The daughter of a nurse mother and a livestock trader father, songstress Loreena McKennitt studied classical piano and vocal training and learned to dance in the Highland style as a youngster. Her love of traditional music was strengthened in the folk clubs of Winnipeg, which she frequented during the brief period she studied veterinarian science at the University of Manitoba. Relocating to Stratford, Toronto, she continued to sharpen her skills as a composer and performer. In 1981, she auditioned for a role in the city's Shakespearean theater. Although she did not get the role, she remained inspired. After reading Diane Sward Rapaport's book How to Make and Sell Your Own Record, she formed her own label, Quinlan Road. After releasing two albums; a nine-song cassette, Elemental, in 1985; and a collection of Christmas tunes, To Drive the Cold Winter Away, in 1987, she had her first breakthrough with her 1989 album, Parallel Dreams. Distributed through a network of small, independent distributors, the album sold more than 40 thousand copies within four months. Its success was surpassed by McKennitt's fourth album, The Visit. Distributed by Warner Canada, the album sold more than 700 thousand copies and received a Juno (Canada's equivalent of the Grammy) award.
While her albums have featured soothing, ultra-melodic, arrangements, McKennitt's lyrics have reflected her interests in the poetry of W.B. Yeats, William Blake, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Her unique musical approach was addressed by her lighting director, Tracey Ploss, who explained, "When you get used to pop artists, the songs are mainly verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo. With McKennitt, it's prologue-bridge-verse. You've got all these segues at different parts of the song."
McKennitt's music has been heard on the soundtracks of numerous plays and films. In 1989, she was commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada to compose the music for a film series, Woman and Spirituality. Her subsequent commissions include such films as Jade, Highlander III, Disney's the Santa Clause, and TV shows, including Northern Exposure, Due South, and EZ Streets.
In 1998, McKennitt scored her biggest hit with "The Mummer's Dance." She became a hit in America, allowing the The Book of Secrets to sell more than four million copies. Sadly, her world crumbled that July when her fiancé, Ronald Rees, died while on a sailing trip with his brother and a family friend in Georgian Bay. Everything immediately stopped in order for McKennitt to grieve. Rumors of her retirement also circulated.
At the time of her fiancé's death, McKennitt was mixing a new album, Live in Paris and Toronto, at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios. Recorded in Salle Pleyel in Paris and Massey Hall in Toronto during the Spring of 1998, the album was released in 1999. All profits from the album have gone to the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund, which McKennitt set up to finance water safety and recovery equipment for the Ontario Provincial police.
During the new millennium, McKennitt allowed herself some healing time. She didn't disappear from music altogether. Her Spanish version of "Dante's Prayer" was slated to be featured in the Canadian/Venezuelan documentary "A House With a View of the Sea" in 2001. In 2002, she was back in the studio and negotiating a new record deal.