McGarrigle, Anna and Kate
Kate and Anna McGarrigle
First known to their musical peers for their songwriting talents, Canadians Kate and Anna McGarrigle went on to become “accidental” recording artists. Their 1976 debut album Kate and Anna McGarrigle won widespread critical praise and secured them a loyal following. Over the years, they have refined and developed their old-time, parlor-music sound built around close vocal harmonies.
Born in Montreal, Quebec to English- and French-Canadian parents, the McGarrigles grew up in the Laurentian Mountains in the village of Saint-Sauveurdes-Monts, Quebec. Theirs was a musical family that would gather around the piano and sing, allowing Kate and Anna to absorb influences as varied as Gershwin, French Canadian folk songs, Stephen Foster, and Edith Piaf. The sisters were formally introduced to music by taking piano lessons from the village nuns.
In the 1960s Kate and Anna established themselves in Montreal’s burgeoning folk scene while they attended school. Anna, two years older than Kate, studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal; Kate studied engineering at McGill University. It was at this time that they began writing songs. In 1967 they
Anna McGarrigle (born in 1944 in Montreal, Canada. Education: Attended École des Beaux-Arts, Montreal), vocals; Kate McGarrigle (born in 1946 in Montreal, Canada. Education: Attended McGill University), vocals.
Formed Mountain City Four, Montreal, Canada, 1967; released debut album, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, for Warner Bros., 1976; released Dancer with Bruised Knees, 1977, and Pronto Monto, 1978; signed with Hannibal, released French Record, 1980; released Love Over and Over on Polydor, 1983; released Heartbeats Accelerating with independent label, Private Music/BMG, 1990; appeared on CBC Variety Recordings #3, 1990; contributed to Songs of the Civil War on Columbia and Child of Mine Lullaby on Sony, 1992; returned to Hannibal/Ryko for Matapedia, 1996, and The McGarrigle Hour, 1998.
Awards: Order of Canada, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Hannibal/Ryko, P.O. Box 141, Gloucester, MA 01931-0141. Website— Kate and Anna McGarrigle Official Website: http://www.mcgarrigles.com.
formed a group called the Mountain City Four whose other members (Chaim Tannenbaum and Dane Lanken) continued to perform and record with them for years to come. The band was commissioned to write the score for the National Film Board of Canada’s Helicopter Canada.
As folk artists traveled through Montreal, they met Kate and Anna, and soon the sisters’ songwriting reputation grew. By the 1970s other artists began to record the McGarrigles’ songs. Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel” was first recorded by rock band McKendree Spring and was later put on the soundtrack of the film Play It As It Lays. The song gained its greatest exposure when Linda Ronstadt chose it as the title cut of her 1974 album for Asylum Records. By then, Kate had moved to New York and married New York singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Kate’s “Come a Long Way” appeared on his Attempted Moustache album, and both Kate and Anna sang on Wainwright’s Unrequited. It was also around this time that Kate met Maria Muldaur. This led to more of the McGarrigles’ songs being recorded. Muldaur recorded Kate’s “The Work Song” on her debut album and followed up with the McGarrigle tunes “Cool River” on Waitress in a Donut Shop and “Lying Song” on Sweet Harmony.
As Anna and Kate’s songs found their way into the repertoires of established artists, the focus turned on them to perform. “I was sitting in New York,” Kate told Larry Katz of the Minneapolis Star Tribune in March of 1997, “… married at the time to [singer/songwriter] Loudon Wainwright. My son, Rufus, was just born. I was called out to California to play on Maria Muldaur’s new album because she was doing another one of my songs. Only it wasn’t my song. It was ‘Cool River.’ I said, ‘Hey, I don’t know this song, it’s my sister’s.’ The next thing you know, Anna flew out, and they had us in a studio. We had fun doing the harmonies, but we had never sung together as Kate and Anna McGarrigle in our lives.” Within three weeks they had a record deal with Warner Bros. “We never had a plan or anything,” Anna explained to the Boston Globe’s Steve Morse. “We had no money and suddenly we had a record contract. It was all a wonderful accident.”
Their self-titled debut album was well-loved from the start and only gained in stature over time. Released in early 1976, the album introduced the McGarrigles and their unique brand of tart vocal harmonies and old-fashioned instrumentation. The songs displayed much originality and variety, ranging from heartrending tunes such as “Heart Like a Wheel” and Kate’s “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino” to the bouncy “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” Melody Maker chose it as the Best Record of the Year. William Ruhlmann called it “one of the best songwriting collections ever” in the 1997 All Music Guide, going on to state “[it was] a revelation when it was released and a classic today.”
They released two more Warner Bros, albums, Dancer with Bruised Knees in 1977 and Pronto Monto in 1978. Although neither record shone like their debut album, strong songs appeared on both and their trademark sound raised them to cult-like status with their fans. Pronto Monto was produced to sound more like conventional folk/pop to appeal to a wider audience, but it still didn’t win the support of American radio programmers. Despite critical acclaim, none of their albums sold well, and after the release of Pronto Monto, Warner Bros, dropped the McGarrigles.
