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Harpist Loreena McKennitt finds time for varied hobbies

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Loreena McKennitt plays Celtic and world music at the Masonic this weekend. (Courtesy photo)

When Canadian harpist, accordionist and keyboardist Loreena McKennitt released three albums on her own Quinlan Road imprint and was signing to Warner Bros. for her fourth, “The Visit,” in the 1980s, she had doubts about choosing Celtic music as a career over veterinary medicine. She wondered what she possibly could contribute to the genre. Then she went on a sonic quest through China, Siberia, Mongolia, Turkey and Ireland, tracing the history and geography of the Celts, gaining insight and songwriting inspiration as she went. “I realized that this was the education I never would have gotten by pursuing veterinary medicine,” she says.

You’re touring behind your “Troubadours On the Rhine” live album from 2012. What hobbies keep you busy in the meantime?

I guess planting and growing my garden. Because not only can I make a connection between what goes on the table and how it got there, but when ultimately I retire from this career path, I will have some things that I really enjoy. And it’s a pretty good-sized garden, 30 feet long, with pumpkins, squash, peppers, beans and herbs. And I’ve also developed a keen interest in child development and families, through another enterprise I’m part of, as an Honorary Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

So what’s that mean? You get to fly with the Snowbirds?

I have flown with the Snowbirds, although I haven’t been flying as much recently. But the main focus of my role is to study the challenges faced by the families that are in the Air Force. But it’s only a microcosm of what’s going on in family life and child development in the general population, so I find myself reading lots of books and consuming documentaries, so you could call that a hobby, too. I’ve got filing cabinets just full of clippings of my passions and interests.

What’s interesting is that you started playing Celtic harp, then became a busker. How did that work?

Thankfully, all my harps have been portable. They haven’t been such classical harps, They’re called Troubadour harps, and they’re built by a company out of Chicago. And at the time that I first acquired my harp, I was the proud owner of a 1978 Honda Civic, so it used to fit nicely in the hatchback. But I quickly learned that playing on the street in Toronto was quite lucrative, either through the money going into the hat or just from selling my cassettes. Because soon, retailers tracked me down and wanted to stock them.

Do you ever wonder how well your veterinary practice might be doing now?
I might be making more than the 10 cents per 1,000 plays that I get on Google Plus.

Loreena McKennitt
Where: Masonic, 1111 California St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. March 19
Tickets: $39.50 to $85
Contact: (415) 776-7457, www.livenation.com

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