I discovered the McGarrigles in 1998. My sister showed me a glowing review in the Sydney Morning Herald of the remastered sisters’ first album, by Bruce Elder. I was impressed enough by my own sister’s enthusiasm – she grew up in that era and came to love the McGarrigles – and Bruce Elder’s recommendations, to go out and buy the album. That the sisters were born and bred in Montreal, Canada, too, piqued my interest somewhat.
I came to love the album greatly, and before long I collected what I could of the duo’s back-catalogue. The duo were a massive influence on me musically. I quickly realised that the brand-missive “folk” did this duo scant justice. The McGarrigles music assimilated all that is great about American music. Their songs cite the 19th century parlour style indicative of artists such as Stephen Foster, as well as more modern American jazz/blues & trad. folk styles and the American seventies folk/singer-songwriter genre. And then, from their vantage point in Montreal, their influences assimilate a healthy blend of traditional English and French folk balladry. So all together, the music of the McGarrigles takes in an extraordinary vibrant blend of North American, English and French styles and genres, channelled into wonderful songwriting from both Anna and Kate McGarrigle. The sisters are multi-instrumentalists, and their albums are fused with pianos, guitars, piano-accordians, banjos, and all sorts of instruments performed by either themselves or guest-artists. Listening to the McGarrigles makes me wish I grew up in Montreal, Canada, rather than Sydney.
I treasure that I actually met Anna and Kate. I waited for them backstage at the Enmore Theatre in February 2006, after their concert with Rufus Wainwright. I told the sisters how much I loved their music and what it meant to me. Like bright moons in the fallow, humid night, they beamed simultaneously. They were lovely, warm and natural, and I wished I’d talked to them for longer. And I couldn’t help but notice Kate’s eyes, eyes of piercing light, radiant, sharp.
Anna & Kate McGarrigle are ‘real’ musicians in the full sense of the word. Great music-making is really about heart, soul, experience, sharing, family, emotion, love; along with those other usual attributes such as aptitude and talent. Anna & Kate McGarrigle are each responsible for creating wonderful, inspired music that touches the soul and warms the heart.
As I came to know the McGarrigles’ music and began to differentiate the songs of Anna and Kate, I discovered that I preferred the songs of Kate’s to Anna’s. And in some ways, that’s an unfair assessment. The pair’s chemistry as dual songwriters allowed them to produce a string of consistently excellent albums since 1975. Anna’s more rootsier, elementally emotional approach to her songwriting paired nicely with Kate’s own work. And Anna did write the superb ‘My Town’ from the first album, a Kate & Anna McGarrigle classic to be sure, amongst many other great songs that are staple for the duo. And yes I love Anna’s songs too; her material is insightful, sensitive, and full of fine musicality and flavour.
And what of Kate’s ex-husband, Loudon Wainwright III? He’s written some brilliant songs (including ‘Swimming Song’ that was covered most effectively by Kate on the duo’s debut record). Their children, Rufus & Martha Wainwright, are highly gifted and talented artists too, and each family member is as diverse and distinctive as they are talented and gifted. So what sets Kate apart from the rest of her family?
It’s that unmistakable, undeniable presence of Genius.
There’s this unerring quality of perfection in the songs of Kate McGarrigle. Like unfettered gems, Kate’s songs shine and illuminate as if they’d existed forever, as if they’d never needed drafting, or to be written from the ground up. The adjectives that would best describe the music of Kate McGarrigle are radiant, majestic, luminescent. Kate’s songs contain all the elements that make for great songwriting; those bright, beautiful melodies that “swell upwards to God”, a sophisticated yet most pleasing harmonic palette, and lyrics that compliment heart, emotions and intellect in equally high measure. Like a modern-day Mozart, each of these facets are stamped by Kate’s own eye-twinkling, life-affirming presence in each and every song. Kate’s gem-like touch as a songwriter/composer fused into her performance too; her voice was a golden soprano, her pearl-like touch on the piano and guitar were perfect, faultless. So with all of this combined, you have perfect songs, perfect music. And Kate’s songs were perfect. The songs of Kate McGarrigle are incomparably warm and heartfelt, utterly human in the finest sense. Hers was a special, extraordinary gift.
Her songs are also revealing of a humorous, sassy streak, indicative of lines such as “…I wanna kiss you ‘till my mouth gets numb…” off ‘Kiss and say goodbye’, “…then it’s off to the porch for a moonlight swing with me your Northern girl…” from ‘Southern boys’, and the tongue-in-cheek “…why don’t we make a little hay…” from ‘Hommage a Grungie’. ‘Blues in D’ successfully fuses English music-hall and Gershwin-esque blues within a style that’s distinctly Franco-Canadian. Kate’s piano solo in ‘Kiss and say goodbye’ and ‘Blues in D’ as two examples, the latter a duet with a clarinet, just go to show what a truly inspired, lively musician she was.
