Widening the Celtic world
Kenny Mathieson talks to Canadian singer and reluctant harpist Loreena McKennitt.
There would seem to be at least two Loreena McKennitts. The obvious one is the performer, all long flowing hair and skirts to match. steeped in ethereal Celtic mysticism and shirnrneringly sweet synthesised soundscapes. For those who like comparisons. Enya would be the nearest thing. although the differences are even more pronounced than the broad similarities in approach.
At the same time, there is also the Loreena McKennitt who has masterminded her career with tough- rninded business acumen. She still looks after her own management. employing five people full-time in her Quinlan Road Productions company in Stratford. Ontario. and launched her own recording career back in l985 with the self-produced and self-financed Elemental.
Six years and three albums later. she signed a licensing deal with Warner Brothers which saw her fourth album. The Visit. sell well over half a million copies. big business for a folk or ethnic music record. The album established her credentials as a singer to be reckoned with. although she herself is quick to point out that she makes no great claims for her skills as an instrumentalist.
'l always smile when people describe me as a harp player. i play enough harp to accompany myself, but that‘s about
Dne oi the most moving albums to have emerged over the last iew decades oi the Irish musical
renaissance was the only one released I
loreena McKen it. and the particular instrument i play isn‘t really a folk harp. i prefer it to the
Celtic harp because it has a wider range, and suits my voice better. My
real instrument is my voice. and then piano, with the harp coming next. l
dabble in some other instruments. but really only in terms of adding colours
to the music.‘
Her voice. though. is a striking one. and the music she creates cart be hauntingly beautiful. Although her
family trace their roots back to
Scotland and lreland (‘my great—
I grandparents came to Canada via lnverness and Donegal'). she attributes her interest in Celtic music to
V CELTIC CONNECTIONS E
by the Donal Lunny Band, recorded live
at Dublin Castle. Flute player Cormac Breatnach was a malor voice in that ensemble oi musical riches and, as is usual with giited musicians, is now involved in groups that are creating stylish new music out oi the old terms.
A regular in Maire Breatnach’s (no relation) touring band, Connac also brings a smaller but much admired group to Celtic Connections tor the iirst time. Flute or, more and more lately, the haunted liquid tones oi the modern low whistle, with an added tuning slide, plays against the double bass and bouzouki oi Paul D’Drlscoll and lliall D'Callanein, in the highly original acoustic trio Delseal.
There is an extemporeneous ieei to much oi what they do, a deilghtiul exuberance oi melodic line and a rhythmic ireedom too oiten lacking in the barnstonnlng )lgs-and-reels bands.
Eschewing, tor the moment, drums or percussion, they weave a complex rhythmic ieei into their phrasing; not (an, and not Latin or Airlcan, but exotic, imaginative and playiul. Their album ‘The Long Long liote’,
- and the Glasgow visit, may turn out to
be the last In this particular conilguration, as they continue to experiment with new sounds and musicians.
Cormac explains: ‘We’re glad to hear that people love what we do and play the record a lot, or whatever, but we've been doing some gigs now with Ritchie Buckley, a jazz saxophonist,
‘something inherent in the music itself’ which appealed on ‘an instinctive level'. rather than her farnily background.
‘My parents weren't especially musical. i grew up in a small town called Morden in Manitoba. which was basically a German Mennonite community. and l was lucky in having a really good music teacher. i didn't discover Celtic music until later, when I was living in Winnipeg and connected up with some people there who were forming a folk club. A number of them were Scottish or lrish, and they would play a lot of music from The Bothy Band or Planxty. and it was really in
that environment that l was introduced
to it.‘ That interest quickly grew. and laid
j the foundation for a musical journey
which has worked outward from Celtic roots (albeit much transformed in her
treatment of them) to incorporate musical influences drawn from a
variety of unexpected sources. notably
the interlinked musical traditions of Spain and North Africa. All ofthese strands are overtly present in her latest
album. The Mask And Mirror, which is
; cast in the form ofa literal but highly
personal journey through both
. geography and history. nltt
‘l really used that framework as a
. springboard for my own music, '. anchored by some traditional elements. It‘s sort of like a travel book. i love
travel writers like Bruce Chatwin, and
in a sense i see it as a musical version f of that kind of approach — it's not intended to be authoritative or
exhaustive. it's more a record of where my feet touched down in the whole process. and what i have created as a result ofthat particular path of
. exploration. What i would love to do at
some point in the future, though. is
explore the possibilities of a ruore theatrical presentation of the music.‘
Loreena MeKemtlrr plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tue 1 7.
Delseal: imaginative and piayiul
and Noel Eccles, who is principal percussionist with the Irish liatlonal Symphony Orchestra, and also plays with Eleanor McEvoy’s band.
‘In the band, we all take solos. I suppose I always wanted to play the sax. I did try It once, but took up the ilute instead. With the low whistle, there’s an obvious dliiarence in that the sex can play chromatically, but I’m more interested in the modal possibilities, and luckily my lnstrument’s limited to that anyway.’ (Norman Chalmers)
Delseal play Glasgow iioyal Concert Hall on Mon 16 and Tue 17.
V CELTIC CONNECTIONS
Irish heartbea _
The gorgeous sound of Moving Hearts in full ﬂight is one of the most hair- raising sounds in lrish music, and the band's inclusion in the Celtic Connections programme. in their all- instrumental incarnation. is exciting news.
At their formation, they were a groundbreaking and superbly accomplished synthesis of virtuoso traditional musicianship with jazz sax. electric rock. accurate and funky drums. and the singing. and political stance. ofChristy Moore. Powerful though that was, and the band was a huge success at home in Ireland and worldwide, the band in this writer's opinion was at its finest when playing sans vocals. and the all-instrumental album The Storm remains required listening to anyone enquiring into lrish music.
i talked to Davey Spillane about the organisation and line up ofthe band. due to arrive for one gig in Glasgow and one in London. ‘lt‘s been a long time. We last played last summer at some time. but it's been fourteen years since the band formed. it was my formal musical apprenticeship — although i didn’t know that at the time. and there's still a big emotional involvement for me. You see. l’m not a spokesman for the band. We're a co-op. and l'm not completely sure how we come to a decision. it just goes round. and something happens.‘
The something that's happening is a wall of sound: front of stage will be the familiar twin uillean pipers. Spillane and Declan Masterton. with Keith Donald on saxes and bass clarinet. Greg Boland. Anto Drennan and Jimmy Smith on guitars. James Delaney on keyboards. Noel Eccles, percussion. Eoghan O'Neill on electric bass and Matt Kelleghan on drums. Davey reveals the concert repertoire: ‘We'll be doing the Storm music plus some other pieces we've rehearsed up.‘
But you would be mistaken to think that the Hearts are as passe as all the other folk/rock dinosaurs. Their astonishingly powerful music remains a benchmark for other bands. (Norman Chalmers)
Moving Hear/s play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Fri !3.
The List [3—26 January 1995 35