The McGarrigles: heartbeats forever.

Author:Bach, Caleb
Position:Canadian folk duo - Interview

After more than two decades as one of Canada's most popular folk duos, these sisters are still on track with their highly emotional lyrics and lively melodies

Making it in the pop music field is a tough racket. You're on the road a lot, the gigs you play are late at night, work isn't always steady, and some of the venues can be quite rummy. In the studio men still mostly run the show, which puts women at a disadvantage. If these women also are trying to raise a family, well, that can be a formula for disaster. Then there's the challenge of survival and maintaining one's artistic integrity in a fickle field controlled by a recording industry largely concerned with style over substance. Performers are a commodity to be crassly peddled - one brief, bright flash after another, all in the name of the holy bottom line. Musical trends may come and go but, unfortunately, people's lives go on.

Thus, it is nothing short of miraculous that Kate and Anna McGarrigle, two Quebecois sisters now in their fifties, have remained one of Canada's most durable exports for some twenty years. Their folk music, some traditional, much of it jaunty folk rock, remains honest and fresh as it talks about displaced families, kids leaving the nest, the death of a parent, love affairs gone awry. The McGarrigles continue to enjoy a remarkably loyal cult following in the Americas and Europe precisely because they've never sold out to commerciality. From the beginning they listened to their hearts, and they still do, as both we and they grow older.

The McGarrigle sisters (there is a third sister, Jane, who only briefly pursued music) grew up in Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts, Quebec, today a ski resort in the Laurentian Mountains, east of Montreal. Both parents played a decisive role in shaping their daughters' values and career. Mother Gaby served as personal secretary to Sam Bronfman, cofounder of the Seagrams distilling empire. She also played violin in the Bell Telephone Orchestra.

"She went to Europe on her own, took cruises, had a tailor, didn't marry until her thirties: a completely modern woman," Kate recalls. "But the music, mostly that came from our father, Frank, an Irishman from New Brunswick who was a purchasing agent for the outfitting of ships being built in Canada for the war effort in Europe," Anna says. "He was a wonderful accompanist on the piano, even though he couldn't read music. He played everything in B flat. He taught us to sing, harmonize, and play different instruments when we were just four and five: musical freaks! We were very different from our friends. They had riding lessons, and we learned to sing!"

When their father died in 1958, the girls and their mother moved to Montreal because there was no high school in Saint-Sauveur. Almost immediately the sisters fell under the spell of the folk music boom in the United States: Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan. Soon the girls were performing at local coffee houses, college halls, and occasional folk festivals. Later they attended McGill University (Anna in art, Kate in science), but after graduation they parted ways. Kate moved to New York State, where she performed by herself; Anna stayed behind in the Montreal area to paint and write songs.

In the early 1970s things began to jell as the two sisters got back together to perform periodically, sometimes singing their own material. "At the Gaslight in New York we were opening for Jerry Jeff Walker," Kate recalls, "and he heard Anna's 'Heart Like a Wheel,' and he said he'd like to get that for Linda Ronstadt." Ronstadt's rendition of the song and the album of that title ultimately rose to number one on the U.S. pop charts, and with it came a growing international reputation for the McGarrigles. The song itself with its melancholy, wistful mood "and its kind of a piney sound" (Anna's phrase) tugged at the heartstrings of listeners and became a standard in the United States and Canada.

On the heels of that success, other...

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