NPR

For Kate McGarrigle, Folk Music Was A Family Affair

Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle died of cancer on Monday at age 63. Her son, singer Rufus Wainwright, says she died peacefully at her home in Montreal. (AP)

Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle died Monday after a lifetime of making music with her family and friends. She was 63. McGarrigle grew up singing old French and Irish tunes with her parents and sisters, and went on to perform in a duo with her sister Anna.

McGarrigle married singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, and together they had two children, singers Rufus and Martha Wainwright. (The marriage later ended in divorce.)

The McGarrigle Sisters released their first album in the mid-1970s, and many more followed, including Dancer with Bruised Knees, Pronto Monto, and Love Over and Over.

In 1998, the sisters released The McGarrigle Hour. It was recorded at a family gathering and featured an impressive lineup of their musicial family and friends — Loudon, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt — all singing together.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian singer and songwriter who made memorable recordings with her sister Anna, died Monday of cancer at her home in Montreal. She was 63. The McGarrigle sisters were known for warm harmonies and evocative love songs. Critic John Rockwell once described their music as delicate and subtle, so vulnerable and private that you sometimes want to turn your head away. The McGarrigle Sisters' first album was released in 1975, though by then their music had already been recorded by other artists, including Linda Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur.

They never had a pop hit, but they recorded 10 albums and kept performing even as Kate was being treated for cancer. Their last album was released in 2005. Many of their performances included Kates children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Kate was married to Loudon Wainwright in the 1970s. Today, were going to listen to an interview and performance Terry recorded with Kate and Anna McGarrigle in 1993. They opened with Annas song Heart like a Wheel.

(Soundbite of song, Heart like a Wheel)

Ms. ANNA MCGARRIGLE (Singer): (Singing) Some say a heart is just like a wheel, when you bend it, you cant mend it, and my love for you is like a sinking ship, and my heart is on that ship out in mid ocean. They say that death is a tragedy, it comes once and its over. But my only wish is for that deep, dark abyss, cause whats the use of living with no true lover. When harm is done no love can be won, I know it happens frequently, what I cant understand, oh please God hold my hand, why it should have happened to me. And its only love, only love, that can wreck a human being and turn him inside out, that can wreck a human being and turn him inside out. Some say a heart is just like a wheel, when you bend it, you cant mend it, and my love for you is like a sinking ship, and my heart is on that ship out in mid ocean. And its only love, only love, and its only love, and its only love, only love, only love, and its only love, and its only love, and its only love

GROSS: Its a beautiful song and beautifully sung. Thank you both for doing it, Kate and Anna McGarrigle. With the song that you just did, Heart Like a Wheel, I think Anna that was the first song that you wrote.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah.

GROSS: It doesn't seem possible to me - you know, to just start off with something that good.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Well, sort of an awkward little song. But anyway

GROSS: Why did you wait - why are you calling it awkward?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Well, because it sort of moves. It changes metaphors in the first verse, you know. And its just - I think it was just kind of written off the top of my head. And I didnt think about what I was doing.

GROSS: And thats one of the songs that helped establish you commercially, I think, because Linda Ronstadt recorded it. Theres another singer that helped establish your reputations, you know, as songwriters. And thats Maria Muldaur

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Thats right.

GROSS: who recorded some of your songs.

Ms. ANNA MCGARRIGLE: Yeah.

GROSS: And one of those songs was one of your songs, Kate, Mendocino.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: No, she didnt

GROSS: She didnt record Mendocino.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: No, The Work Song, Linda Ronstadt recorded Mendocino later on, but The Work Song.

GROSS: Play a few bars of that, The Work Song.

(Soundbite of song, The Work Song)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

(Speaking) That one?

