A tale of two sisters


INTERVIEW:Their voices charmed a generation, but now Anna McGarrigle is soldiering on without her sister Kate, she tells JOE BREEN

ANNA MCGARRIGLE HAS been toying with the idea over why it took so long for her and her late sister Kate to agree to the release of remastered versions of their first two albums. The handsome package, Tell My Sister, is completed by a third CD of demos and unreleased tracks. It’s a gem – rediscovered for those old enough to catch them the first time in the mid-1970s, or uncovered for everybody else. Even though more than a year has passed since Kate McGarrigle finally succumbed to a rare form of cancer, her 64-year-old sister is still finding the loss hard to bear.

Speaking from her home in eastern Ontario, she recalls: “Those demo tapes were the first time we ever did something together in a studio. She lived in the US and I lived in Montreal. We did not write together, we did not sing together. She said you’re out here in LA, let’s go in and sing those songs. It was the beginning. It makes me very sad.

“Before she died I spent more time with her in the hospital than I did at home. We were always together. And then one day she wasn’t there. And then I thought I was going to die too. So I just went home to my husband and hunkered down for a few months before I could step out on the sidewalk again alone. I’m fine now but this is all revisiting it . . . She just gave so much. She never gave up until the little battery ran out.”

Kate and Anna McGarrigle were one of those left-field acts that came out of nowhere and managed to find an enduring place in many hearts. As often happens, the duo came about more by accident than by design. Kate had moved to New York in 1969 to seek her fame and fortune with her friend Roma Barron. Somewhere along the way she met up with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. They got married and had two children (future stars Rufus and Martha), but the relationship was foundering when she finally got her chance to record an album in 1974.

She asked her sister Anna, who had been studying art in Montreal, to come and sing harmony at the Los Angeles recording. They had never sung together professionally, but their voices radiated a form of magic and the duo was born – “It so happens we were sisters and we knew how to sing together.”

Their eponymous debut never sold in big quantities – in fact none of their albums did – but down the years it has come to be acknowledged as a classic. Kate’s unforgettable, forlorn farewell to love, Go Leave, was the last song recorded because nobody was sure she could make it through without breaking down. There were other heart-wrenching songs, not least the title track of the current retrospective, Tell My Sister, and Anna’s own Heart Like A Wheel.

“It was the kind of thing that captured my imagination, sitting in my little Montreal apartment trying to write songs on this old piano. It suited my personality. I liked the songwriting part but I just didn’t want to be a performer, ever . . . Do you know what she said about the first record? ‘Think of it as demo tape.’ And it was; it was a very expensive demo tape.”

The duo made a number of other records without quite reaching the same heights. These include their second album, Dancer With Bruised Knees, which is included in the new release. “I think people got fed up with us because every time we made a record one of us would get pregnant and we wouldn’t be able to tour. Nowadays, if you look at magazines, it’s all about so-and-so is pregnant, they’ve got a bump, no big deal, but back then it was a serious inconvenience.”

She remembers her sister as someone with a strong personality. “Well she could be incredibly tough. Kate wasn’t sentimental about stuff. I mean she could be sentimental about her own life but she wasn’t sentimental about people. She wasn’t somebody who would feel empathy with the struggling poor or a three-legged cat. She wasn’t interested in stuff like that. It’s not that she was hard but she had a goal. She was very focused.” Her final illness, however, was a difficult time. “Yes it was long and drawn-out and it was difficult – we couldn’t take any work . . . But it wasn’t always like that. She actually got to travel a lot during her illness. Rufus and Martha took her around places. Rufus was amazing with her – took her to Italy and all over the place. Took her onstage and she sang with him. It was amazing.”

Indeed, there is a YouTube video of her final performance in December 2009 with her children lending a hand along with Anna and a cast of friends. She says those shows were momentous. “Yes they were. She had already been given the death warrant – they’d found secondaries in her spine and they were radiating her. But they were able to put her in enough good shape to send her off to London for her last performance at the Royal Albert Hall for the Christmas show.”

Anna is back at work. She performed at two New York shows in honour of Kate recently and, as well as Tell My Sister, she has released Oddities, a collection that she and Kate recorded in her basement. “I’m looking at the bright side of this. I think Kate really wished she had had more recognition because she was a great songwriter and a wonderful performer and musician. I mean she really put everything into it, much more than I did – I always saw myself as a dilettante. And, you know, it breaks your heart that somebody has to die to get noticed.”

Tell My Sister, a remastered set of the McGarrigles’ first two albums and a CD of demo tapes, is available on Nonesuch Records. See mcgarrigles.com. Followers of the McGarrigle clan may also be interested in Loudon Wainwright III’s most recent recording, Ten Songs for the New Depression, from lw3.com