Earlier this month, Loreena McKennitt released her 16th album, Under a Winter’s Moon. A love letter to the season, the record collects live recordings and spoken word performances from a string of shows in late 2021 at Knox Church in Stratford, Ontario. The singer-songwriter says the record is like an “unplanned pregnancy.” Still, it’s a happy accident.
The time is right to revisit The Visit — another of McKennitt’s happy accidents. The JUNO-winning album, released in 1991, took the artist around the globe: from Stratford to Spain and back again. Her record was an anomaly of its time as techno, hip-hop, R&B, and alternative-rock dominated radio. McKennitt’s fourth album did not fit that formula, composed of Celtic-inspired world music, guided by her harp and layered with stringed instruments like the balalaika and tamboura which many listeners had never heard before. But still, these nine songs resonated. Since its release 30 years ago, The Visit has sold 1.4 million copies worldwide. The success surprised not just the music industry, but its creators as well.
“I don’t think either of us could have imagined the success that The Visit has and continues to have,” says Brian Hughes, who co-produced the record. “Certainly, by industry standards of the day it was unconventional, especially if you were going for a hit album.”
Before recording The Visit, McKennitt signed her first major label deal. The agreement with Warner Canada, just like her music, was unique, and built on partnership. The label helped with promotion, marketing and distribution — especially in international markets — but the artist financed her own recordings and her tours.
As she entered Jeff Wolpert’s Inception Studios in Toronto in 1991, McKennitt was more nervous than an elementary school student before their first recital. She knew that what they were planning to do with this album was non-commercial and she did not know how her label, the industry, or the public would react.
“It’s such an unusual genre of music,” the songwriter admits during a Friday midday chat at Universal Music Canada’s new head office in Toronto’s Liberty Village. “The music industry infrastructure was not designed to relate to it — or support it — but somehow it has continued to prove itself.”
While others consumed what mainstream radio offered, Hughes and McKennitt listened to world music. These various influences and textures — created by combining instruments like the tamboura, sitar, balalaika, uilleann pipes, and middle-eastern percussion and drums — paired with Loreena’s haunting voice resulted in an original sonic sound. The Visit is also a travelogue that takes listeners on a journey to locales both real and imagined.
It happened organically, with most of the tracks evolving in the studio.
“It’s always nerve-racking booking time and not having all the songs ready to go, but I need a certain kind of sophistication of a studio environment to play around with certain ideas, like a palette … that’s where I audition things,” McKennitt explains.
Hughes further describes the pair’s approach to making records.
“We tend to use the studio as a melting pot where songs and ideas get thrown into the mix and then chased up and down, polished and refined into interesting musical gems. Sometimes an idea or song may get discarded or filed away for future, as was the case with ‘Greensleeves,’ which we recorded as a lark — while the engineer was on the phone, thankfully he hit the record button — during sessions for the previous album Parallel Dreams, but it found a home on The Visit.
STITCHING MUSICAL LANDSCAPES
The Visit captures McKennitt’s feelings about the creative process.
“I often marvel at the act of creativity, not just in the musical sense, but any creative act like writing, gardening, or cooking, where one draws upon another dimension,” she explains. “I equate it to a divining or channelling that comes forward in some form of artistic expression.”
In stitching together The Visit’s nine storied songs, McKennitt tapped into a number of personal experiences, such as travelling to Ireland and her deepening fascination with Celtic culture, as well as inspiration from her collaborators. Past jobs, particularly time spent at The Stratford Festival and The National Film Board (NFB), also influenced this project.
“At Stratford, I was drawn to the rituals of the theatre from the cannon outside signalling the play was about to begin to that moment when the lights go down,” McKennitt says. “At the NFB, I fell in love with the musical landscapes you could create for film. I was innately stitching all these experiences into the music — starting with a long intro that set the stage and that defied all the rules of the music industry. I didn’t care. It was just something I had to do.”
