Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Kate McGarrigle (1946-2010)

(for submission to the 'Songsmith')

"...life is short, life is sweet, this much I know..." - kate

It was with much sadness to have discovered this week that one of my musical heroes had just passed away, Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, aged 63. Kate was half of esteemed folk-duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle, forged with her older sibling, Anna. From the early seventies, the duo were plugging hit songs to artists such as Maria Muldaur and Linda Ronstadt. In 1975, Kate & Anna McGarrigle released their eponymously-titled, Grammy award-winning, debut LP to much critical and commercial acclaim. Since that year, the McGarrigles have released a stream of albums that have won consistent critical favour and devotion from music-lovers worldwide.

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.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

something for kate...

There i was, blankly trawling through myspace, to find a Wainwright bulletin, "Kate McGarrigle dies".

I knew that the Church were supporting Rufus Wainwright (or was it the other way around??) and that Rufus had to cancel because a family member was 'critically ill'. I was wondering who that may have been, but I didn't give it too much thought.

It turned out to be Kate McGarrigle, the mother of Rufus, who died of a rare form of cancer. Kate had the folk duo 'Kate and Anna McGarrigle' along with her older sister Anna, and they released award-winning albums spanning over two decades, from the eponymously titled award-winning debut album of 1975, right through to Matapedia and the McGarrigle family album of the late '90s. They released a Christmas album in 2005, though I never listened to that.

I feel terribly saddened for this loss. Of the duo it was Kate who particularly piqued my interest. I preferred her voice, I loved her musicality - her touch on piano and guitar - and I definitely felt her to be the better, more gifted, songwriter in the duo. To most musos though this aspersion may seem unfair, like comparing Mount Fuji to Mount Kilimanjaro. Both songwriters are excellent to say the least. But while Anna is a most fine and able songwriter - she did write the superb 'My town' - Kate McGarrigle somehow possessed that radiant, eye-twinkling quality of real genius. There's always just something exceedingly clever about Kate's compositions. Maybe it's because she studied chemistry at university in a previous life. Like Don Walker of Cold Chisel you find that 'mathematics'-trained songwriters seem to have this superior sense of craftsmanship and musicality.

Kate was a sterling, peerless, composer. From the first album onward her writer's touch is marked by the glistening touch of genius. 'Talk to me of Mendocino', 'Go leave', 'Tell my sister', 'Jacques et Gilles', 'I don't know', 'Southern boys', 'On my way to town'. The list goes on. I could rave for hours, but to say her sophisticated, radiant songs sparkled with natural intelligence, life and humour, and were matched with a perfectly sensual touch of vocal, piano, guitar, and banjo.

I'll be writing an article about for my mate's songwriting zine soon.

Kate was always spunk on a stick. I always thought she was gorgeous, with her long black hair framing a Franco-Irish face. I met Kate and Anna outside the backdoor of the Enmore Theatre when they last played here. I told them how much I loved their music and how good it was. They beamed at me. It was a beautiful moment of true connection. Kate McGarrigle...beautiful beautiful woman.

I tried doing the same when Paul Weller played the Enmore, hanging out and hoping for a chat, but the place was surrounded by bodyguards...hmph!

My sister put me onto the McGarrigles. She's a lot older than me so she always put me onto the good stuff. In 1998 she showed me a glowing review by Bruce Elder in the Sydney Morning Herald of the remastered version of the McGarrigles first album of 1975. I bought it, and loved it, and immediately went about obtaining their back-catalogue. A close friend of mine at the time, Chris, loved them as much as I did, and still does as far as I know. (He met the McGarrigles with me outside the Enmore that Feb night in 2006). I've performed some of her songs live, including the trademark 'Talk to me of Mendocino', and 'Come a long way'. With the latter, I perform the Louden Wainwright version of that song that appears on his album Attempted Moustache of 1973. Louden was married to Kate and hence were spawned two wonderful musicians, Rufus & Martha.

My sister and brother-in-law saw the McGarrigles the first time they came to Australia, in 1985. They performed at the Sydney Town Hall. My siblings told me that the audience was packed with musos, and that the concert was great. I wouldn't have been overly interested in the McGarrigles in 1985.

The McGarrigles have always been labelled primarily as "folk" but their music encompasses so much more than that. The multi-instrumentalist sisters were blessed with the best of all influences. From their Montreal base they absorbed the best the USA had to offer with genuine blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley & musicals, matched with their Franco-Canadian roots that had the sisters exposed to classic French and English balladry. All of these influences washed through into their extraordinary songwriting and musicality, with a sound that remains fresh, invigorating and true, and is of the very highest standard.

I can't say I'm "mourning", but I am very stricken and saddened. Kate's passing is another reminder of the sacredness and transience of living life. I haven't been happy recently. It may just be a phase I'm passing through, or needing to pass through. But events such as these keep me focussed on the "real" stuff. I'd love to spend my days wafting through maple leaves and cool sunshine, but the modern world isn't like that. I just need to stay reminded of truth more constantly.