Kate’s spark and humour are made quite apparent in the song ‘NaCl (Sodium Chloride)’ that appeared originally on Pronto Monto and later The McGarrigle Hour. Kate studied chemistry at university and this jaunty song, carried by jazz-styled brushes, cleverly matches romantic concepts within a metaphorical chemistry framework. That Kate carries it off brilliantly is, again, indicative of her great originality and talent.
Then there are her piano/vocal ballads. Two of these in particular, ‘I cried for us’ and ‘I don’t know’, are at the very summit of piano/vocal composition; both songs possessing a majesty and compositional prowess that is Beethovenian in their scope, equally matched by astounding beauty, and heart. Kate McGarrigle is one of those artists – like Nick Drake, of whom the same thing has been said – who’ll “tear your soul out” with their songs.
‘Go leave’ is representative of the more generic 70s singer-songwriter, featuring Kate alone on acoustic guitar and vocal. Her pearl-like piano touch is equally transferred to guitar. The subtlety of the song and playing, lyricism (“….she’ll make it last longer, that’s nice for you…”) and again, the compositional prowess, demonstrates how Kate allows a song to swell and reach its climax before landing into the final verse. ‘Go Leave’ is one of the finest performances by a guitarist singer-songwriter of the 1970s.
Perhaps Kate is best known for her signature song, ‘Talk to me of Mendocino’ that appears on the debut Kate & Anna McGarrigle album, and later on The McGarrigle Hour. The latter re-recorded “campfire” version features picked guitar as the main backing rather than the piano that appeared on the 1975 version. ‘Talk to me of Mendocino’ encapsulates all that is miraculous about Kate’s music, the beautiful melody that swells onwards and upwards, the lovely harmonic progression, the way song builds both structurally and emotively (“…watch the sunrise over the redwoods, I’ll rise with them ‘till I rise no more…”), leading to the final chorus and coda. The latter recorded version features Kate’s family joining in at turns, and the power of this gorgeous piece is made all the more palpable when Rufus makes his vocal entrance (“…let the sun set over the ocean…”). ‘Talk to me of Mendocino’ is a miraculous piece of songwriting.
The full-motion of melody, and its swell and flow within a rich harmonic backdrop, is pretty much symptomatic of the majority of Kate’s songs. Off Matapedia of 1996 there is ‘Jacques et Gilles’ which again, is astounding for its melody, harmony, and heroic tales of triumph against adversity. With its final verse of “…we’re coming home to Canada, to La Beauce, our beautiful country…” ‘Jacque et Gilles’ naturally qualifies for the anthem of Quebec. The music to this song is so impossibly gorgeous that it’s difficult to imagine that music could be any lovelier.
The aforementioned Matapedia is the most recent of the sisters’ original albums. In the light of Kate’s passing, the themes of Matapedia seem to ring more prominently. The album has a most autumnal feel to it, with songs about the sisters’ mother’s passing (‘Song for Gaby’ by Anna is an astounding piece of work), and songs about the passing of youth and time in general. It’s a satisfying album to listen to, the natural vitality of Kate & Anna McGarrigle tempered by the passing of the years and the realisation that nothing lasts forever.
It’s often interesting to hear the primary influences that make up a songwriter. The McGarrigle Hour of 1998 is primarily an album of covers performed by the McGarrigle sisters and their extended family and friends (including their older sister, Jane). Kate performed and sang a Stephen Foster song, ‘Gentle Annie’, with Anna singing some glorious back-up vocals. You hear much of Kate’s signature sound in ‘Gentle Annie’; the beautiful melodies are tempered with an equally beautiful ‘old-world’ piano backdrop, the overwhelming sense of “heart” in the song, the way the song swells and moves back to its sweetly supple verses.
The power of Kate McGarrigle’s music lies in its humanity, its warmth and its radiance; a radiance that’s perfectly poised with natural sophistication and intelligence, and matched with a spellbinding lyrical, melodic and harmonic gift. If you separate any of Kate’s songs and blend it with those of another songwriter (Anna aside), the radiance, heart and humanity of her unexpected presence shines through like a thousand suns. In this instance I’m referring to Loudon Wainwright III who covered one of Kate’s songs, ‘Come a long way’, for his fine 1973 album Attempted Moustache. It was a brilliant cover, full of acoustic-guitars, and every bit as adept a cover as the version of the Loudon song ‘Swimming song’ that Kate herself covered. As soon as you come to Track 9, ‘Come a long way’ of Attempted Moustache, you’re hit with a musical smile, a song that communicates immense radiance and emotional punch. The writer behind this piece of musical sunshine? Kate McGarrigle.
The late Kate McGarrigle is, without question, one of the most supremely gifted song-composers ever to have graced the planet. More refined than Carole King, more regal than Joni Mitchell, Kate McGarrigle is queen of all she surveys. Her music lives on.