Thursday, May 5, 2011


Kate and Anna McGarrigle always existed in a musical time of their own, creating modern folk-like songs, but equally connected to sounds of the 19th century, French Canadian traditional, and above all, family-created music purely for the joy of it. Their houses, through their lives, were places where music was as important as meal times, and children were raised to join in and learn. It was the serendipity of the seventies that brought the sisters to fame as a duo, and now their first two, much-heralded albums have been reissued, remastered and spruced up with an extra disc of original demos of the two from the early 70's, a triple-CD collection called Tell My Sister.

It is, of course, a bittersweet release, coming on the heals of the death of Kate from cancer in January of 2010. It also arrives just before a pair of tribute concerts at New York's Town Hall on May 12th and 13th, with proceeds going to Kate's charity for sarcoma, the rare cancer that took her life. The all-star shows will feature Anna McGarrigle, Kate's kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Norah Jones, Teddy Thompson, Emmylou Harris, Antony Hegarty and others. A nervous Anna took some time to speak from her home near Montreal about the shows, and the new albums.

As with some other times in the past year, she's missing her sister and long-time stage partner these day, because of the tribute concerts. "I'm starting to lose sleep," she admits. "That's the way I am, I get anxious. Kate wouldn't get anxious. She was a rock. I miss her reassuring temperament, I was always leaning on her before big shows. But there's other people involved, Rufus and Martha, they're working their bottoms off, I won't have as much to do." What she will be doing is lots and lots of playing and singing. "I'll do a french song, for sure," she confirms. "And I'm singing songs with a lots of people, including Emmylou. We're going to do Heart Like A Wheel. I'll be singing with my son and daughter (Sylvan and Lily Lankin) too."

Heart Like A Wheel was the standout track of the McGarrigle's self-titled first album from 1975. Anna wrote it, but it was Kate and her early partner and friend, Roma Baran, who were singing the song in New York in the early 70's, and started getting some attention. Kate's demos from 1971 and 1974 started providing hits for others, with Maria Muldaur recording The Work Song, and Linda Ronstadt even naming her 1974 smash album Heart Like A Wheel. Anna wasn't even singing or writing with her sister at the time, but Anna was summoned to L.A. by Kate in 1974, because her sister didn't want to be alone. That's when the music people first heard the sound of the sisters singing together. "That's what sold the record company on us," she confirms. "It was quite by accident that we made that demo tape, and when Warner Brothers heard it, they wanted to sign us."

It's easy to hear why on the demos included on Tell My Sister. They feature simple piano and one or two voices, but are as magical as the versions that appeared later on Kate & Anna McGarrigle and it's follow-up, 1977's Dancer With Bruised Knees. Anna actually feels they better reflect the songs and spirit of the duo. "One thing that really struck me was how much extraneous stuff there was on the records as compared to the demos. You didn't go in to the studio on your own then. Back then you had real bodies in the studio. It was the time, the 70's, when excess was expected. I was a real greenhorn, I had never played with any musicians before. So I didn't even know who these people were. Steven Gadd, Tony Levin, I didn't know they were Paul Simon's people at the time, which is a good thing, I would have been so nervous." The new remasters of the albums reveal even more instrumentation from the sessions, she says: "There was a lot of stuff. What happens with the remastering now is you can hear everything, and I think, 'Oh my we don't want to hear everything'. People didn't do really simple records then."

Whether they were too busy or not, critics didn't complain about the songs then, and don't now. The first album was Melody Maker's album of the year, the New York Times glowed. The first two discs did everything but sell. Part of the attraction for the critics was the top quality names associated with the discs, including producer Joe Boyd and the hot-shot session players. Even Little Feat's Lowell George is credited. "Well, that was funny," says Anna. "It ended up that he only plays one note on the song Kiss And Say Goodbye. There were four guitar players on it, and we didn't need all that, but the note we left of his was really important, it slides up" she laughs.

The demo tapes had taken on a near-mythic status over the years, largely because the sisters had ignored them for so long. Rhino Records had long been pushing them to listen to the tapes. "The thing is they were slated to come out," says Anna. "Rhino had wanted to put something out for years. They would send the package, and say, 'what do you think, can we put this out?' Somehow it didn't seem so important at the time, we would lose the package or something. But when Kate died, it took on a new importance." The first set of demos and live tracks showed up late last year as ODDiTTies, cuts from the 70's to 90's, and that turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Apart from the early versions of favourites such as (Talk To Me Of) Mendocino, Walking Song and Kiss and Say Goodbye, there are numbers that somehow were left unissued, yet rate among the best of their career.

Anna McGarrigle says some of Kate's old numbers got left behind, in the effort to even up the writing credits between the sisters. "Oliver, Remember Me?, that should have gone on a record. That was from her 1971 demo. She always had more songs. I was under the gun at that point to get more songs. So some of hers got overlooked at the time." Another gem from Kate's pen comes from her late 60's time living in New York State with her friend Roma, and later with her new husband Loudon Wainwright III, called Saratoga Summer Song. That lost song had made quite a splash on YouTube with a live version by family friend Teddy Thompson, and finally comes to light on this set. "It's this very carefree thing," says Anna, the song happily espousing those hippy folk times of "dope and lust", when they were "nice young adults".

A year and some after Kate's death, it seems to be the time to tackle emotions and celebrate her life. In addition to the New York concerts, and the Tell My Sister collection, family friend Emmylou Harris has just released her own tribute on her new Hard Bargain CD. The song Darlin Kate puts us right in the room as she passes on, and it's impossible not to be deeply touched by the affection Harris pours on the page. It's been hard for Anna to hear it, and she couldn't listen to it at first. "When I finally put it on, I just broke down in tears. And I didn't listen to it again for awhile. Then the other night, I was listening to (CBC Radio's) As It Happens, while I was making dinner and they played a piece with Emmylou doing it, and I just broke down in tears again, right over the salad bowl. I sent Emmy an email that said there's a new ingredient in my salad tonight."

Fittingly, the beautiful elegy will be heard at the tribute shows in New York, with Emmylou there to perform it. Tell My Sister is available now from Nonesuch Records/Warner Music Canada.

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