Harpist Loreena McKennitt has succeeded on her own terms

Loreena McKennitt ought to be just another traditional folk artist. For one thing, the Canadian performer's roots are firmly in the Celtic tradition, particularly the sound of Ireland; for another, her instrument is the harp -- and not the massive, steel-stringed type found in symphony orchestras and Marx Brothers movies. What McKennitt plays is the smaller, gut-strung variety Irish harpers have played since the days of Turlough O'Carolan.

But as much as she might draw from the well of tradition, McKennitt refuses to let her music be defined by it. As such, her current album, "The Visit," fleshes out the Celtic cadences of her songs with everything from drums and electric guitar to balalaika, tamboura and Indian-style fiddle licks.


She even includes a version of "Greensleeves" performed as she imagines Tom Waits would do it.

"Carolan's Concerto" it isn't.


"It's not just straight-ahead, traditional folk, no," she admits. "It does have a bit of jazz, and a bit of world music, and a bit of pop kind of feel about it."

And McKennitt's eclecticism has actually helped broaden her audience. "It crosses a lot of boundaries," she says, over the phone as her tour bus rolls through Vermont. "We've seen in Canada, and now through its international release, that the audience is quite widespread."

But then, so is the music itself. McKennitt describes "The Visit" as an attempt to explore the far-flung history of the Celtic people, who are believed to have worked their way from Central Asia across Europe before ending up in Britain and Ireland.

"I've been interested in the cross-cultural influence of the Celts and their migration across Europe for some time," she says. "So I tried to draw upon and reflect those cross-cultural elements musically."

This wasn't something she intended to do all on her own, though, and part of what makes McKennitt's album so entrancing is the sense of community and collaboration it reflects. "The musicians I work with come from a really diverse array of genres, including jazz and worldbeat and rock," she says.

"The way I work in the studio, I come in with basic parameters to work with, but I try not to become too cerebral about the music, or to have too much planned out. There's an element of spontaneity to it that I think is interesting and attractive. And so it ends up being something . . . not easily pegged."

Some of McKennitt's success can be credited to the fact she began her career in Toronto. Because unlike New York or Los Angeles, this Canadian city is able to maintain a lively and diverse music scene without falling prey to stratification.

"There's a tendency toward cross-fertilization there," she admits. Maybe it's because of the size of the community -- it's large enough to have certain kinds of musical things going on, yet small enough for people to know each other.


"But there seems to be a network of people that is conducive for that kind of thing."

It also helps that she's done it all herself, building an audience and a business on her own terms and at her own pace. Eight years ago, she borrowed $10,000 to record her first album, and sold copies of the cassette while busking at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. Now, she has her own label, a four-album catalog, and an international licensing deal with Time/Warner.

"It's an unusual kind of deal," she says. "It's not totally unheard of, but it's not all that common either. I built up my career over three albums before there was major record company interest. As a result of my last recording, many major companies were inquiring and making overtures. So I spent an additional two years kind of sorting it all out.

"The thing is, my third recording was very successful, relatively speaking, and I was making very good money. I didn't actually have to do a deal with a major label. So I was able to go into the bargaining situation saying, 'This is what I'm able to do for myself. If you can protect it, then we have reason to continue.'

"And Warner seemed to be the company that was prepared to break many of the rules in order to come up with a contract.

"As I say, the deal seems to be quite an equitable one. The project, 'The Visit,' has been released in now 32 countries around the world, and it's been a very happy and successful arrangement."


In concert

Who: Loreena McKennitt

When: Tonight at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Capitol College, Springfield Road, Laurel

Tickets: $12, $10 for members of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington.

Call: (301) 270-9090