“All Souls’ Night,” a piece that mixes Japanese traditions with Celtic rituals, opens The Visit. It sets the tone and mood for what is to come. “Bonny Portmore,” a traditional Irish folk song that laments the loss of the island nation’s old oak forests is next. Six more songs take the listener on a spiritual voyage of discovery via melodies and stories that feel older than time immemorial. Then, Shakespearean prose put to music, a comic-tragedy about the historic British King, closes the record as “Cymbeline.”
The instrumental “Tango to Evora” was a song McKennitt had previously written for a NFB series of films on women and spirituality — The Burning Times.
“I had performed that melody for that film and was looking for a title to include it on The Visit,” she recalls. “We were on a photo shoot in Portugal and had driven to this city called Evora and that became the title.”
THE LONG SONG AND THE BALALAIKA
“The Lady of Shalott,” just like Lord Alfred Tennyson’s epic Arthurian poem it’s written around, is long — clocking in at just over 11 minutes. It’s also the song that sold the album, with its rich imagery of Lady Shalott locked away in the tower of Camelot, which symbolizes the societal entrapment of women in the Victorian Age.
Beyond its imagery, another element that made this song so powerful is the use of a strange-looking Russian instrument. Hughes describes how the balalaika ended up on the record.
“My girlfriend at the time, Pamela — now my wife of 28 years — and I had an apartment in Toronto back then where her brother’s balalaika hung on the wall. He’d won it as a prize for best costume on a cruise when he was 12 — dressed as a chicken. One day, just prior to starting recording The Visit, I took the balalaika off the wall, put some new strings on it and started playing around with it. I thought it sounded like it might be a cool texture to use on the album.
We were in the studio and started playing ‘The Lady Of Shalott.’ It was just Loreena and I. She was playing a keyboard with a lush pad sound, and singing. As the pad sound had very little attack and we were going to be overdubbing several instruments on the track, I thought I would pick up the balalaika and play along with a repetitive two note motif to act as a metronome so there was a time reference for the other musicians. Once we had done all the overdubs and were into mixing the song we took the balalaika out of the mix.
When Loreena came into the studio and heard that final mix she exclaimed: ‘Where is the Balaliaka? It’s the heartbeat — like the horses hooves!’ She felt it belonged in the musical imagery of ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ and so it made its way back into the recording. The balalaika also ended up on ‘All Souls Night’ and ‘Between The Shadows.’”
As our conversation closes, McKennitt shares a final anecdote about “The Lady of Shalott” that illustrates why The Visit sold so well.
“I remember a shop in Georgia, located inside a strip mall, that sold tons of copies of The Visit,” McKennitt recalls. “I went there to meet the store’s owner and find out his sales secret. He said, ‘go and rifle through the CDs and I’ll show you.’ A minute later, a woman walks into the store and he put on ‘The Lady of Shallot.’ Immediately, she pauses to listen and asks him what she was hearing. He tells her, and before she leaves, she buys a copy. It was the power of that grassroots ecosystem — before social medi — not commercial radio, that made The Visit sell so well.”
Album Title: The Visit
Artist: Loreena McKennitt
Released: 1991 (Canada); 1992 (Internationally)
Studio: Inception Studios (Toronto)
Engineer: Jeff Wolpert
Personnel: Loreena McKennitt (vocals, keyboards, harp, accordion and bodhrán); Brian Hughes (co-producer; Balalaika, electric and acoustic guitar); Al Cross: Drums; George Koller: Bass, cello, mad fiddle, tamboura, sitar; Anne Bourne: cello; Tom Hazlett: Bass; Patrick Hutchinson: Uillean pipes; Hugh Marsh: fiddle; and Rick Lazar: percussion and udu drum (“Between The Shadows”, “Tango To Evora”)
Awards: Co-winner of Juno for Best Roots/Traditional Album (1992) Sales:1.4 million worldwide. Five-times platinum (sales over 500,000) in Canada and gold certification (sales over 500,000) in the United States.
- All Souls’ Night
- Bonny Portmore
- Between the Shadows
- The Lady of Shalott
- Tango to Evora
- Courtyard Lullaby
- The Old Ways