The Hidden World of Kate McGarrigle

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Singer Kate McGarrigle

The McGarrigle Sisters, Kate and Anna, have been long time loves of The Kitchen Sisters. We played their album,”Kate and Anna McGarrigle,” often on our live weekly radio show on KUSP FM in the late 1970s and were drawn in by their harmonies, their lyrics, their banjos, accordians and guitars,  and, of course, by the fact that they were sisters, working together over the years.

In January, 2010, Kate McGarrigle, Canadian musician extraordinaire and composer, cook, thinker, and mother of singer/songwriters Rufus and Martha Wainwright  died of a rare type clear-cell sarcoma, so rare they call it an orphan cancer.

Our  friend, Joe Boyd who produced that first album of Kate and Anna’s that we fell in love with so many years ago, curated a celebration of life for Kate McGarrigle in 2010 at the Southbanke Centre in London.

The Kitchen Sisters were a fly on the wall backstage at the rehearsals, interviewing Anna McGarrigle, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Neil Tennant, Nick Cave, Chaim Tannenbaum, Teddy Thompson and others about Kate’s remarkable music and life as the production unfolded.  Here is a glimpse of The Hidden World of Kate McGarrigle.

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Joe Boyd Remembers Kate McGarrigle 

Kate McGarrigle grew up in the Laurentians outside Montreal. She and her two sisters joined their father and mother around a piano in the evenings and sang. Parental praise was earned by finding a good harmony part. There was no tv. Their father was born in the 19th century.

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In their teens, she and Anna joined various folk groups and Kate travelled a small circuit of coffee houses before returning to Montreal to complete a chemical engineering degree at McGill University. She went back on the road after graduation, met Loudon Wainwright III, started writing songs, married him, gave birth to Rufus and settled in New York City.

I met her in the mid-Seventies because Maria Muldaur, whose first album I was producing, wanted to sing Kate’s “Work Song”. The album included “Midnight At the Oasis” so Kate earned something from the song-writing royalties. When Maria was ready to make her next album, Kate sent her a demo of songs. We picked one called “Cool River”, with delicious, earthy-but-ethereal harmonies I assumed were Kate double-tracked. We invited her out to Los Angeles to add them to Maria’s version and she asked if she could bring Anna. I approved the extra ticket thinking she needed help with the baby. But that unforgettable day in the studio they all turned up, Kate and Anna stood around the piano with Maria and sang while Rufus kept quiet in a basket in the corner.

The sound of those voices together was one of the most astounding things I had heard in my musical life to that date. I persuaded Warner Brothers give us studio time to make a demo. Kate & Anna signed a contract and with engineer John Wood and co-producer Greg Prestopino we embarked on one of the richest – and proudest – recording experiences of my life. I have always loved recording and mixing harmonies; memories of blending those voices into the stereo master of the first McGarrigle album still give me a thrill. We mixed “Heart Like A Wheel” in short snippets cut together; in those pre-automation days the balances were so tricky we could never get more than a few lines right at a time.

Between demo and recording Kate split up with Loudon, but they got back together before the album was released so Kate was too pregnant withMartha to go on tour promoting it. I thought the Warner Brothers art department let us down with the cover. The album didn’t sell – one of the great disappointments of my life. A second album didn’t do any better.

Over the years, Kate & Anna began touring and slowly built an audience. Eventually, everyone realized how much they loved the first album. The British embraced them, so they came to London every few years. Kate and I argued about the touring band – they wanted a Hammond B3 player and a drummer, the cost of which meant tours were rarely profitable. They hated being pigeon-holed as folkies.

Linda Ronstadt and Emmy Lou Harris recorded their songs, their children began to grow and to sing, I licensed their records for my Hannibal label and they had a reunion with me and John Wood for The McGarrigle Hour. Rufus and Martha recorded two of their earliest compositions for it. Loudon came up for a couple of days and sang “What’ll I Do?” with Kate and their two kids. Not a dry eye in the studio.

I visited Montreal and St Sauveur from time to time. Kate turned me on to her favourite historian, Francis Parkman, and I turned her onto mine,Lesley Blanch. She and Anna and Rufus and Martha sang at my 60th Birthday party (cleverly located next door to their concert at the Newport Folk Festival). I shared her pride in her two remarkable kids and their growing success – which brought her through London more and more often. She was the proudest of mothers at the premiere of Rufus’ opera Prima Donna last summer at the Manchester International Festival.

By then she had been diagnosed with cancer and had had multiple operations; I rang her about a week after the last one and she was out of breath. I asked her if she felt OK, she said she felt great, having just walked in the door from a 3-hour cross-country skiing trek.

The family asked me to produce the annual Christmas concert, in London last year at the Royal Albert Hall instead of the usual Carnegie Hall in New York; there was an unspoken understanding that this might be her last. When Martha came to town for her Piaf shows in November, seven months pregnant, she went into pre-mature labour and a tiny son, Arcangelo, was born (now doing fine). Kate flew over, brought food and grandmotherly affection to the hospital and in her spare time worked with us preparing the concert. She wrote a new song, “Proserpina”, about the goddess the Greeks called Persephone and how she created winter because her daughter was far away and not coming home.

The week before the concert, Kate flew to Montreal for a scan and discovered things had gotten worse. She underwent exhausting treatment and travelled back to London in time to rehearse. She was at her shining best that night; everyone I spoke to said it was one of the most remarkable evenings of music they had experienced. (YouTube has some clips from the show filed under “Not So Silent Night”.)

Back in Montreal, Kate held court on the sofa, then in her bedroom. I visited her in early January; she was as witty and sardonic as ever. She died on January 18, surrounded by her family, everyone singing. There was a cathedral funeral in Old Montreal with lots more singing; she was buried behind the church in St Sauveur-des-Monts, near the start of her favourite cross-country skiing trail.

Kate occupied a central place in my personal Pantheon of the greatest musicians I have known. Her songs are smart, romantic, cynical, tuneful and deeply rooted in the traditions she loved. She was demanding, determined, fierce, gentle, loving and never, ever dull. We could start a conversation about a recording or a concert and end up talking for an hour about the Ottoman Empire. I miss her terribly.

Rehearsals for A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle from The Kitchen Sisters on Vimeo.

Kiss & Say Goodbye, Anna McGarrigle, Martha Wainwright and Rufous Wainwright; I Don’t Know, Krystal Warren; Saratoga Song, Teddy Thompson; and Love Over and Over.

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Funding for this series comes from:

National Endowment for the Arts National Endowment for the Arts Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Further Support Provided By:

NPR Kitchen Sisters

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