It was with shock and great sadness that I read of Kate McGarrigle’s death this morning. Hers was the music of my life. From Things That Go Pop at CBC:
The descriptors “Canadian icon” and “national treasure” are often used as lazy shorthand to refer to those artists who’ve made some sort of impact on our country’s music scene. But Kate McGarrigle was one of the awe-inspiring few who truly deserved those epithets — and then some. McGarrigle, who passed away Monday after a drawn-out battle with clear cell sarcoma (she was diagnosed with the rare form of cancer in 2006), was one of Canada’s legendary voices, a woman who celebrated and elevated the rich history of our country’s musical traditions throughout a career that spanned more than three decades.
Though Kate and sister Anna McGarrigle may have viewed themselves as “accidental” recording artists, it was clear from the outset that the pair were unique talents. Raised in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, the McGarrigles were originally introduced to French cabaret chansons, French-Canadian folk music and jazzy standards as children — their family was given to cozy group singalongs around the piano. Kate and Anna honed their own piano skills at the elbows of nuns; later, they would make a career out of performing a fresh variation on the homey, honest music of their youth in folk clubs and on recordings.
Shortly after she gave birth to son Rufus Wainwright (one of two children she had with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III), Kate and her sister were recruited to contribute backing vocals to a version of Anna McGarrigle’s Cool River that was being covered by another folk artist (Maria Muldaur). By some twist of fate, the right set of ears heard magic in those McGarrigle harmonies and offered the pair a record deal. And in 1976, Kate and Anna McGarrigle released their self-titled debut album, an enchanting collection of old-fashioned folk songs. It was immediately lauded by fans and critics. The New York Times and the music magazine Melody Maker named Kate and Anna McGarrigle one of the year’s best albums.
The album even included one tune, the arch Complainte pour Ste. Catherine, in which the two neatly encapsulated the sighs of a ’70s-era Montrealer in wry Québecois French:
“Moi, j’me promene sur Ste Catherine / J’profite d’la chaleur du métro / J’ne regarde pas dans les vitrines / Quand il fait trente en d’ssous d’zero.” (“Me, I walk along St. Catherine [street] / Getting the warmth from the Metro / I don’t look in shop windows / When it’s 30 below zero.”)
That these two unassuming sisters from Quebec could bring such an idiosyncratic tune to the largely Anglophone masses (the late English singer Kirsty MacColl even covered Complainte in 1989) is a testament to the great gifts of Kate (and Anna) McGarrigle.
Kate used her music to share her appreciation for Acadian culture and the understated beauty of folk songs, but she also instilled those same values in her children. Both Rufus and Martha Wainwright have paid tribute to their mother in their own songs. It’s not uncommon for listeners to be privy to the intimate family portraits that appear in the work of sharp songwriters who draw inspiration from their own lives, but it’s rare that we are familiar with the parties depicted in song. [more]
“Shall I nevermore behold you?/ Never hear thy laughing voice again.”
A bit more:
From Anna McGarrigle:
Sadly our sweet Kate had to leave us last night. She departed in a haze of song and love surrounded by family and good friends. She is irreplaceable and we are broken-hearted. Til we meet again dear sister. ♡
Update: From Rufus –
When inevitably I read today in the papers that my mother lost her battle with cancer last night, I am filled with an immense desire to add that this battle, though lost, was tremendously fruitful during these last three and a half years of her life. She witnessed her daughter’s marriage, the creation of my first opera, the birth of her first grandchild Arcangelo, and gave the greatest performance of her life to a packed crowd at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Not to mention traveling to some of the world’s most incredible places with both my sister, her husband Brad, my boyfriend Jorn and myself. Yes, it was all too brief, but as I was saying to her sister Anna last night while sitting by her body after the struggle had ceased, there is never enough time and she, my amazing mother with whom everyone fell in love, went out there and bloody did it. I will miss you mother, my sweet and valiant explorer, lebwohl and addio. X