The exotic scents of Marrakesh market, myth-worn standing stones in Ireland, a Sicilian puppet theater and a caravanserai on the Silk Road are just some of the places you'll visit through the music of internationally acclaimed songstress Loreena McKennitt. These far-flung places are joined together by one common theme: The Celtic peoples and their travels over thousands of years, in the steppes of Siberia, the plains of Anatolia, and Galicia in Spain.
In McKennitt's hands, no longer does Celtic music conform to the familiar, Riverdance-like formulas: Instead, her music combines these much-loved Irish elements with themes from all over the world, particularly the musical traditions of the Middle East. The result is a polyphonic feast that is almost impossibly rich.
This month from June 13th-29th, McKennitt will embark on a Mediterranean Tour, performing at venues in Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Hungary, Sicily and Greece.
Through her journeys to the regions once settled by the Celts, McKennitt has created what she calls "musical travel writing" -- music inspired by the complex histories of people and places, and often written in the course of her travels.
"What I've done is take a key interest in the history of the Celts as a major thoroughfare of focus," McKennitt told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. "I allow myself to go off the main road into the different roads that spin off from that."
The uniqueness of McKennitt's music has won her a vast international following, with her most recent albums selling millions of copies worldwide and garnering numerous awards. Her most recent of these travel-inspired recordings, An Ancient Muse, was one of the first of its kind to be nominated for a Grammy Award.
McKennitt describes the experience of seeing an exhibition of red-haired mummies in northwest China, who are believed to have been the precursors of the Irish Celts, and how this has affected her approach to Celtic music. "I'm interested in reflecting on all those people coming from that part of the world, who were all traveling and influencing each other," she explains.
This theme, she points out, is still relevant today. "Many people are still traveling now -- some for pleasure, some fleeing persecution; and cultures are mingling as well as being challenged. I wanted to reach back into history, to bring those threads forward and think about them. I wanted to think about the concept of home -- what does home mean? Is it a place, family, a culture that you know and feel comfortable in?"
In the course of her research, McKennitt has also incorporated the music of various religions into her repertoire, including Islam and Judaism. The piece "Sacred Shabbat" that is included in An Ancient Muse has been attributed to Sephardic Judaism. McKennitt explains that part of her fascination for the piece has to do with its ubiquity -- it has traveled over the centuries through the Mediterranean, Ireland and England, and now no one is sure of its true origin.
"There are pieces that travel in geographic areas when people travel, and for whatever reason it gets adopted by different cultures, who then debate what it is," McKennitt comments. "I wanted that piece for variety of reasons -- I love listening to it when the musicians play it in the studio. But I also wanted to continue to promote the idea that there are all these cultures with religious affiliations that have traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It's important to me to do that."
Despite the often dreamlike quality of her music, McKennitt is a seasoned businesswoman; she created her own record label, Quinlan Road, in 1985, and has presided as CEO of the company ever since. Born in Manitoba, Canada, McKennitt grew up intending to become a veterinarian before she was unexpectedly derailed by her discovery of Celtic music. She began her career by "busking," playing for tips that would eventually fund her first recording, Elemental. The purely Irish strains of this debut album are now a far cry from the multilayered influences in her subsequent recordings.
On the international appeal of her music, McKennitt says, "Celtic music seems to have a global infectious quality about it, and Middle Eastern sound has an attractive dimension to it as well." Nonetheless, she relates that she was shocked when she was invited to perform in Istanbul in 1996, which is when she first discovered her extensive fan base in the Middle East.
"It was just a year following the release of A Winter Garden, with the song 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,' which has a Middle Eastern flavor in its arrangements," explains McKennitt. "A store in Istanbul was playing the song, and people were tapping into it. When people hear something familiar to them, whether in instruments or modality, they listen up a bit more, and then the music has to deliver on other aspects."
While Celtic music seems to have a universal appeal, McKennitt also opines that Middle Eastern music has a yearning quality that is virtually absent from most contemporary Western music. "What I'm witnessing from correspondence with people is that they are tapping into a kind of emotional dimension to the music," says McKennitt. "I expect that the convergence of ingredients is what attracts some people."