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Music / Loreena McKennitt

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Here is my heart, I give it to you,
Take me with you across this land...
— "The Neverending Road"

Clouded dream on an earthly night
Hangs upon the crescent moon
Voiceless song in an ageless light
Sings at the coming dawn
Birds in flight are calling there
Where the heart moves the stones
There that my heart is longing for
All for the love of you
— "The Mystic's Dream"

Loreena Isabelle Irene McKennitt, CM, OM (born February 17, 1957) is a Canadian singer and multi-instrumentalist (piano, accordion and harp). Her songs have a distinct Celtic and Middle Eastern tone (she's of Scottish descent), but are sometimes described as New Age. Her songs are often ballads, and are characterized by her high, echoing soprano voice. She found her calling to music after trying to be a veterinarian (and a brief stop-over with Ontario's renowned Shakespeare Festival), and has since then sold more than 13 million copies of her albums. She's often compared to Enya as they both have Celt roots and use Gaelic in their music, but Loreena's music is more inspired by works of literature (most often Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Blake and William Butler Yeats) and is considered to be more grounded. Many of her songs have roots in English or Celtic folk songs, but more recently her music has been inspired by Arabian/Turkish lore. She is also an honorary Colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force. In October 2019, she announced that her current tour would be her last for the foreseeable future, and that she will be "taking an indefinite period of time away from my music."

She currently has 11 studio albums or EPs, including two winter-themed albums, and five live albums:

Studio Discography:

  • Elemental (1985)
  • To Drive the Cold Winter Away (1987)
  • Parallel Dreams (1989)
  • The Visit (1991)
  • The Mask and Mirror (1994)
  • A Winter Garden: Five Songs for the Season (EP) (1995)
  • The Book of Secrets (1997)
  • An Ancient Muse (2006)
  • A Midwinter Night's Dream (2008)
  • The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2010)
  • Lost Souls (2018)

Live Discography:

  • Live in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts (1985)
  • Live in Paris and Toronto (1999)
  • Nights from the Alhambra (2007)
  • A Mediterranean Odyssey (2009)
  • Troubadours on the Rhine (2012)

This singer provides examples of:

