Tributes will celebrate Kate McGarrigle’s career

Nick Patch
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Kate (left) and Anna McGarrigle speak to reporters in Montreal in 2004. Anna McGarrigle says her late sister wished for more widespread prominence in her music career. — File photo by The Canadian Press

Anna McGarrigle says her dearly departed sister, folk singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, wished for more widespread prominence in her music career.

So the elder half of the esteemed pair hopes tributes like the multi-disciplinary programming planned at this year’s Luminato help spread the word of Kate McGarrigle’s achievements.

“In some ways, I think she wished she had made more of an impact,” Anna McGarrigle said in a recent telephone interview.

“I think she would have liked to have had more notoriety.”

Luminato — which begins Friday and runs through June 17 — is doing its part to toast the legendary songwriter, who died of cancer in January 2010 at the age of 63.

On Friday, Anna McGarrigle will discuss her sister with Booker Prize-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje at a lunchtime session at David Pecaut Square in Toronto.

On June 13, the arts festival will screen Lian Lunson’s documentary “Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You,” which chronicled the all-star tribute held in Kate McGarrigle’s honour at New York’s Town Hall Theatre.

And finally, June 15 will mark the third such charity concert (proceeds go to the Kate McGarrigle Fund, created to further sarcoma research), with a heady lineup of musicians — including Emmylou Harris, Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith and Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew — on hand at Massey Hall to salute her life and work alongside Kate’s family, including her sisters (Anna and Jane) and children (Martha and Rufus Wainwright).

In fact, Anna McGarrigle said it was her sister’s devotion to her family that might have kept her musical profile from soaring to the heights of her peers.

The McGarrigles created such well-loved tunes as “The Work Song,” “Cool River” and “Lying Song,” as well as the distinctive rendition of Wade Hemsworth’s “The Log Driver’s Waltz” that was featured in an iconic 1979 animated short by the National Film Board.

Yet while her sister was invested with the Order of Canada, received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and saw her songs covered by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello and Judy Collins, Anna McGarrigle says she always prioritized motherhood over her career.

“It was very difficult, for one thing, being a woman performer, but also trying to raise children — and (trying to) make sure that you don’t have (screw-ups) by the end of it,” she said.

“She was very conscious of that. Because my mother and father, they were always around for us. So she tried to be around as much for her kids, or else take them with her whenever she could.

“So when you’re not giving 100 per cent to your career, then of course you’re not going to be known by the entire world.”

Still, as lovingly depicted by her sister, Kate McGarrigle didn’t seem to spend much time worrying about her relative position in the music world.

McGarrigle remembers the way her sister — who nurtured a passion for maps and geography — insisted on planning their tours and often handling the driving, pointing out drumlins and moraines as they cruised.

She remembers how Kate loved to stay up all night talking, “plumbing the depths of people” after a few glasses of wine, an experience that actually inspired Harris to write a song.

And she remembers how Kate relished performing even when wracked with pain in her later days, when the stage provided the only respite from a disease she spent years fending off.

“When she was onstage, I don’t think she could feel any pain,” Anna McGarrigle said, before clarifying. “I’m not saying she didn’t feel the pain, but I’m just saying she forgot about all that stuff when she was onstage.

“If anybody deserved to live, it was her,” she added. “She loved life, this woman, she was never depressed. I think she just always knew that she had one kick at the can and this was it, and she took every opportunity to bite into the apple of life, for better or worse. She was like that. I’ve always been much more cautious.”

Anna McGarrigle says tributes like those taking place at Luminato were initially difficult to get through.

She was moved to tears during the first — held at London’s Royal Festival Hall, months after Kate’s death — an occasion which marked the first time Anna performed onstage without her younger sister by her side.

At the time, her sister’s death was still too close.

“I have to say that during the whole time that she was ill, I only wanted to be in one place — I just wanted to be with her, all the time, at the hospital, wherever,” she recalled.

“It’s almost like we could overcome all this stuff. Until reality sort of kicked in about a month before. And then I think we both realized she wasn’t going to get out of this. And then I just, I fell apart at the same time. I couldn’t be a hero anymore.”

Those feelings are a little more distant for Anna McGarrigle now, and she says subsequent tributes have been less emotionally draining.

She’s used to answering questions about her sister patiently and thoughtfully, as she does on this day and will do at Luminato. And she’s hopeful that the magnitude of her sister’s accomplishments will only grow over time.

“I’m not the first one to say it — my sister was a genius,” she said. “She was really original and a wonderful musician and a great songwriter.

“It’s hard being a genius,” she adds with a laugh, “when you’re surrounded by mere mortals.”

Organizations: Kate McGarrigle Fund

Geographic location: Toronto, New York, Canada London

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  • Loretta Murphy
    June 08, 2012 - 07:18

    I love the music of Kate and Anna..and Rufus of course!! I stumbled upon several CD's in Calgary while visiting my sons! They are near and dear to me and the lyrical content of each one is just awe-inspiring.."I eat dinner at the kitchen table with my daughter who is ......." I miss Kate and her Brilliance!!! :) Loretta M