Interview With Loreena McKennitt: Musical Travel Writing
Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the singer-songwriter about her most powerful travel experiences
12.16.09 | 11:25 AM ET
Singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt captures a sense of place like few artists. Her music, often described as “eclectic Celtic,” features soaring, ethereal vocals and takes listeners on a journey through the Celtic world and beyond; she has sold more than 14 million albums around the globe. (Her website is available in no fewer than 14 languages.)
McKennitt frequently finds musical inspiration in her travels, from the sweeping grasslands of Mongolia to the markets of Morocco. Her latest double album, A Mediterranean Odyssey, is imbued with her passion for travel, with live performances and studio recordings of travel-themed songs like “Gates of Istanbul,” “Marco Polo,” “Tango to Evora” and “Marrakesh Night Market.”
I recently called her in her native Canada—she lives in Stratford, Ontario—to learn more.
World Hum: Your music has been called “musical travel writing.” Do you think of it that way?
Loreena McKennitt: I do, in the sense that some of the travel writers I’ve read have allowed a subject they’ve chosen to lead them in an exploration. I think of the book A Fez of the Heart about the history of the fez hat in Turkey. In exploring the hat, the writer ended up studying Turkish history. I’ve been interested in the Celts, and in a sense, I’ve allowed Celtic history to be my conduit, to take me to places and periods of time that sometimes have to do overtly with the Celts, and sometimes has led to long diversions to places that may seem to have little connection to the Celts whatsoever.
When I took the train across Siberia, I was aware of a theory that some of the early Celtic people had developed their love and passion for horses as a result of being exposed to people from the region of the Russian steppes or around Mongolia. I was touring with the Chieftains in Japan and thought, this might be the only chance I’ll have to explore Russia, so I made a decision at the end of the tour to take the Trans-Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow. So in one sense, the history of the Celts is the grand excuse to go wandering about the world learning things. (Laughs.)
I gather a lot of experiences and inspiration through travel, from the light in the sky or the sound in the streets to the feel of the countryside. I use that—those images fixed in my mind—when I’m writing either the music or the lyrics. Instead of becoming books or magazines, they become songs and liner notes.
I was just listening to “Marakesh Night Market,” which is so evocative. How did that song take shape? Was it based on a travel experience?
It was. I was in Morocco in March of ‘93 during Ramadan. I was staying adjacent to the market square, and during Ramadan, the market teems with people from the countryside, and there are snake charmers and stands of oranges. Even now, the journey from the airport to the hotel the night I arrived is really etched into my memory—seeing the different kinds of dress. I had that feeling that I’ve never been to a place like this before.
Do you remember when you fell in love with travel or came to see yourself as a traveler?
I don’t really know. As a child I grew up in a town called Morden, 80 miles outside of Winnipeg, and on Saturdays from the age of 10 I would take the bus on my own to Winnipeg for piano lessons. I remember the feeling of getting on a bus and riding an hour and a half into Winnipeg and taking a city bus to the University of Manitoba and walking to my lesson. What that gave me was a little taste of independence, of vulnerability, a little taste of sitting in vehicles with time to think and reflect and observe. I remember the seasons of the year, particularly the fall, when people would be burning leaves, and the smell of that, and the light in the sky.
What are your most powerful travel experiences these days?
The trips now that are the most visceral are the ones where I’m getting off the beaten path and traveling on my own. Because there’s the dimension of vulnerability and risk, and that can heighten your experience. Also, when you’re traveling on your own, if you’re careful, sometimes people will take you in. I remember in Ireland many people taking me in and I experienced how people really lived. I spent some time with a nomadic family in Mongolia, and there you’re living with people in gers and among their livestock. I loved that.
How do you prepare for a trip?
I read up on place—Lonely Planet or Rough Guides or whatever. I like to read books on the history, the culture. I remember before going to China, reading a book by a Canadian journalist, Jan Wong. Sometimes, depending on the risk factor, I’ll get in touch with the Canadian Embassy to get a sense of what to do, what not to do. A year ago I went to Kazakhstan and when I flew into Almaty I visited the folks at the embassy. I’m interested in instruments and musicians. Well, someone in the office of the embassy who was Kazakh knew of a very fine place where instruments were built. So embassies and people working there can be helpful not only in times of difficulties but at other times, too. And sometimes I’ll try to line up a friend of a friend or contact in the region before I go.
You mentioned that you read travel writing. Do you have any favorite writers?
Oh yes, let me think. Colin Thubron. William Dalrymple. He’s wonderful. Paul Theroux.
Do you have favorite places in the world? Places you can’t wait to return to?
Oh, every place I’ve been. (Laughs.) There are different levels of traveling. For example, I spent a month in Ireland in 1982 and I really felt that was a good length of time to experience what I call the first level of travel. But I think perhaps not until you’re living and working in a place can you experience the next level. There have not been too many places where I’ve had the opportunity to do that. In many places, I’ve really just scratched the surface. I’d love to go back to Turkey, and to spend more time in Mongolia. I’ve never been to India and am dying to go.
How has travel changed you?
I have a grade 12 education and that’s it. Travel has really been my university on the road. It has allowed me to learn in a different way. I’m interested in the interplay between economics and politics and history and so on. When I went to Ireland, I took a course in Irish history. I also studied a lot about the time of the famine. And so when you’re looking at contemporary difficulties and challenges, the history helps you put it in context. Having learned how to do that in Ireland, I can take that approach to Turkey or anywhere else. Also, travel has allowed me to learn more, not just from textbooks or travel writing, but from encountering people and asking them questions. “Tell me about the Kurdish situation, or how you’re understood or misunderstood in the larger world. Tell me about who you are.” It’s one of the most rewarding things, not just from the standpoint of entertainment but enlightenment.
I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Loreena.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.