Kate McGarrigle

Songwriter and musician

Born: 6 February, 1946, in Montreal, Canada. Died: 18 January, 2010, in Montreal, aged 63.

FEW musicians get to deliver a work of such consummate clarity the first time round as Kate and Anna McGarrigle did with their self-titled debut in 1976. Co– produced by Joe Boyd and Greg Prestopini, both of whom brought visions sometimes in opposition to each other, the resultant treasure remains a pinnacle in contemporary Canadian song, with Anna's Complainte Pour Ste Catherine and Kate's heart-rending Talk To Me Of Mendocino. It elevated them to the pantheon of Canadian songsmiths that includes Leonard Cohen, Bonnie Dobson, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian Tyson and Neil Young. Yet, in seeking their path through the Canadian condition, in many ways the bilingual McGarrigles shone greater light on the country's cultural tussle than most of their compeers and compatriots.

Kate was the youngest of three girls born to Frank and Gaby McGarrigle into a middle-class Montreal family of Qubcois and Irish stock. Like her sisters Janie and Anna, she grew up speaking French at school and English at home, singing and playing piano for the nuns at Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts (now part of La Ville de Saint-Sauveur) in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains. Their father, whose main income was a war disability allowance, would pick up instruments in thrift shops and the girls were encouraged to sing and tinker with guitar, autoharp, ukulele and banjo-ukulele. Although influenced by their older sister's pop music, thanks to exposure to the Weavers, they discovered folk music, so Kate and Anna began performing on the Montreal folk and coffee-house scene before combining forces with Jack Nissenson and Peter Weldon as The Mountain City Four. Its line-ups were pretty flexible and people came and went. Historically speaking, though, the most important were Dane Lanken (Anna's future husband) and long-term collaborator Chaim Tannenbaum.

After studying engineering at Montreal's McGill University, Kate moved to New York where she formed a folk/blues duo with Roma Baran, whose music was good enough to get them on the bill of the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival before they parted ways the following year. By the early 1970s, both Kate and Anna were writing songs … and that was how the confusion began.

Anna's desolate Heart Like A Wheel was taken up by McKendree Spring and Linda Ronstadt. When Kate wound up playing piano on the sessions for Maria Muldaur's eponymous debut (which included her Work Song) and she did not know the changes to Cool River (one of her sister's defining songs, co-written with Audrey Bean), it became apparent that there was more than one McGarrigle abroad. Sensing something special, Warner Brothers brought both sisters together. Thus, after years of not playing music together, Kate and Anna McGarrigle were "born" in 1974.

They bucked business expectations, woefully failing to put career ahead of family. Kate's son Rufus had been born in 1973 and Martha came along in 1976 – the year of her far-from-amiable divorce from the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright. Grist to the mill, marital discord and disintegration produced Lying Song and Babies, If I Didn't Have You, among other heart-jerking numbers. Anna further compounded their wrongheadedness with two pregnancies of her own.

They fell victim to Warners' roster cuts after their third work, Pronto Monto (1978), but in truth there always was someone telling them to conform, to smarten up on stage, to ditch the band, when, in fact, they wore their ramshackle, unprofessional stage act like a badge of honour and believed in the band. Stymied in Canada, with little presence in the Anglophone community and not being French enough for the Qubcois snobs, paradoxically, success as performers first came abroad. Melody Maker made their debut its Rock Album of 1976. The following year, Kate guested on the Albion Band's Rise Up Like The Sun, singing lead on House In The Country and swelling the chorus on Poor Old Horse and Lay Me Low. By some standards, they may have seemed underachievers, but their body of work is extraordinary and success came on their terms.

One important element was humour. Beyond doffing a chapeau to their French-Canadian roots, their Francophone albums Entre Lajeunesse et La Sagesse ("Between Lajeunesse (a Montreal street] and wisdom" but also punning on la jeunesse or "youth") – aka the French Record – and 2003's La vache qui pleure ("The cow that cried") typify their love of jokes and cheesy wordplays that soon became apparent when around the sisters for any time.

Aside from the impact of their original songs, what set the McGarrigles apart was a numinous quality when they sang, often found when siblings and family sing together – whether the Everly Brothers, the Watersons or the Bee Gees. ("Of all the sibling groups," Kate told me in 2005, "the Everlys touched me the most.")

That numinosity is plain on The McGarrigle Hour (CD 1998; DVD 1999), which includes Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright and Anna's daughter Lily Lanken, amongst others.

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