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Kate & Anna McGarrigle: An Introduction Through Song

My connection with the music of Kate & Anna McGarrigle is one tinged with sadness and a sense of tragedy. I first heard of them around the mid-point of 2013, following an appearance by Martha Wainwright on the ABC’s Q&A. Wainwright spoke about her mother Kate, and about her untimely passing in 2010 at the age of 63 from a rare form of cancer that she had struggled with for years. She then performed Proserpina, the last song her mother wrote before her passing. It was incredibly moving and I quickly set about looking into the work of the McGarrigle sisters.

Ostensibly a folk duo, the McGarrigle sisters’ expansive catalogue goes far beyond what that title might imply. The sisters’ music flits between soft rock and Quebecois informed pop, synthesizer driven heartbreakers and bluegrass inspired jamborees, ragtime-esque piano pieces and traditional folk songs. Despite being a duo in name, their records are multi-instrument affairs, featuring a number of other musicians.

The first song that really hit me was Heart Like a Wheel, from their self-titled debut record (1975). Written by Anna, the song operates as a mournful reflection on the effects that the breakdown of a relationship can have on one’s soul. The song is bathed in a deep sense of tragedy and loss, given a funereal tone by the organ that hovers in the background.

They say that death is a tragedy
It comes once, and its over
But my only wish is for that deep, dark abyss
Cause what’s the use of living with no true lover?

When harm is done, no love can be won
I know it happens, frequently
What I can’t understand, oh please God hold my hand
Is why it should have happened to me?

For anyone who has experienced this kind of thing, it immediately brings to mind the thoughts and sensitivities associated with that time. The second verse above is perhaps the best amalgamation of the seeming irrationality and isolation of this mindset. Heartbreak is acknowledged as commonplace, yet one always selfishly asks why me? Even the somewhat hopeful refrain at the end, that “It’s only love”, provides no escape from these notions. Indeed, it reinforces them, because without love, you are essentially deprived of a life worth living.

The next song is a great illustration of the pure simplicity inherent in many of the McGarrigle sisters’ songs. Taken from Dancer With Bruised Knees (1977), Walking Song is a tale of longing, an imagined walk with an as yet unrequited love (or perhaps a lover who is slipping away?) and is a fine example of strong and considered songwriting by Kate. The beauty of the story lies in how straightforward it is: we’ll walk, we’ll look at houses, we’ll climb mountains, and we’ll eat and rest and discuss our lives and families. The musical arrangement is as uncomplicated as the lyrics, suitably sparse and restrained.

Despite the fact that many of the best McGarrigle songs deal with issues around loss, heartbreak and love, they also have their fair share of playful numbers. Swimming Song is a colorful ode to letting one’s hair down in the summer time. It is a classic jamboree style piece of folk music, full of banjos, violins and accordions. The joy apparent in the vocals of both sisters as they tell the listener of their swimming habits (“I did the breast stroke, and the butterfly, and the old Australian crawl”) over one summer is charming and uplifting in an odd sort of way, given the seemingly inane subject matter.

The rollicking Move Over Moon from the record Love Over and Over (1982) is the finest example of a McGarrigle penned rock song and is another illustration of the sisters’ playful side. Excusing the somewhat stuttering start, featuring a vocoder of all things, the song builds up to a honky-tonk, bar room style rocker. The song features most of the elements one would associate with honky-tonk rock and roll and is filled out by the ever-present accordion and some of the more impressive vocal harmonies that the McGarrigle sisters ever committed to tape. And that three-note bridge is very nice indeed.

Listening to this song for the first time was a big surprise. Heartbeats Accelerating (both the name of this song and the record it’s from) came out in 1990, a full seven years after the sisters’ previous release. That time off, plus having Pierre Marchand on production duties, obviously had a huge effect on them. Heartbeats Accelerating is nothing like what the sisters’ had done before. So many of the elements here should surely be out of place, yet they work so well. Such a drastic stylistic shift would be totally ballsed up by most bands or artists coming off a seven-year break, but not in this case. If you can write songs as good as this, it doesn’t really matter what style they are presented in.

Dink’s Song is an old American folk song, first recorded in 1908 by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Lomax apparently recorded a black woman named Dink singing this on the banks of the Brazos River in Texas and it has been an American folk standard ever since, famously recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Jeff Buckley. No recording comes close to the McGarrigle’s interpretation however in terms of sheer power and emotional intent.

I must admit to not being able to get through this video without tearing up a little bit. It is such a moving piece of music. The lyrics are incredible and this particular arrangement is perfect, a sort of non-stop drone emanating from all parts of the stage. However, the thing that makes me so sad when watching this is that Kate McGarrigle passed away only 9 months after this performance. That knowledge, coupled with the content of the lyrics and the fact that she is singing alongside her sister and two children just kills me. Every time.

This version, though incomplete, is even more gut wrenching and beautiful than the first. Filmed after Kate’s death at one of the many concerts put on in her honor, it takes on an even more somber tone. Seeing Martha Wainwright sing, “Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well” with tears rolling down her cheeks should make even those with hearts of stone shed a tear or two or consider the transient nature of life and the ever present spectre of death for a moment.

This is where it kind of comes full circle. I mentioned at the top that my connection with this music is one tinged with sadness and a sense of tragedy. This is because of the nature in which I found out about the McGarrigle’s in the first place; through the prism of Martha Wainwright singing Kate’s last ever song. Add to that these devastating versions of Dink’s Song, not to mention songs such as Heart Like a Wheel, and it means that listening to this music can often be melancholic and depressing. Whilst this can often be the case, listening to Kate and Anna McGarrigle is always, in some way or another, rewarding.

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