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Independent as ever, Canada's McKennitt surprised, excited by Grammy nomination

TORONTO - The last time Loreena McKennitt had a seat at the Grammys in 2008, a DayGlo Kayne West rapped "Stronger" in the dark, a still-in-rehab Amy Winehouse beamed in a performance from a London studio arranged like a supper club, and a collection
Loreena McKennitt, shown in a 2006 photo, has been nominated for a Grammy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-Ann Cutting-© 2006 Quinlan Road

TORONTO - The last time Loreena McKennitt had a seat at the Grammys in 2008, a DayGlo Kayne West rapped "Stronger" in the dark, a still-in-rehab Amy Winehouse beamed in a performance from a London studio arranged like a supper club, and a collection of Joni Mitchell covers by Herbie Hancock upset its fizzier foes to win album of the year.

In other words, the whole thing felt a bit surreal. And McKennitt enjoyed every minute of it.

"I'm not, in a variety of ways I suppose, a conventional person in the music business ... and so any time I've gone to Los Angeles, and I haven't spent much time around award shows, it's a bit like going out for Halloween," the multi-instrumentalist said with a laugh down the line from her office in Stratford, Ont.

"The live show was spectacular.... Just sitting back more as a member of the public rather than a singer or a person from the industry thinking: 'Wow, there's no escaping it. The business of music has some pretty incredible aspects to it.'

"Even from an anthropological standpoint, it's fascinating," she added. "It's like going off to planet Mars for a few days."

Well, let's hope she has a full oxygen tank — McKennitt is heading back into the red planet's orbit.

The soon-to-be 56-year-old is nominated for a second time going into Sunday's 55th Grammy Awards, this time for best new age album for her live recording "Troubadours on the Rhine."

The nomination came as a pleasant shock for McKennitt, not least of all because the Celtic-influenced master of the harp, accordion and piano had never really considered herself a new age artist before.

"Historically, I've discouraged any of my work being categorized in that particular category — largely because I didn't feel it was a full representation of what (my music) is," said McKennitt.

She notes that while in Europe the term is applied to the diverse likes of Peter Gabriel and Tori Amos, in North America "new age" conjures a less savoury connotation (McKennitt doesn't name names, but let's face it: many think of John Tesh).

"(Here), it's represented a different musical expression, which is more atmospheric and less about the lyrics and less about the arrangements or the eclecticism. It almost has a very medicinal quality, new age — you know, you just want people to relax."

That doesn't mean she's ungrateful.

She didn't necessarily record "Troubadours on the Rhine" with lofty expectations. McKennitt has often found a musical muse in her travels but back in 2010, she was more or less confined to working close to home because her mother was seriously ill (Irene McKennitt died in 2011). Without room to roam, she recorded the album of traditional songs, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" in the historic Sharon Temple.

She was on a promotional tour in Europe to support that album when she agreed to a one-hour performance at a German radio station. In front of 200-300 fans, McKennitt — she of the reddish-golden mane and gilded soprano voice — simply captivated, and the resulting live radio recording became "Troubadours on the Rhine."

A pretty casual beginning for a record that would eventually earn McKennitt her second career Grammy nod.

"It's quite a surprising root," she agrees. "For better or for worse, it is innocently what it is."

And this recognition is doubly delightful for McKennitt because she's not just an artist, but also her own label boss.

She's managed her own career since the "very, very beginning," McKennitt says, since she was busking on the streets of Toronto.

She founded her label, Quinlan Road, in 1985, and steered herself through her commercial heyday in the 1990s — when "The Visit," "The Mask and Mirror" and "The Book of Secrets" racked up multi-platinum sales at home and abroad — and into her 2006 revival, which followed the nine-year hiatus she took after the 1998 drowning death of her fiancé.

So she maintains the dual role of artist and executive, one which allows her complete control but prevents McKennitt from being able to simply indulge whatever artistic urges arise without considering the bottom line.

"It's kept me very grounded," she said. "I study budgets. I deal with HR issues. I look at logistics, I look at designing tours, and I involve myself down to pretty minute details — including in what order what cases will be loaded into the trucks, or the dimension of the merchandise case.

"I'm just involved at every level. So that keeps you pretty sober in terms of just how many aspects of what kinds of things play a role in success."

Such double duty requires "massive more work." But, she says, it's worth it, even if it's limited her creative output.

"Some years ago, I felt I'd rather manage fewer creations and make sure they're looked after well and maximized, rather than creating more but relinquishing the control of those creations to others."

Still, McKennitt knows as well as anyone just how dramatically the music business has declined over the past decade.

She's realistic about the future — "I think we can safely navigate our way through this for a couple years, after that, I don't know," she forecasts glumly — but can only hope her niche remains intact.

"It's a collapsed industry, period end," she says simply. "I'm still standing because even though our pie has shrunk along with everybody else's, I don't split it amongst other band members, there's not a manager who's taking their piece, etc., etc.

"So in the remnants of the music industry, and at this stage of my career, I'm still able to be viable and do what I love doing and do it in the way I like doing it."

The Grammy nomination, certainly, helps. So when she attends the show this weekend, she won't be fretting about whether she's going to win — she'll just try to enjoy the spectacle.

"That'd be the real icing on the cake to win but at the same time ... the fact that people even knew of this recording — because it's not like a huge commercial project — and cared enough to ensure that it got even nominated, I think I feel very grateful for that."

At this point, simply existing in the industry can feel like honour enough.

"One probably needs an award these days just for still standing in music," she said with a rueful laugh. "Just for still breathing."

Maybe she won't need that oxygen tank after all.