Last fall, when Loreena McKennitt’s An Ancient Muse was released, I felt the satisfaction of the world sliding back into its proper place. For one thing, McKennitt is one of the few modern musicians whose work can literally be described as uplifting, simultaneously relaxing and inspiring. Really, it’s a sense of spirituality set to music. For another, she camped overnight on our futon many years ago, an experience from which I emerged with the conviction that, if anyone deserved to have success on her own terms, it was McKennitt.
At the time we met, McKennitt was a cult figure about to hit the big time. Trish and I were part of the organizing committee for the Mythopoeic Conference, an annual mixture of fantasy convention and academic conference that we had discovered through Paul Zimmer of Greyhaven. A west coast booking agent contacted us through our friends at a local bookstore, and asked if we wanted McKennitt to play at the conference.
Some considerable hemming and hawing later, punctuated by our pleas of extreme poverty on behalf of the conference, the agent was gone and McKennitt had agreed to play in return for the right to sell albums at the conference and transport to her next gig at the Mission Folk Festival the same day. Nothing was signed; it was all on trust.
The arrangement brought screams of outrage from our nominal committee chair. Our contract with the University of British Columbia, where the conference was being held, didn’t allow us to sell anything. However, at that point, the rest of the committee had spent the better part of a year working around the chair, so we went ahead. We knew that the conference would be full of harp-mad people full of the yearning for the Celtic Twilight, and the opportunity was too exciting to pass up. Besides, we wouldn’t be selling anything ourselves, so, even if a campus official did check on us on a Sunday afternoon, we figured we were still legal.
After a day of rushing around staving off catastrophes at the conference, at 2AM on Sunday, we met McKennitt at the airport. Knowing her image mostly through promotional pictures, we expected an ethereal and delicate creature wafting dreamily though the airport. Instead, we encountered a small but sturdy woman with a brisk stride trundling a harp. Although she was obviously tired from catching the red-eye from Toronto, she was clearly practical and well-grounded in the here and now.
As we went to the car, I made a mental note to myself: Never mistake a public image for the real person. It’s not that McKennitt didn’t have a spiritual side; it’s just that she was a much more rounded person than her stage persona suggested. I perceived, too, that, while she was friendly and polite, she only revealed so much, and would defend her privacy if it was threatened. Years later, when she sued a colleague for writing a book that violated her privacy, I wasn’t the least surprised. That fitted my sense of her when we first met.
To our surprise, we found that McKennitt had made no arrangements for a place to stay. Somehow, the matter had never come up, and we were too inexperienced to anticipate it. Unable to think of any suitable hotel, we invited her home, and started along Southwest Marine Drive. She collapsed on our futon, and, five hours later, when we rose to return to the conference, she was drawing aside the covers on the cages for a peak at our parrots, dressed in a sensible-looking white nightgown. I wondered if it was the same one she wore on the cover of Elemental, but I didn’t like to pry.
Still, for all the sense of how strong her personal boundaries were, we learned a little about Loreena ferrying her back and forth. Possibly, the fact that we were all functioning on too little sleep made her more forthcoming than usual. At the time, she was making some important career decisions, like whether to sign with a big label or continue on her own. Control of her own material and career, she made clear, was her chief concern, and we quickly came to admire her mixture of determination and ethics.
She talked, too, of the difficulties of travelling with her favorite harp, and how she usually paid for a second plane ticket, since she couldn’t trust the baggage handlers with it, no matter how it was crated. If I remember correctly, she had had some nasty experiences doing otherwise.
We entered the conference quietly, but as McKennitt looked around the lobby for the best place to play, several fans quickly gathered. She was obviously psyching up for the performance, but, for a while, she chatted with them, deftly deflecting one man’s wish to enter a correspondence about religious beliefs and another one’s enthusiastic praise of her work. Somehow, without ever looking abrupt or flustered, she managed to satisfy them and detach herself from the crowd to set about her business.
Attended by about two hundred people, the concert was nothing short of magical. The lobby acoustics were almost those of a cathedral, and McKennitt had the audience entranced from the start. At one point, the sun burst through the clouds and the skylight, spotlighting some of the crowd, and I heard an audible sigh of happiness from everyone. Later, many people told us that the concert was one of the highlights of all the Mythopoeics they had attended.
After the concert, I stood at a table, selling CDs. For at least ten minutes, all I could hear was the slap of jewel cases as we unpacked them from the boxes and placed them on the table.
Then the conference chair began squawking like a goose at our alleged breaking of the rules. My thesis supervisor took her aside, while we handed McKennitt the money and spirited her out the door. I didn’t think I had the right to count the money, but most of the audience had bought two or three CDs, so she had made a tidy bit of extra money from what was really a side gig for her. I do know that the roll of bills I handed her just before Trish drove her to Mission was so large that I couldn’t pinch its ends together in one hand.
Since that day, we talked to McKennitt only once, although we kept track of her career and often attended her concerts. We were delighted at how she managed to stay successful without giving up control, but, the truth is, we didn’t want to presume. Over the years, she must have stayed with hundreds of people, and I have no idea whether she would remember us — probably not.
And, to an extent, I don’t care. For me, McKennitt is a living example of how to combine practicality and artistic integrity. While I wouldn’t mind sitting down with her for a long talk, the fact that she showed me that possibility is in some ways more important than having a personal connection.
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