Family blends voices

Recent Songwriting Hall of Famers Kate and Anna McGarrigle pay Queen’s a visit

Sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle have been playing music together since their first album was released in 1976.
Sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle have been playing music together since their first album was released in 1976.

For Kate and Anna McGarrigle music constitutes more a lifetime than a lifestyle. The sisters have been playing and making their original, bilingual folk-rock music ever since they began their band together in Montreal during the early 1970s.

When the sisters started out they played small clubs in the Montreal area keeping their sound lush but basic with piano, guitar and vocals. Kate was studying to be an engineer and Anna was a visual artist. They had no idea what they were doing would lead them places, but a big break came in 1976 when a London, England mover and shaker from Music Maker magazine named their independent first studio effort Kate and Anna McGarrigle the best album of the year.

“We made this record and had no idea what was involved even though Kate was married to a musician. To me it was a very strange thing,” Anna McGarrigle told the Journal.

“We put the record out and six months later it had landed on the desk of some guy in London. … He gave us the number-one position for being the best rock album of the year. We’d always considered ourselves folky. The idea that it had gotten over to England and had made an impression on somebody who was obviously very music-savvy and here were these two young women from Montreal who were able to make some kind of impact.”

Over 30 years and 10 albums later, the McGarrigles are still touring and writing music and to this day Europe remains their best market. Although their last release was a Christmas album, The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, they managed to steer the record away from mass commercial schmaltz by staying close to their harmonious folk roots and inviting a roster of musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Beth Orton and Kate’s children to collaborate.

The McGarrigles are part of a Canadian music dynasty of sorts: Kate’s children Rufus and Martha Wainwright have soared to musical acclaim each in their own right.

“Well, I mean all our kids are musical, our parents are musical. In a way it’s sometimes what we do. It’s not that we sit around and sing in a room, but it’s nice to stand on stage and blend our voices. We all have such different voices,” Anna said.

“It’s like visiting with each other when we’re able to be together on stage.”

Last week was a bit of a milestone for the musical family because the McGarrigles’ song “Heart Like a Wheel” was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in Toronto on Saturday. Both Anna’s children—Sylvan and Lily—and Kate’s joined the women onstage to sing the melancholy song about heartbreak they wrote in their early days. The song was actually made famous by American Grammy-winning musician Linda Ronstadt.

“It’s the song. Not so much the songwriter [that’s important],” Anna said.

“I hope I wasn’t this token woman. I thought it when I got back. It was all men except for me. But as I say it’s more about the song than the person, at least in our case. It was flattering to be up there.”

As nice as the recognition is, the McGarrigles are used to keeping a low profile and making it in the industry in their own style.

“We’ve had many opportunities to do more than we’ve done. But for whatever reason—we’re not so much control freaks—we end up doing everything ourselves, making managers angry. It’s just the way we are,” Anna said.

“I think it’s because we’re Irish women; we’re also part French. Maybe we’re just used to being able to take on a lot. For some weird reason we’ve been able to have a career, maybe by not being too much in the public eye.”

Although they were raised in a more English-speaking household, Kate and Anna both went to French school. Living in Quebec, over the years has influenced them as they’ve always incorporated French songs into their sets and have produced two French albums—the first one, Entre Lajeunesse et la sagesse came out in 1980 around the time of the first Quebec referendum. The sisters worried their album wouldn’t be well received and criticized because of the intense political heat.

“[The record] had a positive effect. It was a nice gesture from the English-speaking community,” Anna said.

“It had nothing to do with the politics: we had a friend who wrote beautiful French music. It’s a no-brainer to write in French especially if you’re living in Montreal. It just happened to coincide with the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty.”

Lately the sisters have been re-visiting older material and updating their songs for fresh performances. Clearly, Kate and Anna have a long history together that has allowed their career, music and relationship to last.

“We shared a bed, then a bedroom, when we were kids,” Anna said.

“We’re as about as close as you can possibly get. Not to say we don’t fight. But we tend to forget the nasty things we say to each other and get on with it.”

Kate and Anna McGarrigle play at Sydenham Street United Church Saturday night as part of the Common Magic Bronwen Wallace Conference at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35.

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