TORONTO — Internationally acclaimed folk singer Kate McGarrigle, best known for performing with her sister Anna, is being remembered as a seminal songwriter who leaves behind a timeless catalogue.
McGarrigle died at her Montreal home Monday night after a battle with cancer. She was surrounded by her sisters, Jane and Anna, and her children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, said her brother-in-law, Dane Lanken. She was 63.
“She departed in a haze of song and love surrounded by family and good friends,” read a posting on the sisters’ official website attributed to Anna McGarrigle.
“She is irreplaceable and we are broken-hearted.”
Kate and Anna, known as the McGarrigle Sisters, began their careers performing at Montreal coffeehouses in the 1960s with a group called the Mountain City Four.
The sisters got their break in the 1970s, when Linda Ronstadt used their Heart Like a Wheel as the title track on her 1974 chart-topping album. Their songs were also covered by numerous other artists, including Judy Collins, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg and Emmylou Harris.
But the McGarrigle sisters are perhaps best-known to Canadians for their distinctive rendition of Wade Hemsworth’s The Log Driver’s Waltz, which was featured in a beloved 1979 animated short done by the National Film Board.
Canadian singer-songwriter Sylvia Tyson said McGarrigle will be sorely missed.
“It’s like getting kicked in the gut, you know? It’s dreadful,” Tyson said Tuesday.
“I was a great admirer of her work and of her writing. . . (She leaves) a great legacy of songs and of recordings that are timeless.”
“Very sad,” author Margaret Atwood tweeted after learning of McGarrigle’s death.
Born in Montreal, the McGarrigle Sisters grew up in the Laurentian Mountains village of Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts, Que. There, they learned to play piano from the village nuns.
In 1975 they made their first record, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, which brought them critical acclaim. It was selected as one of the best albums of the year by London’s Melody Maker and the New York Times.
Some of their most well-known tunes included The Work Song, Cool River and Lying Song.
“In many respects, they helped keep the bar high when it comes to songwriting,” Borealis Records co-founder Bill Garrett said from Montreal. The Canadian folk musician met the McGarrigle Sisters in the early 1970s.
“They just kept a very strong sense of melody alive in the music they made and something we can all learn from as songwriters.”
While the McGarrigles were often categorized as folk or Americana, their music was a pastiche pulled from a variety of genres.
In fact, the McGarrigle Sisters once cited opera, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and French-Canadian hymns as their influences, while Garrett points out that the sisters grew up in the glow of Stephen Foster’s hearth-side ballads.
McGarrigle’s lyrics were evocative and wry but often plain-spoken and grounded in real life. On 1990’s “I Eat Dinner,” later covered by Sarah McLachlan, McGarrigle sings of lonely meals as a single woman, eating a supper of mashed potatoes and leftovers with “no more candlelight, no more romance.”
Her relationship with Loudon Wainwright was among the most famous partnerships in folk music. The couple wed in 1971 (McGarrigle reportedly wore black) and separated later in the decade. Wainwright memorably touched on the breakup in “Your Mother & I,” a song addressed to the couple’s children, both of whom have successful music careers of their own.
“And I hope when you grow up, one day you’ll see,” he sang. “Your parents are people, that’s all we can be.”
The sisters’ take on the jovial “The Log Driver’s Waltz” has ingrained their voices in the minds of a generation of Canadians. The animated version of the song, about a young girl who loves to dance and chooses to marry a log driver, was broadcast on television through the ’80s.
The film’s director and animator John Weldon says Kate and Anna McGarrigle had been performing the song for years by the time he suggested they collaborate on the vignette, and recalls a jovial atmosphere when everyone gathered to record the song at a studio in the late ’70s.
“Everybody there, all the musicians were all people who’d known each other since high school,” Weldon said Tuesday from Montreal.
“(There was) mostly a lot of horsing around and joking, you know. And having a great deal of confidence in what everyone can do. . .
“(The McGarrigles brought) a very strong sense of arranging things in such a way that they still have a very down-home folky quality. You can imagine it being sung on a back porch.”
The McGarrigles sang many of their songs in French, which Quebec Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre said Tuesday won the duo fans in their home province.
“They were Anglos, in the middle of many people who were singing in French,” she said. “And they were interested in singing in French and to show to francophones in Quebec that English people were interested in our culture, and our identity.
“They feel part of the identity of Quebec.”
Kate McGarrigle was invested with the Order of Canada in 1994. The sisters received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2004.
St-Pierre last saw McGarrigle attending one of Rufus Wainwright’s shows in Montreal.
“She seemed very proud,” she recalled.
Lanken said McGarrigle had been battling cancer since the summer of 2006. The cancer started in her small intestine and spread to her liver, he said.
Garrett saw McGarrigle during the holidays in Montreal and said she was in “great spirits.” In general, he said she carried a special presence.
“I found Kate feisty, warm, opinionated — but always with a good opinion,” said Garrett, who says he recorded the McGarrigle Sisters a few times in concert for CBC-Radio.
“Very seldom could I ever disagree with her. We had several conversations about music of one kind or another, and when I say opinionated, she was thoughtful and I thought she had well-formed opinions, let’s put it that way.
“I think she always had a very good idea of how she wanted her and their music presented and produced.”
– With files from Cassandra Szklarski, Victoria Ahearn and Andrea Baillie