  • Actually, I Am Him: "Banks of Claudy" is narrated by a young woman's absent lover, who comes upon her after a long time apart. Not identifying himself, he hears her complain of his absence. He subjects her to a kind of Fidelity Test by describing himself (in third person) as false and faithless, and as having been fatally shipwrecked on the coast of Spain; upon her distraught reaction, he reveals who he is.
  • Album Title Drop: To Drive The Cold Winter Away apparently comes from a recurring line at the end of every verse from the song "In Praise of Christmas."
  • Anachronism Stew: "All Souls Night" appears to be set in pre-Christian Britain, but the name of the festival used in the title only originated after the celebration was Hijacked by Jesus. Additionally, the song refers to the waltz which did not exist in Medieval or Pre-Christian Britain.
  • "Arabian Nights" Days: A heavy theme in both The Mask and Mirror and An Ancient Muse.
  • Arc Words: The phrase "Our love must make us strong" appears three times in "Beneath A Phrygian Sky" in a nine-and -a-half minutes song.
  • Cain and Abel: The sisters in "The Bonny Swans." The younger of the two is murdered by her sister "for the sake of a man".
  • Charity Motivation Song: "Breaking the Silence", written for Amnesty International.
  • Christmas Songs: To Drive the Cold Winter Away, A Winter Garden, and A Midwinter Night's Dream all have a number of such songs. Three of the five on A Winter Garden are traditional carols ("Coventry Carol", "Good King Wenceslas", and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"), but the entirety of A Midwinter Night's Dream is Christmas music, not merely winter-themed, and all but three (or five, depending on how you count them) of the songs on To Drive the Cold Winter Away are Christmas carols.
  • Circle of Standing Stones: Has a song called "Standing Stones" about a tragic young couple who pledge their love at a circle of standing stones in the Orkney Islands.note 
  • Common Meter: The verses of "The Mummers' Dance".
  • Composite Character: Although nothing in the song suggests it, the music video for "The Bonny Swans" strongly implies that the harper who brings the youngest daughter as a harp to her father's hall is also the true love for whom her oldest sister drowned her; the actor and costume for both is the same. This does add a rather powerful resonance to the song's denouement, however.
  • Concept Album:
    • To some extent, every one of her albums follows the concept of "inspirations received while studying and journeying", but some are more clearly travel-oriented than others (The Book of Secrets and An Ancient Muse). Both the latter and The Mask and Mirror have the "Arabian Nights" Days theme.
    • Her 2018 album is a different example of this trope—a collection of songs which for one reason or another were not included in previous albums (or in one case, had only been previously released as a single); the title, Lost Souls, even obliquely refers to this. This theme also carries throughout a number of the tracks, since they include a song about separated lovers wishing they could be together and relive their past romantic rendezvous ("A Hundred Wishes"), two death-related songs (an old, dying hunter wanting to spend one last moment with his dogs in "The Ballad of the Fox Hunter" and a mother singing about her son who fought and died in World War One in "The Breaking of the Sword"), and the famous Keats poem about a knight seduced and enchanted by a fairy only to dream of all the dead souls she had claimed before him, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci".
  • Despair Event Horizon: McKennitt seems to have hit this when her fiancee died in a boating accident in 1998. Soon after, she dropped almost completely off the map and released no new albums for 8 years.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind:
    • In "Standing Stones", an unidentified admirer of the heroine is mentioned in passing in the first verse and then promptly forgotten about. It is implied that this is the person who ends up causing the tragic ending of the story, by ambushing and murdering the heroine's lover in the dark.
    • This is also implied to be the case in "The Highwayman", where Tim the ostler who secretly watches Bess and the highwayman kissing and overhears the latter's plans to return after his latest robbery is almost certainly the one who informed on him to the redcoats. However, this verse of the original poem is omitted by McKennitt, leaving the British troops showing up in the song to come across as more of a Contrived Coincidence/Can't Get Away with Nuthin' moment.
  • Epic Instrumental Opener: "The Old Ways" has about a minute and a half intro. It starts with just harp, then adds on successive parts by violin, Uilleann pipes, drums, and electric guitar. And it is indeed epic.
  • Epic Rocking: As her music is often slow and contemplative, she has quite a few, the longest being: The Lady of Shalott (11:34), The Highwayman (10:19), Beneath a Phrygian Sky (9:32), Cé hé mise le Ulaingt?/The Two Trees (9:06), Night Ride Across the Caucasus (8:30) and Annachie Gordon (8:22).
  • Ethereal Choir: As Book Ends for, and appearing between some of the verses in, "The English Ladye and the Knight", and it is hauntingly effective.
  • Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: Justified, since she is a Celtic-inspired musician. To be specific, Loreena uses Uilleann pipes, which are a less-well known Irish variant which use an airbag inflated by a bellows instead of the player's breath.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Suggested by her rendition of Yeats' "Stolen Child", which begins and ends with a chorus of barking hunting dogs that have detected the poem's sinister faerie child thieves.
  • The Fair Folk:
    • Appearing in, and taking, the titular "Stolen Child".
    • Also appearing in, and snaring the heart of a knight, in the titular "La Belle Dame Sans Merci".
