She looks like she stepped off an Aubrey Beardsley illustration en route to provide the soundtrack for a Lord Dunsany or J.R.R. Tolkien musical. But no flash from the past, Loreena McKennitt will mesmerize her growing ranks of faithful with ethereal harmonies when she appears Saturday night at the Ventura Theatre.
McKennitt originally planned to be a veterinarian, but discovered Celtic culture and became a street singer in Toronto, choosing wisely her locations during the winters. The harp-playing minstrel has since traveled widely, learning more about Celtic culture in Ireland as well Judeo-Christian and Islamic culture in Spain and Morocco.
Now she has five albums to her credit and a Juno Award. Her first three albums were released on her own Quinlan Road label, the last two on Warner Bros. which, in an unusual arrangement, allows her to sell all of her work at her shows. The new one is "The Mask and the Mirror," which further explores the Big Questions of mysticism, religion, the meaning of it all and all that.
McKennitt discussed what's up during a recent phone interview.
Loreena, how's it goin'?
I'm doing well, and "The Mask and the Mirror" is doing well, considering the kind of music it is. It's already done 800,000 worldwide. I don't get a lot of media attention; it's mostly word of mouth. Things have grown in a very organic way since I began in 1985. Right now, I still have a lot of touring to do, but I'm already thinking about what the next record will be, and traveling to those places.
You've clearly found a niche for yourself and your particular style of music. OK, so what kind of music is it?
There's a lot of different influences, not just cross-cultural. The musicians in my band came from World Beat, jazz and rock. I like to say it's eclectic Celtic music, but it's really hard to define.
When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
It wasn't like I dreamed as a child of being a musician. Music chose me rather than the opposite. I came at it from a different direction, and I wasn't starry-eyed.
What was it like being a street musician?
I got to meet a lot of people, plus I found confidence in myself and my music. I was actually making a good living selling my tapes on the street.
You already had a couple of albums before you signed on with Warner Bros.--what's your arrangement with them?
I underwrite my own recordings and my own tours. It's not unusual for new bands to be $500,000 in the hole before they've ever played a show. When you travel with 17 people, it can be quite expensive, so merchandising can be very important. Some venues actually charge me up to 30% to sell my stuff at a concert. Since they didn't help me record my album or pay for my tour, I think that's too high and I tell them I'll remember them next tour.
Who goes to Loreena shows?
Frequently there are people whose ages span three generations. There's people who are into the whole Gothic thing, heavy metal fans, professionals, lawyers, archeology professors--it goes right across the board.
What sparked your fascination with Irish culture?
I became interested in Ireland when I was in a folk club in the late '70s in Winnepeg. I later studied Irish history through a correspondence course. I felt I was instinctively drawn to the place and it became imperative to go there. Ireland is essentially a Third World country. I now own a very modest cottage in County Clare.
Most people hate history. Did you like history in school?
Actually I loathed it. I couldn't see the point of it. Certainly, since then I have become very interested in history.
Has being Big Time in Canada made it easier for you to be Big Time in America?
That's not really an issue for me. It's already far greater than I could ever imagine, and I like to think it happened for the right reasons. How big it may get, I don't know.
Do redheads have more fun?
They definitely have a helluva temper.
* WHAT: Loreena McKennitt.
* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St.
* WHEN Saturday night, 8 p.m.
* HOW MUCH: $18.50.
* FYI: 648-1888.