Kate and Anna reemerged in 1980 with French Record on Hannibal, an album recorded entirely in French. It was a Canadian best-seller and the album that many fans, both English- and French-speaking, called their favorite. All Music Guide’s Ruhlmann described the McGarrigles as “expressively at home in the country’s other language,” and claimed “this may be the most musical of their albums.” The Rolling Stone Album Guide’s J. D. Considine called it an “intoxicating blend of pop smarts and Acadian tradition.” In 1983 Love Over and Over showcased a strong set of songs, with guest artist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits appearing prominently. Some saw the album as a return to their original style.
And then, there was silence for seven years. The delay came in part because Anna and Kate each had two children they were busy raising, but their careers also suffered from having never conformed with major label politics. In 1990 they released Heartbeats Accelerating on the independent Private Music/BMG label. Considine in The Rolling Stone Album Guide described the 1990 album as “… a heartbreakingly beautiful meditation on love and family that covers everything from the thrill of infatuation (’Heartbeats Accelerating’) to the soul-deadening mundanity of life without romance (‘I Eat Dinner’).” In 1994 Linda Ronstadt had another hit with Anna’s title track. The New York Times’ Jon Páreles described the McGarrigles’ gift at making “small events resonate with unspoken feelings,” by using a “quietness [that] allows them to write and sing about domestic events without inflating them.”
The McGarrigles’ next album, Matapedia, was not released until 1996. It had been delayed by business setbacks and entanglements rather than a lack of songs. In fact, in 1995-96 the McGarrigles composed 16 songs for a musical that was never produced. Heartbeats Accelerating had been produced by Pierre Marchand, an associate of Daniel Lanois, who experimented with synthesizers and studio electronics. “It exhausted us,” Kate told the Los Angeles Times’Mike Boehm of their artistic conflicts with Marchand. “For almost two years after that I didn’t want to go into the studio. It was done note by note, and we hated the process.” By contrast, Matapedia brought the sisters’ old-time folkiness to the foreground again, with fiddles and accordions prominent. ‘“Matapedia’ is an Indian word and the name of this railroad-junction kind of town on the New Brunswick-Quebec border,” Kate explained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Katz. “That’s the beginning of the Appalachians right there. I think of us as being kind of Appalachian.” Songs as far-reaching as Anna’s Appalachian lament “Goin’ Back to Harlan”—which was also recorded by Emmylou Harris on her Wrecking Ball album in 1995—appeared on Matapedia, as did “Why Must We Die?,” described by the Los Angeles Times’ Boehm as turning “from a stricken meditation on mortality into an oddly hopeful and comforting anthem.” The album also includes a historical tale of social resistance called “Jacques et Gilles.”
Although the McGarrigles have performed in such far-flung locations as Hong Kong, Norway, and New Zealand, most of their touring was limited to the British Isles, Canada, and the Northeast United States, where they have a loyal following. Their performances were irregular and sometimes unprofessional but always homey and intimate, making audiences feel like they were sitting with the sisters in the living room. Band members would trade instruments on stage and kid each other like they were old friends, and they often were. Kate and Anna’s 1998 release, The McGarrigle Hour, captured the warmth of their live performances and was full of family and friends. David Hinckley of the New York Daily News said, “it was such a good idea you wondered why no one had thought of doing it before.” He described the album as having “the loose feel of an old-time radio show, where all the performers just sat around singing great old songs….” Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt were among the performers who appear on the album. The songs are a mixture of original and old-time gospel or pop songs, and Hinckley described it as “a pleasure to hear.”
The McGarrigles scored several movie and television productions, appeared on Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with David Letterman, and were profiled by Canadian television. In 1998 they participated in a series of concerts that celebrated the work of Harry Smith, an eccentric filmmaker and collector of American folk music. Performers such as Brian Ferry, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, and Van Dyke Parks also participated.
In 2001 the sisters were writing new music and working on their second all-French album as well as the score for a French translation of Michael Healy’s award-winning play The Drawer Boy. As Kate watched her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright enter the music business, she and Anna seemed content to work in their long-established style with longtime collaborators such as their first bandmate, Chaim Tannenbaum. As for their lack of stardom, The Rolling Stone Album Guide’s Considine said, “… [they’re] probably the finest singer-songwriter team ever to go ignored by the American public.”
Kate and Anna McGarrigle (includes “Heart Like a Wheel”), Warner Bros., 1976.
Dancer with Bruised Knees, Warner Bros., 1977.
Pronto Monto, Warner Bros., 1978.
French Record, Hannibal (Polygram Records Canada), 1980.
Love Over and Over, Polydor Records, 1983.
Heartbeats Accelerating, Private Music/BMG, 1990.
Matapedia, Hannibal/Ryko, 1996.
The McGarrigle Hour, Hannibal/Ryko, 1998.
DeCurtis, Anthony, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, editors, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.
Erlewine, Michael, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, editors, All Music Guide, Miller Freeman, 1997.
Logan, Nick, and Bob Wooffinden, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony Books, 1982.
Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Boston Globe, April 30, 1991, p. 53.
Daily News (New York), February 12, 1999, p. 82.
Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1995, p. 5; February 22, 1997, p. F2.
New York Times, November 18, 1990, p.74.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), March 22, 1997, p. 3E.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle Official Website, http://www.mcgarrigles.com (December 6, 2001).
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