POUTINE POP #1 – Kate & Anna McGarrigle

Kate and Anna McGarrigleOriginally for midnightpoutine.ca – link

In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring music from Montreal artists of yore, attempting to bring to light those that have been long forgotten, or chronically underappreciated. As a transplant from Ontario, I’m no expert on music from this fine town, save for my vast collection of Cory Hart LPs and one Mitsou cassette. This column will be a learning experience for me. I hope it also piques your interest in the featured artists as well as your urge to walk down to your local record shop to buy their albums.

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Having said that, I’d like to completely disregard this plan for today and start the ball rolling with artists that are fairly well-known in these parts. Kate and Anna McGarrigle are, for many including myself, intrinsically linked to the city that they called home for so many years. I thought writing briefly about how I’ve been exposed to their music would be a fitting way to both start this particular Midnight Poutine series and to introduce myself to what is undoubtedly a highly intelligent and very handsome readership. Please be gentle with me, I bruise easily.

Like many young-ish adults who grew up during the era in which selections from the NFB’s “Canada Vignettes” series were inserted between episodes of Gummi Bears and M.A.S.K, I was first introduced to the music of Kate and Anna McGarrigle with their rendition of the Wade Hemsworth penned “The Log Driver’s Waltz” – a song that accompanied the animation of the same name. I have fond memories of watching cartoon log drivers bound, bob and, yes, birl down some anonymous stretch of northern Canadian white water, effortlessly wooing fetching lasses. The parents of these lasses were, no doubt, crestfallen that their daughters turned away the hordes of doctors, merchants and lawyers who came a-courtin’ (and for vulgar woodsmen with calloused hands at that!).

At the time, I had no idea who the McGarrigles were, as the extent of my musical taste started at the Thompson Twins and ended with The Fat Boys. Their medley “Protect Yourself/My Nuts,” off the album Crushin’, was an endless source of laughter and, unbeknownst to my 9-year-old self, an early introduction to sex education (what’s a condom? Who cares! He said “nuts!”).

It was three years later, watching my uncle interview Kate and Anna on CBC’s The Journal in support of the album Heartbeats Accelerating, that I became aware of their story. Born in Montreal, the sisters grew up in Saint-Sauveur where they attended a French Convent school. There they learned piano from the nuns and francophone schoolyard songs from their classmates. At home they would sing with their family all gathered around the piano. It is here they honed their ability to harmonize, backing up their parents as they took turns on ol’ chestnuts, like Stephen Foster’s “Gentle Annie.”

Returning to Montreal after high school, Kate and Anna began performing music together on the local folk circuit. Embracing both official languages, their songs mixed their charming lack of pretence with a quick wit and strong melodies – a combination that soon led to acclaim.

When Linda Rondstadt featured Anna’s song “Heart Like a Wheel” on her #1 album of the same name, the sisters’ career was off and running. The success of that album led to a record contract with Warner, who released their eponymous debut in 1975. A hit with critics and folkies alike, Kate & Anna McGarrigle pairs the sisters’ graceful songwriting with inventive arrangements to create a sound that blends Newport granola with a heaping spoonful of L.A. frosting. It was a winning combination that inspired artists, such as Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris and Judy Collins to cover various songs from the album.

Over the next 30 years, the sisters released 10 well-regarded albums, building a small but dedicated fan base. Throughout this time, numerous others reinterpreted their music to varying degrees of success. Incidentally, I was introduced to “Heart Like a Wheel” not by Ms. Rondstadt, but via Billy Bragg, the Brit trading in Linda’s buttery vocals and Kate and Anna’s dewdrop harmonies for his own dulcet timbre that suggests he’s forever getting over a slight head cold (it works quite well!).

By the early 90s, my tastes in music had expanded to include Public Enemy and Ice Cube, amongst other Hip-hop luminaries. Yet, despite my weird fixation with artists that lauded the teachings of Louis Farrakhan, their lyrics, for some reason, never resonated with my own life experiences – an amalgam of summer camp, trombone lessons and intramural soccer.

Of course, as a young boy just into his teens, the oft-adult themes of the McGarrigles were equally distant, and their music, about as cool as mom “rapping” to you and your friends that there are cookies cooling in the kitchen. Yet, in performance they emoted with such openness and clarity that I could not help but feel connected to the sentiment of their material, whether it was the infectious silliness of “NaCl (Sodium Chorlide),” or the naked desolation of “Go Leave.”

This was no more apparent than in 1997, when my parents dragged me to a Folk Alliance concert where Kate and Anna, along with a surprisingly spry Pete Seeger, were the highlight of the show (despite the efforts of an overzealous Ani DiFranco fan who, in an attempt to seduce Ms. DiFranco, jumped on stage mid-song and took her top off. Ever the consummate pro, Ms. DiFranco was able to withstand the allure of come-hither gazes and drunken gyrations).

That night, the sisters’ voices blended beautifully, as those of musical siblings often do. Anna’s birdsong soprano and Kate’s voice, grounded and strongly lyrical, were both adept at taking the lead or jumping to harmony. There was also a palpable looseness to their playing as they moved between piano, button accordion and various stringed instruments with equal fluency.

This freedom and confidence allowed their music to breathe, demonstrating an awareness in each other’s playing that seemed the product of a shared shorthand based on intuition and body language. As Kate mentions in the Journal interview, her and her sister never wanted their concerts to become mechanical and lifeless. On this night, there was never a chance of that happening (with the exception of the aforementioned gyrations).

When I moved to Montreal in 2001, I lived alone for the first time in a tiny, run-down apartment that I’m pretty sure had a small gas leak. In my combination foyer/living room, I had my office desk, a stereo and an old rocking chair that felt as though, at any minute, it was going to collapse under my weight (it eventually did). There were scarce few frills to make things homey and connect me to my family, but I had my CDs, one of which was The McGarrigle Hour.

A collection of cherished originals, pop standards and traditional folk heirlooms, the album celebrates the binding power of music performed amongst friends and family. In sharing the nitty-gritty of their musical history, the McGarrigle clan welcome you as kin, inviting you to sidle up to the piano to sing along with them, even if your voice is best kept hidden behind the shower curtain. Their warmth and frankness is comforting, their shared joys and hardships, a reminder of those of your own family.

Before my arrival in Montreal, this resonance had been most keenly felt on “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino,” Kate’s much-celebrated meditation on love and longing. After the death of a beloved aunt in 1999, its melancholy tone and soaring, sing-along bridge, proved a poignant accompaniment to a night of nursing beers and reminiscing.

In 2001, The McGarrigle Hour was a connection to the minutia and idiosyncrasies of family life that drive you crazy until you’re away from them, realizing then the significance they have to your sense of normalcy. The ability to distil these elements in song is rare and a testament to the quality of music the sisters have contributed to the popular music canon.

Kate passed away a little over a year ago and though we may be deprived of seeing her perform again with her kids and Anna, we still have a trove of songs from her and her sister that are both spirited and wise. Re-mastered editions of Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Dancer with Bruised Knees will be rereleased shortly on Nonesuch. If you’re new to their music, both albums are a great place to start. There’s also a recent collection of demos and covers, entitled Oddities, available on iTunes.

If you would like to donate to the Kate McGarrigle Fund, the proceeds of which go towards cancer research and treatment at MUHC, you can do so online, here.

photo of Kate and Anna McGarrigle taken from artist’s media page

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