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: In her retelling of the "The Bonny Swans", the youngest sister is drowned so her older sister can have her man. Parts of her body are then turned into a harp.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Also used in the beginning and ending of "The English Ladye and the Knight", although it is less creepy or unsettling than most examples, only adding a solemnity to the song's overall air of sadness. On the other hand, the bellwork included in "Let All That Are to Mirth Inclined" plays the trope almost entirely straight.
  • Foregone Conclusion: "The Death of Queen Jane".
  • Genre Shift: As implied by its title, the "Huron Beltane Fire Dance" starts off as a very tribal, Native American-sounding chant, then shifts into a Celtic-Irish string piece. Lampshaded in her documentary about her musical influences, where the first part of the song accompanies visuals of a giant bonfire and the second half is set to Stock Footage of Irish step-dancers.
  • Green Aesop: "Bonny Portmore", a traditional Irish ballad about the felling of the Great Oak of Portmore, one of the oldest trees on the island.
  • Harp of Femininity: The harp is Loreena's signature instrument (along with the accordion).
  • I Love the Dead: Implied, along with The Lost Lenore, at the end of "Annachie Gordon".
  • I Will Wait for You: "Penelope's Song".
  • Lady of Adventure: As she says herself, most of her inspiration comes from her many travels.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Aside from the songs which are directly taken from poems that reference literature ("The Lady of Shalott", "Cymbeline", "The Dark Night of the Soul", "The Two Trees", "Prospero's Speech", "The Highwayman", "The English Ladye and the Knight", "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", and more), two songs also have more oblique allusions: "Dante's Prayer" references the fact she was reading the Inferno while riding a train through Siberia and contrasted the text with what she saw out the window; and "Penelope's Song" is written as a lament from Odysseus's wife waiting for him to come home.
  • Long Runner Lineup: Loreena usually picks a number of musicians proficient in instruments related to each album to record with, but several core members have been with her for years or decades; the longest tenured are guitarist Brian Hughes & percussionist Rick Lazar (both 1989), and violinist Hugh Marsh (1991). Cellist Caroline Lavelle & keyboardist/percussionist Donald Quan joined in 1995.
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "The Bonny Swans" has a very upbeat melody (especially in the live version) but the lyrics are about a young woman being murdered by her older sister and her body being turned into a harp! Although the end of the song does at least imply a karmic comeuppance to her murderous sister.
    • By contrast, the lyrics to "Let All That Are to Mirth Inclined" are ones of hope and salvation (in the birth of Jesus, naturally), but the tune is somber, pensive, and even sorrowful at times, and the whole piece is sung a cappella save for a set of church bells that sound rather grim and ominous. The echoes in the cathedral where it was recorded, when placed against McKennitt's high, ethereal voice, are quite beautiful but also rather distancing and unsettling, especially on the ending fadeout.
  • Mood Whiplash: Invoked in "The Death of Queen Jane"—while all the people outside are dancing, singing, and celebrating the birth of the heir, "poor Queen Jane...lay cold as a stone".
  • Motifs:
    • Aside from her love of tragic ballads, a thread which begins in The Visit and weaves its way more fully into The Mask and Mirror is that of the Unicorn. It first appears in "Courtyard Lullaby" (which also references the pomegranate tree, the fruit of which was often depicted in medieval times as the end of a unicorn's tail to represent the fecundity that was the unicorn's opposite), but images from the Unicorn Tapestries are used on the cover and liner sheets from The Mask and Mirror, and in the music video for "Bonny Swans" both the characters of the song and Loreena herself are shown literally becoming part of the tapestries.
    • The motifs of thundering hooves and beating wings appear in "Night Ride Across The Caucasus" and "The Old Ways", referencing a belief that advanced meditators feel these sensations in their spine.
    • Coming home appears in "The Mystic's Dream", "The Old Ways" and "Caravanserai".
  • Murder Ballad: "The Bonny Swans", about a girl drowned by her older sister in order to marry a prince and who is found out by a harp maker who makes the girl's corpse into a magic harp.
  • Non-Appearing Title: The majority of her original songs which are not poems set to music or traditional songs have titles like this (though they are usually still thematically appropriate). Even a few of the poems and traditional songs have titles like this too. Examples include: "The Mystic's Dream", "The Dark Night of the Soul", "Full Circle", and "Skellig" (the title of which makes no sense unless one reads the liner notes for the explanation).
  • Passing the Torch: The monk of "Skellig", giving the books he has written to a younger monk named John so as to keep knowledge and education alive.
  • Patriotic Fervor: "The Breaking of the Sword", formerly a single released in 2017 but included a year later on Lost Souls, was written after McKennitt attended a service at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.note  While it does honor Canadian soldiers who died in World War One, the song is less about Canada specifically and more about all those who give their lives in battle because they believe in a greater cause ("You gave your life for all of us/And all humanity"). That said, it does include backing by the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Stratford Concert Choir.
  • Recycled Soundtrack/Recycled Trailer Music: "The Mystic's Dream" was used in the soundtrack for The Mists of Avalon; "The Mummers' Dance" appeared in trailers for Ever After; "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" appeared in the soundtrack of the Kurt Russell film Soldier.