GROSS: So what...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...what was it like for you to have other people doing your songs? This was before you had started recording your songs.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Right. It was great. It was truly terrific. To have something that youve written come out - I remember Maria Muldaur did the song on "The Johnny Carson Show" and she said, Id like to thank my friend Kate McGarrigle for writing or something like that, and I was just thrilled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how did you start performing your own songs after other people started doing them?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Well, on Maria's second record, there was a song she - at this point, what she did - or what her producers did - they said, well, the first record worked so well, let's get some more songs from the same writers. So David Nichtern and myself and a bunch of other people, and so I gave her a tape and she learned the song called "Cool River," and they flew me out. And I wasnt sure what song they were doing. They said, come out and play the piano. And I got to the studio and they were in the session with about six, you know, heavy duty musicians. And they said, play the piano, please. And I said I dont know the song and they said, well, I thought you wrote it. You gave us a tape. I said no, that's my sister Anna. And they really didnt know about Anna. And they said, well, where is she? I said, in Montreal. And they actually said, do you think she'd come out here if we called her up. And I called you, right?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: I was only too happy to take an airplane...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: I think I brought my accordion out with me.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: And so she came out, and at that point we'd already changed arrange - but since we were both there, we sang backup on her version and that came out on her second record, "Waitress In A Donut Shop." And then Greg Prestipino(ph), who was working - helping her get songs, said - can I bring the girls into the studio since they're both out here? And all that happened in a week, and literally we went in, put down maybe six or seven songs that we had written, not really knowing each other's songs that much but, you know, Anna had had the lyric sheets to my song. She would sing harmony. I'd sing harmony to her songs. That's why we always ended up singing our own songs at the piano.

GROSS: Let me skip ahead a little bit, and let's hear a more recent song than the song we opened with. And Kate, this is one of your songs. It's called "I Eat Dinner." Do want to say anything about writing it, Kate, before we hear it?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Everybody thinks the song's about me, but its actually about Frida Kahlo. I know Anna says...

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: The painter? The painter?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah. There's an excerpt in the biography of her by Hayden Herrera, saying where she's between husbands and lovers or somebody's left her. At this point, two people have left her, and she writes a letter to a friend saying for the first time in my life, I'm having dinner by myself at the kitchen table without any candles on it. I mean, it was just - it was the vision because this woman had her life full.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: And...

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: So Kate said, let me see now, I haven't got anybody in my life right now. I have a very pokey little kitchen with a little, round table, and I just happen to have a daughter, but it was, I think - Kate says it's not really about her, but I think it is.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: I dont eat leftovers.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: That's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why dont we hear the song?

(Soundbite of song, "I Eat Dinner")

K. and A. MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) Never thought that I'd end up this way, I who loved the sparks. Never thought my hair'd be turning to gray. It used to be so dark. So dark. I eat dinner at the kitchen table. By the light that switches on. I eat leftovers with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the hungers gone. When the hungers gone. I eat dinner at the kitchen table. And I wash it down with pop. I eat leftovers with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the hunger stops. When the hunger stops. Never thought that Id end up like this, I who loved the night.

Never thought Id be without a kiss. No one to turn off the light. Turn off the light. I eat dinner at the kitchen table with my daughter, who is now 17. We eat leftovers with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the plate is clean. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the hungers gone. When the hungers gone. When the hungers gone. When the hungers gone. When the hungers gone. When the hungers gone.

GROSS: Kate and Anna McGarrigle, what a wonderful song. And I guess maybe, Kate, its a little bit about you and a little bit about Frida Kahlo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Well, yes, I suppose so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I want to get back to where we were before, that you hadnt started performing together 'til after you recorded back up vocals for Maria Muldaur. I imagine as kids, you sang and performed, or at least in the house together?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah. Our father thought it very important that we know how to sing and play. I dont why, but our parents played at parties for people. I mean, like, they werent professional musicians, but my father my mother had a very lovely singing voice, and he would always accompany her. And they would sing at parties, kind of -

And he was very, very musical. My father was very musical. And he would teach us songs and - which we thought were dreadfully boring at the time, but hed actually say, you know, I'll give you a nickel if you learn this song, or something like that. We - and - but he would - he found it very important to teach us what he knew, the songs that he knew.

GROSS: What kind of songs did you think of as boring that he taught to you?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Well, he was - the stuff that he liked, really, was stuff that was pre - see, my father was born in 1899 - our father is born in 1899. So and he was in the First War. So in a way, there was a whole period in there of kind of sentimental ballads, of people going away and a lot of them not coming back.

I mean, my mother remembering her mother crying because her brother was killed. The passion (unintelligible) and I kind of - and there were many songs that we heard later, like an old John McCormack record and stuff, but mostly American songs that had to do with people going away. I guess because of that, that war, that was the first kind of war, which included Stephen Foster songs and that kind of stuff.

