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The Celtic Journeys of Loreena McKennitt

Loreena McKennitt, preparing for her performance in NPR's Studio 4A.
Coburn Dukehart, NPR
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Loreena McKennitt, preparing for her performance in NPR's Studio 4A.

In the late '70s, Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt became smitten with Celtic music. But it wasn't until she visited an exhibition of Celtic artifacts in Venice 20 years later that she began to appreciate the wide reach of Celtic culture: Various Celtic tribes made it all the way to the Eastern Mediterranean, and even as far as Turkey and Mongolia.

Appropriately, McKennitt's latest album brought her back to one of those unlikely Celtic outposts: Spain. Nights from the Alhambra is a 2-CD/DVD set documenting her live concert performances at the Alhambra palace in Granada.

McKennitt visited NPR's Studio 4A to perform some of the songs off her new release, and spoke with Liane Hansen about her music.

As her long career has progressed, McKennitt has found it increasingly difficult to separate the music from the history from which it arises — even if that music now has electric guitars added to it.

"Part of my quest has been to reach into history and find those relevant things, and bring it to a contemporary position," she says.

Now, McKennitt draws on Celtic culture at large as inspiration for her music, in its many manifestations. The songs she performs for NPR come from Ireland itself ("Bonny Portmore"), a poem by Irish poet W.B. Yeats ("Stolen Child") and a visit to Greece ("Penelope's Song").

McKennitt says her approach to music is now less as an artist and more as a travel writer, learning about and documenting her forays abroad.

"I've used my career, as it were, as a vehicle for my own self-education," McKennitt says. "I look at how travel writers latch on to a subject, and in actual fact the vehicle of that subject becomes less important than the journey it all reveals."

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