  • Reformed Rake: The female lover of "As I Roved Out" seems to think she can turn her lover into one of these in the final verse, but from his reply she is out of luck.
  • Revisiting the Roots: Loreena started off singing traditional Celtic songs and slowly expanded to include other cultures, becoming more of a World musician. In 2010, she released an album composed of traditional Celtic songs. Lampshaded by Loreena herself in one interview: "Every once and again there is a pull to return to one's own roots or beginnings, with the perspective of time and experience, to feel the familiar things you once loved and love still."
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge:
    • The titular "Highwayman" attempts one of these after learning of the death of his lover; it doesn't go well for him.
    • The knight of "The English Ladye and the Knight", however, succeeds in getting his vengeance upon the lady's brother, then becomes The Atoner and Death Seeker both by going off to the Crusades and dying in battle.
  • Sampling: "The Two Trees" includes as its introduction "Cé Hé Mise Le Ulaingt?", a pipework song by Patrick Hutchinson. "Dante's Prayer" begins with a portion of "Alleluia, Behold the Bridegroom" as sung by the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir. The track "Revolution" from the Highlander 3 score by Peter Robinson includes a portion of "The Two Trees", sampled pipework and all, and Loreena's version of "Bonny Portmore" is used in the film as well.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: Any song with a noticeable harmony occurs due to this—"Standing Stones" and "The Old Ways" (in the chorus), "Prospero's Speech", "All Souls Night", "The Mystic's Dream", "Night Ride Across the Caucasus"...
  • Shown Their Work:
    • For a musician who always does a great deal of research on the works she sets to music, the locations they came from, and the overall history of the places she visits during her songwriting, this is a given—in fact all of her albums from at least The Visit onward were explicitly written as inspirations taken from her physical journeys. (See Lady of Adventure.) One thing which stands out, however, is her incorporation of such knowledge instrumentally as well as lyrically—for example, her usage of an actual song played during the time when pilgrimages to Santiago, Spain were at their height in her song named after the city; and her use of an actual popular mummers' song in the chorus of "The Mummers' Dance".
    • One rather complexly-layered example is the track "Sun, Moon, and Stars" from Lost Souls which is essentially the Jewish national anthem "Hatikvah" given a more Arabic instrumentation...but said tune, written by Samuel Cohen in 1888, was itself taken from an even older Italian song called "La Mantovana" which spread all across Renaissance Europe through folk songs, appearing in places as far-flung as Bohemia (Czech composer Bedrich Smetana's symphony "Ma vlast") and France (Camille Saint-Saens' "Rapsodie Bretonne"). So it not only displays Loreena's theme of journeys and traveling, but partakes of many different cultures and histories to express her great respect for and deep immersion in the music she studies.
  • Spoken Word in Music: "Dickens' Dublin" alternates between lyrics about a poor starving street urchin and a recording of an actual urchin narrating the story of the Nativity.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Many of these turn up in her songs.
    • "Annachie Gordon" is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet in its narrative of how a young woman's family unwittingly drives her and her lover to a tragic end by preventing them from being together.
    • In both "Standing Stones" and "The English Ladye and the Knight", the lovers' happiness is cut short when one of them is murdered out of jealousy.
    • "The Highwayman": Set in 18th century New England, the poem tells the story of the titular highwayman who is in love with Bess, a landlord's daughter. After being betrayed to the authorities, the highwayman escapes ambush when Bess sacrifices herself to warn him. Learning of her death, he dies in a futile attempt at revenge, shot down on the highway. In the final stanza, the ghosts of the lovers meet again on winter nights.
    • In "She Moved Through the Fair", the death of the narrator's lover is confirmed when she visits him in a ghostly form at night.
    • "The Old Ways" has a non-fatal version in which the narrator falls in love with an otherworldly being, but the two of them have to part ways because of belonging to different worlds.
    • "The Dark Night of the Soul" could be taken as this depending on one's interpretation — a girl running off in the middle of the night to meet her lover. But it's actually intended to be a spiritual allegory; the lyrics were taken from a poem by St. John of the Cross.
  • Teenage Death Songs: Played with in "Standing Stones". The male lover dies young, but his lady lives on for years, lonely and tragic, before finally dying and joining him.
  • Title Drop:
    • "All Souls Night", "The Old Ways", "Caravanserai".
    • The song "Marrakesh Night Market" also has one to the album on which it appears, The Mask and Mirror: "Would you like my mask? Would you like my mirror?"
    • And while the album title for Lost Souls appears (obviously) in the ending title track, it's also dropped in the very first song on the album, "Spanish Guitars and Night Plazas": "The ocean opens its arms to lost souls..." (This same song also has an Album Title Drop to The Visit, implying this is the album from which it was originally cut, although instrumentally and thematically it fits The Mask and Mirror or The Book of Secrets more.)
  • Unfinished Business: In "The Bonny Swans", the body of a young woman drowned by her jealous elder sister is fashioned into a harp, which is then taken to her father's hall where it plays and sings on its own, publicly naming the elder sister as the murderess in front of everyone. It is implied that the woman's ghost is animating the harp in order to bring her killer to justice.
  • Yandere: Apparent in her song "Bonny Swans". See the page for more detail.