Kate I'll miss you, but your astonishing music will live on in me forever. God bless.

Monday, 11 January 2010

jagged clifftops

(Twilight, Sunday evening, 10 Jan, Sydney University)

Had a lovely weekend. It was packed full of summer activites. On Saturday I drove Sarah down to north Wollongong to spend the day at the beach. The beach we went to was 'dog friendly' and it was amazing because there were dogs everywhere leaping and running about, splashing in the sea and body surfing. They were so happy, so alive, so full of joy and in the moment, and to be in all this happy canine presence was most gladdening to us.

The north Wollongong strip is only about an hour's drive south of Sydney and it's an astoundingly beautiful place. There are rows of pristine beaches that are backed up by lush mountains. Up until 25 years ago it was very cheap to buy there as those suburbs were coal-mining villages, full of fibro cottages. Now it is extremely expensive to buy into that area, and why not? It is paradise.

On Sunday I went to a family do in the southern Sydney suburb of Kirrawee. It was a glorious summer's day. My auntie turned 90; it was she who's husband passed away last month. So we all got together again, which was kind of nice as I usually see my cousins only rarely. Only thing is I had a couple of gigs to get to mid-afternoon. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed to pack up and leave the congregations so soon, so I blew off the first gig. And then I was too late getting to the second gig. But at least I showed my face and was able to explain myself, and appease the sound guy. But if the main organiser finds out that could be it for me as far as getting offered gigs go, but what could I do? I do feel an underlying dismay about this and am in two minds about contacting R.

In the evening I met up with Sarah again in Glebe for some glorious Badde Manors chai, and then we walked down to Sydney Uni and strolled around its 19th century gothic sandstone buildings during the twilight hour.

Today, Monday, back at work. Glum city. I was on my own up there, except for the workers who are creating new rooms up at one end of the library, and creating new non-library spaces and rooms at the other end. I hope I can get myself into a trajectory of motivation and achievement, and soon. I damn well need to! There's so much that needs doing in 3 weeks. I need to work on the RFID security system project, I need to organise and supervise labour to refit the newly-shrunk library, organise new staff and all that's involved with the uptake of new students and a new term. At the moment all I see is a black, stark, jagged clifftop with the peak way-way above me and barely discernible. It's not a pretty sensation. History proves though that after a few days I'll be in the swing of it where you're just doing it, at which time speeds up and before you know it it's Christmas again, and again..

This evening I did a walk around the park. The sun was slowly setting and an amber/orange glow was cast around the healthy green trees. It was gorgeous, and I felt better for being there and exercising in the lovely park. I had an almost amusing realisation, that beauty allows us to glimpse the holes through our constructs, to see right past the whole damn thing. I'm tired of the construct. My own constructs, the constructs all around me. I felt that definite sense today that 'nothing really matters', yet in that glowing amber/orange light refracting off green leaves I equally realised that everything matters. There is a kind of integrity that holds it all together. Being out in the beauty is but one reflection of that integrity. Yet this is a most built-up construct, or civilisation, that we live in. We have to act out the construct to live in it, or survive in it. Give it its due. Even if it is jagged, burdensome, and preposterously absurd at the best of times.

But I can smell it in the air. The whiff of dissatisfaction is palpable, moreso now during this mid-summer glory. One can only wonder where it's all going to lead.

Friday, 8 January 2010

the big one

This holiday period hasn't turned out as well for me as I would've liked. Sure, there were some fine moments. I went to Tasmania, I drove up to the Central Coast, I did walks and worked in the garden, and spent time learning Bach cello suites on my bass guitar. But I've also felt distracted, and pained. I'm disappointed to admit that I've relapsed into the emotional backpack I'd once been some 15 years ago. I blame the weather, partly. Most of the time the weather has been unpredictable and murky; cloudy, coolish, still days that do not sit comfortably in the high summer of late-Dec/early-Jan, instead reflecting and refracting from the ghoulish pain that sits in the stomach and has been set free to vapourise throughout my body since putting my feet up from work for a lengthy five weeks.

It all started on Christmas day. I decided to open a bottle of vodka that I won at our fab Christmas party at the Doncaster just up the road from drama school. I'd duly maintained that bottle in the freezer and had been looking forward to prying it open on the X-m day. It was something of a novelty as I'm not a man for spirits at the best of times. So, finally on xmas day when the weather took a turn for cloudy cold, I poured us all a 'vodka and orange'. I filled the tumblers with about a third vodka, thinking that was "ok". I had a second V&O about an hour later. I felt that alcoholic buzz, yes. Trouble is, it stayed with me all day and didn't shift. And well into the next day too where my body felt decidedly out of sorts, poisoned even. I've realised now, after consulting with a few people who are a bit more versed in matters cocktail, that I probably had about the equivalent of 6-8 shots of vodka in the two glasses I drank. No wonder I felt that I was riding the rocket fuel-train for a good 36 hours thereafter!

