles on coloured vinyl, perform three Ontario festival dates this summer with local Stratford traditional Celtic band The Bookends, has a month-long tour of the U.S. northeast in the fall and will release Under A Winter’s Moon — a 2022 live Christmas album release featuring carols and readings by the singer and friends — on vinyl, in time for the holidays.

Zoomer spoke with McKennitt the morning of her CSHF induction.

KAREN BLISS: What do inductions and awards mean to you at this stage of your career? 

LOREENA MCKENNITT: When I was notified, of course I was delighted and feeling honoured, a bit surprised [laughs], but very grateful. For me, because I manage my career … I don’t stand back too often and reflect on the trajectory of my career. Perhaps when I finally hang up my shoes, that time may come. But, of course, it’s always gratifying to be recognized by your peers or the industry in which you’re working.

KB: You are a trailblazer — a female artist who started your own label when few did that. Were you hoping to inspire other artists to follow in your footsteps? 

LMK: I didn’t know. Again, I guess this is a hallmark of running one’s own business while being the widget, that one doesn’t take enough time or too much time to reflect either on oneself or the road that may be inspiring others. When I look at myself in this industry, which is still predominantly male-dominated, I go back to my childhood. I was a tomboy [laughs]. And I played with the boys. I wasn’t afraid of them. When it came to developing my career, I wasn’t looking at it through a gender lens. I just found that when I made my cassettes, I busked in Toronto at St. Lawrence Market, and people bought my cassettes, and then I made arrangements with small retailers and distributors. 

I built my career unmindful of a gender lens, shall we say. And I will say that there were a number of men in those positions who were huge supporters of mine. But, having said that, I do think that the whole industry would be much better served, and serving the public, were there more women in all positions. I think that’s what we’re looking for across all of society. This industry is not as far along perhaps as one would like to feel because I do think that women see things sometimes differently and what you want is a balance.  For me, the most disturbing thing that falls in the industry on the gender subject, frankly, is content that is of misogyny.  I would like very much for this industry to tackle that. 

Loreena McKennitt
Loreena McKennitt on harp, channelling her signature medieval sounds, infused with Celtic and Middle Eastern elements. Photo: Liz Beddall


KB: Did you encounter resistance as a woman in the industry, both as a musician and a business owner?

LMK: When there were difficult moments — where I was being denied or refused [laughs], whatever it is that I was pursuing at the time — it was hard for me to tell how much of it had to do with me as a woman or if it had to do with me as an artist. 

I remember being in a boardroom office at Warner in Germany, in Hamburg. I guess it was in 1993. It was February, and we were coming to England to do a showcase.  It was all men with their black hair and black suits [laughs]. I said, ‘We’re coming to England. I wonder if we could possibly come to Germany and do a showcase?’ And every suggestion I made, they said, ‘No.’ So in March, just a month later, I went to Morocco to research my next recording and a call came through to Marrakesh. It was Warner Music Canada saying, would I be the opening act for Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells tour in Europe? It started in Germany and the terms that I discussed with them was that I would want to have my CDs sold in the merchandise area, as well as a program on the seat so people would know who the opening act was.

The German company gave me a tranche of CDs that they felt would do the whole tour. And the first night I performed in Stuttgart, we sold out all of those CDs. And then they sent more down the next night, and we sold through all of those. And then on the third night, they came down to see me perform and saw what was happening and then the lightbulb went on. So, whether that was to do with me being a woman or an artist, or both, I don’t know. 

KB: Do you think that ageism is the next area of discrimination that needs to be tackled, not just in the music industry, but in the workforce in general? 

LMK: Yes, I think that we’ve come to worship a youthfulness in a disproportionate way. When you think of older cultures, the opposite has been true, the sense of honouring your elders on just the fact that if people live longer they have more experiences and, hopefully, they learn things and they have more insights. This is one of the other dimensions of making music as solely part of the entertainment industry — it became more of a fashion commodity. And with that part of the package is a youthfulness. We know young people are maybe less sophisticated in understanding how they’re being marketed to. So there’s a lot of things that conspire to creating an emphasis on a younger generation at the expense of people who are more mature in their life. 

KB: What are you looking forward to the rest of 2023?

LMK: From a professional standpoint, we are going to be out touring again in the fall in the United States and then in a few dates in Canada. I’m also doing a couple folk festivals this summer, which I rarely able to do in a more traditional vein. Then, we’ll be back in Europe touring next year. I also am the owner and director of the Falstaff Family Centre here in Stratford. So, we’re quite up to our ears also in supporting the community in different ways. We host the Multicultural Association here [Perth-Huron], so we’re involved in some of the activities concerning newcomers, some of the Indigenous community here. So I’m looking forward to continuing to build connections and bridges with those communities and also leaning against the climate wheel. This is the whole civic side of my existence.


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