GROSS: Do you think thats responsible, at all, for the melancholy strain in so many of her songs?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Absolutely. I we were explaining last night, we sang the song - a song called "Gentle Annie" by Stephen Foster, and I sort of said, this is the first song I remember my father playing or hearing. And, of course, he taught it to us and I and Kate sort of jokingly said, other people had songs, you know, sort of happy, sort of children songs. And I said, we always had songs of death

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: But I mean, we were an incredibly happy family. Nobody is really sad in our family. I think we're all sort of, fairly well adjusted.

DAVIES: We are listening to a performance and interview recorded in 1993 with Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Kate McGarrigle died Monday at the age of 63. We will hear more of their FRESH AIR visit after this break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We are remembering singer and songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died earlier this week, by listening back to the performance and interview Terry recorded with Kate and her sister Anna in 1993.

(Soundbite of past interview)

GROSS: How do you work out the harmonies when youre working up a song?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: I guess it depends on the song. I was going to say - I would say less and less - we seem to concentrate less and less on harmonies now -lets say, when were in the studio, because of our last thing, with "Heartbeat Is Accelerating," where we had a producer who really he wanted to get a certain sound. And I dont think he wanted big-block harmonies, that wasn't what he was into. But weve done all that stuff, before like on on

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: "Kitty Come Home."

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: "Kitty Come Home," on our second record, you know

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: "Dance With Bruised Knees."

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: We just layered and layered stuff.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Eighteen tracks.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: But there is a definite way, where we the way we dont want to have them sound, and I cant when they're just too blocking

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Right.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: sounding and when you have what note is it on the bottom that we dont want, normally?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: The third, the third, you know

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: You don't want the third on the bottom. I think, also, it's nicer to have wide, wider spaces between them as opposed to when everything is just very closed up together - well, also depending whether you are singing from your higher range or your low range.

GROSS: So, you live about 90 minutes away from each other

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Thats right.

GROSS: is it good to have that distance so that youre not with each other all the time?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: I dont think it would make any difference. I mean, I think we probably - you know, when Anna comes to town, its a great joy for me. Instead of rehearsing, we go shopping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah, the thing is

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Its funny, I think, as you get older and you have families of your own - like you just dont you dont have time, sometimes, for your old friends. And I miss that. You know, but I also know that Kate is my best friend, and I hope Im her best friend.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Youre my only friend.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Kate's so mean and nasty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Awful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: But we are - we are very, very close.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: And I have great bread stores on my street within one block. I have four in beautiful they make beautiful French bread. So when Anna comes to town - she lives in this kind of rinky dink

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: All I can get is sliced bread.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KATE MCGARRIGLE: Because Anna lives in the country, so she can only get city food, but when you live in the city, you get beautiful stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let me ask you to close with another song. And this is a song from your most recent album from

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: "Heartbeats"

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: "Accelerating."

GROSS: "Heartbeat Is Accelerating." The song is "Love Is." Before you perform it for us, this is a song that was written by both of you and

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: And our sister Jane.

GROSS: your other sister Jane. How did you collaborate on it?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Anna and Janie wrote this. I actually wrote one line.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: She wrote the best line.

GROSS: And wasnt it generous of them to give you credit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Very generous, I thank them very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: I really do.

GROSS: And who is playing what on this?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Kate is playing the nylon string guitar and

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: And singing backup.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Thats right, singing backup. And Im playing the piano and singing lead - front up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: OK.

GROSS: Well, before we hear "Love Is," let me thank you both a lot for doing the concert. Thanks so much for being here.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Thank you very much.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Thank you very, very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Is")

Ms. A. and K. MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) Love is a shiny car, love is a steel guitar, love is the battle scar, love is the morning star. Love is a 12-bar blues, love is your blue suede shoes, love is a heart abused. Love is a mind confused. Love is the pleasures untold and for some, love is still a band of gold. My love has no reason, has no rhyme. My love cross the double line. Love is the pleasures untold and for some, love is still a band of gold. My love has no reason, has no rhyme. My love cross the double line, my love cross the double line, my love cross the double line, my love cross the double line.

DAVIS: Kate and Anna McGarrigle in a performance and interview recorded with Terry Gross in 1993. Kate McGarrigle died Monday of cancer. She was 63. She survived by her sister Anna and her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright.

For Terry GROSS, Im Dave Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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