Singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Loreena McKennitt is one of Canada's most beloved national artists, a folk chanteuse, and a new age troubadour who made her breakthrough in the mid-'80s with her literate and oft-experimental focus on Celtic-tinged traditional and original material, coupled with her haunting harp playing. As her career progressed, McKennitt began incorporating Spanish, Galician, and Arabic themes into her repertoire, culminating in a trio of career-defining albums -- The Visit, The Mask and Mirror, and The Book of Secrets -- that made her an international star. McKennitt went on a long hiatus after the tragic death of her fiance in 1998, but returned to the studio in 2006 with the acclaimed The Book of Secrets, followed by a string of EP's and concert and studio albums, with highlights arriving via 2010's trad-Celtic LP The Wind That Shakes the Barley and 2018's inward looking Lost Souls.
The daughter of a nurse mother and a livestock-trading father, McKennitt studied classical piano and voice and learned to dance in the highland style as a youngster. Her love of traditional music was strengthened in the folk clubs of Winnipeg, which she frequented during the brief period she studied veterinary science at the University of Manitoba. Relocating to Stratford, Ontario, she continued to sharpen her skills as a composer and performer. In 1981, she auditioned for a role in the city's Stratford Festival of Canada. Although she did not get the role, she remained inspired. After reading Diane Sward Rapaport's book How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording, she formed her own label, Quinlan Road.
After releasing two albums, a nine-song cassette, Elemental, in 1985 and a collection of Christmas tunes, To Drive the Cold Winter Away, in 1987, she had her first breakthrough with her 1989 album Parallel Dreams. With the help of a network of small independent distributors, the album sold more than 40,000 copies within four months. Its success was surpassed by McKennitt's fourth album, The Visit. Distributed by Warner Canada, the album sold over 600,000 copies (six-times platinum) in Canada and received a Juno Award, as did her next recording, The Mask and Mirror, in 1994.
While her albums have featured soothing, ultra-melodic arrangements, McKennitt's lyrics have reflected her interests in the poetry of W.B. Yeats, William Blake, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Her music has been heard on the soundtracks of numerous plays and films. In 1989, she was commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada to compose the music for a film series, Woman and Spirituality. Her subsequent commissions have included such films as Jade, Highlander III, and Disney's The Santa Clause, and TV shows including Northern Exposure, Due South, and EZ Streets.
In 1998, McKennitt scored her biggest hit with "The Mummers' Dance." Aided by a pop crossover remix, the single helped propel her sixth LP, The Book of Secrets, to number three in Canada and into the Billboard Top 20, making it her highest-charting release to date. Sadly, her world crumbled that July when her fiancé, Ronald Rees, died while on a sailing trip with his brother and a family friend in Georgian Bay. Everything stopped immediately in order for McKennitt to grieve, while rumors of her retirement also circulated. At the time of her fiancé's death, McKennitt was mixing a new album, Live in Paris and Toronto, at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios. Recorded in Salle Pleyel in Paris and Massey Hall in Toronto during spring 1998, and the album was released in 1999. All profits from the album have gone to the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund, which McKennitt set up to finance water safety initiatives and education across Canada. It would be almost a decade before McKennitt would return to her own material.
In the new millennium, McKennitt allowed herself some healing time. She didn't disappear from music altogether, however, and worked with a number of local and national charities. Her Spanish version of "Dante's Prayer" was featured in the Canadian/Venezuelan feature film A House with a View of the Sea in 2001. In 2002, she headlined a concert in Winnipeg for Queen Elizabeth, and in 2003 she received the Order of Canada. Two years later, McKennitt began work on her seventh studio album, Ancient Muse, which was released in 2006 and peaked in the Canadian Top Ten. Nights from the Alhambra, a live CD/DVD, arrived in 2007, followed by Midwinter Night's Dream, a collection of holiday music that included 1995's Winter Garden EP in its entirety, along with eight new recordings. A Mediterranean Odyssey was released in 2009; the two-disc set included Olive and the Cedar, an 11-song compilation of some of her best-loved Mediterranean pieces, along with From Istanbul to Athens, which was recorded live on her 2009 Mediterranean tour.
In 2010, McKennit issued The Wind That Shakes the Barley, an album that found her revisiting the traditional Celtic style of her earlier work. Two years later, she followed up that studio effort with the live and unplugged concert album Troubadours on the Rhine: A Trio Performance. Surveying her three-decade recording career, 2013's two-disc The Journey So Far: The Best of Loreena McKennitt drew a dozen key songs from her eight studio albums and her single releases, collecting them on the first disc, with a second bonus disc that featured live performances recorded in Mainz, Germany during McKennitt's 2012 A Midsummer's Night tour. Her tenth album, and first full-length collection of original material since 2006's Ancient Muse, 2018's Lost Souls delivered a richly detailed and alluringly cinematic set of worldbeat-infused, modern folk pieces that hearkened back to her early works.
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