Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Kate McGarrigle RIP

Kate McGarrigle, death of a matriarch

By Neil McCormick
January 19th, 2010

Sad news today that Kate McGarrigle has passed away, after a battle with cancer. To many music listeners, she’s probably best known as the matriarch of the Wainwright clan. Married for some years to influential American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, she is the mother of popular contemporary singer-songwriters Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright.

Being head of that dynasty might be enough to earn her a place in popular music history, but Kate was a wonderful musician in her own right, recording 10 albums with her sister Anne McGariggle. The sisters had high, thin voices but they weaved around each other in such tight, flowing harmony that the effect was completely magical and bewitching. Bi-lingual Canadians, their repertoire included traditional folk in English and French, and original songs of their own (which are striking enough to have been recorded by such artists as Linda Rondstadt, Maria Muldaur, Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Alison Moorer, Emmylou Harris, The Corrs, Annie Sophie Von Otter and Elvis Costello. And even her ex-husband, Loudon).

One Kate And Anna McGarrigle album in particular occupies a special place in my heart (and record collection). ‘Entre Lajeunesse et la sagesse’ was released in 1980, and is better known to (English speaking) admirers as The French Record. My editor used to play it in the offices of Hot Press, where I worked as a 19-year-old graphic designer, and I fell in love with it. I speak only high school French, and I really have no idea what these songs are about, but the album just worked its way into my consciousness and my heart. I still have the office vinyl copy, covered in masking tape, cow gum and letraset. The songs just communicate so much that is beyond language, with simple yet zesty, organic arrangements and voices weaving in and out of each other. It is a record shot through with humour and pathos and a kind of wisdom beyond language, the kind of music that bewitches everyone who hears it, no matter what their taste. So give yourself a treat and honour the memory of a great musical artist and, perhaps more significantly, a good mother.

And how do I judge the latter? Well, following a difficult divorce, her gifted children have all taken quite hefty musical pot shots at their father (Martha on ‘Bloody Mother****ing Asshole’ and Rufus on ‘Dinner At Eight’) but have shown nothing but love to their mother. So she must have been doing something right.

I was going to end this with Rest In Peace, but somehow it doesn’t seem appropriate. So how about Rest In Music, Kate.


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  2. Awfully sad about Kate McGarrigle. She wrote some great songs.