There was a funeral to attend. Then New Years eve. New Years day. All very quiet and inconsequential. I reached my nadir on Sunday 3 Jan. It was cold and cloudy. I seemed to submerge into a nasty depression that I hadn't encountered in quite some time. Old thought patterns re-emerged. Lack, limitation, envy, jealousy. All that is the opposite of abundance, gratitude, joy & giving. During the past week these emotions have been shooting up through me from the yuckky sensation that's centred in the stomach region, that of unhappiness, that of emotional pain. When I'm coming through this placenta of murky sensation I find myself frustrated with my living situation and even more frustrated with the alternatives. I feel envious about those who seem to procure and inherit properties like I may acquire a box of chocolates. Financially, not all are created equal.

And of course, for the remainder of the time, I'm free of this inner-ghoul and I feel happy and unconcerned with anything but the now.

I suppose I'm disappointed in myself because something tells me I'm more "evolved" now and I've "moved on" from that place of past hurts and disappointments, only to have demonstrated to me that this is clearly not the case; past hurts and resentments are still living on in me, and I can detect their energetic presence down in my stomach region. The point, or conundrum, is not to judge myself, for self-judgement merely adds to the emotional muck that already exists in ocean-fulls in me. It's about being the conscious observer, the pure, energetic, true presence that lies behind the emotionality, and to hold onto that as much as can be achieved.

That's the thing about being away from work, you relax and unwind and yet with that, all of the ghoulies that usually submerged during the busy year come floating up and taking over. This is what's been happening with me these past two weeks.

And yet now as I write this, I'm feeling rather fine - but I nonetheless sense that tension in the stomach region.

Sydney's also to blame. I don't like the way we live.....or to be more to the point, the way I live. Modern life is bullshit. Yes it can be fun and exhilarating but it is not ultimately fulfilling. Today I was up around the North Shore. It's so much nicer than the Eastern Suburbs. More relaxed too. I love nature and my happiest moments always seem to be when I'm surrounded by the beauty of the the planet, the blessed Earth. If it wasn't for my great job and my friends and my family and muso pals I'd be outta here. But then, that's why we stay here, for those reasons more or less. Sydney's a magnet, and also a "black hole - it sucks you in" as my former work colleague Kathrin once said.

But now to more imperative, humanely universal, concerns. Emotional pain is something that most of the Earth's population carry in varying degrees. For all the baggage we carry, or the memories of past pains, hurts & disappointments, emotional pain is fundamentally energetic; meaning that all of these past traumas and pains and hurts are lodged in an individual's subconscious and form an energetic entity within the body that sits in the upper stomach region, just below the solar-plexus. Most people project this outwardly or deal with it their pain with drink or drugs or a myriad of distractions (my obsession with musical instruments is mostly an outlet for my pain, if I have to be honest with myself). But if you take the moment to look into the emotional pain and feel its presence, well, it's not a pretty sensation. It's like the (seemingly) eternal ring of fire, the cauldron of hell one has to pass through before finding the 'kingdom of heaven' (within).

Dealing with emotional pain is a fundamentally simple process, yet it's the most difficult thing to apply. It can be a life-long journey, like a never-ending game of chess with the world's most cunning, relentless player. This is what to do: feel the sensation in the body at all times, without thinking. Spend some time to keep still and focus on the inner-body. While feeling the good or pleasure of the overall body sensation - without thinking - also hold onto the sensation in the stomach. Sometimes there'll be no sensation there at all. But the battle will duly commence when you do sense that feeling of emotional pain, for it will try and throw you off and make you give up and just make a cup of tea (or grab a beer). Or more likely, it will make you want to think about the past so it can feed off you and get you all emotional and leech your energy.

Emotional pain will seem to win out each and every time as it spins you out into thinking and emotionalising about the past and past disappointments with yourself and others. The point is to be now at all times, be fresh and new, be valiant, and just keep at it without monitoring your 'progress'. Over time you'll win, it's to be hoped.

Emotional pain is a right bastard. But it's a universal one. Nothing comes close to ridding oneself of (energetic) unhappiness as a life-long endeavour. It's been said that the key to life is to "find death before it finds you". Yet it's almost like being Sir Lancelot and wielding a mighty sword against an impossibly fiery dragon. You just want to give up. But in our day-to-day living, where good jobs and loving family and a wonderful creative life are just not enough to quell the beast that lives in that murky dungeon within the stomach, one just knows that the ultimate freedom is freedom from unhappiness. Yeah, that is the big one...

Paul Hewson shooting star

i'm in the sunshine A mate of mine produces a monthly songwriter newsletter which goes out to a hundred or so mainly Sydney-based...