For this month’s article in our “I Write The Songs…” series, Tim Martin steps up to tell us about the Canadian sisters who started their outstanding musical careers crafting songs for others to sing.
While their first album, ‘Kate & Anna McGarrigle’ didn’t appear until 1976 the Canadian sisters had been writing songs for others for most of a decade by then. While history looks set to remember them as performers, they always saw themselves as songwriters first.
After college in their native Quebec, the sisters went their separate ways for a while, with Anna studying engineering while Kate formed a folk duo with Roma Baran, who would go on to become a producer, notably for Laurie Anderson. Having moved to New York and started working on the Greenwich Village folk circuit Kate was meeting singers who would influence the course of both sisters’ careers. Kate was including songs written by Anna back in Montreal in her sets at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. These included ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ which Linda Ronstadt would cover in 1974 on her final Capitol records album. That song was originally recorded in 1972 by New York Folk-Rock band McKendree Spring and has been regularly covered since then by artists as diverse as June Tabor, Billy Bragg, and The Corrs.
Loudon Wainwright III, who became Kate’s husband in 1970, recorded her song ‘Come a Long Way’ for his 1973 album ‘Attempted Mustache’. In an interview with AUK last year, Maria Muldaur described the McGarrigles as “songwriting stars” from her days on the same Greenwich Village folk scene. Muldaur recorded Kate’s ‘The Work Song’ for her first album, and ‘Cool River’, a song that Anna had written with another Canadian songwriter Audrey Bean, on ‘Waitress in a Donut Shop’. By the time Ronstadt and Muldaur’s versions of their songs were appearing on record the McGarrigle’s had been signed to Warner Brothers, on the strength of their songwriting contributions for other artists, to produce their own record.
Joe Boyd who produced the first two Kate & Anna McGarrigle albums described meeting Kate on his website, and the sisters’ transition from writers to performers: “I met her in the mid-Seventies because Maria Muldaur, whose first album I was producing, wanted to sing Kate’s “Work Song”. When Maria was ready to make her next album, Kate sent her a demo of songs. We picked one called “Cool River”, with delicious, earthy-but-ethereal harmonies I assumed were Kate double-tracked. We invited her out to Los Angeles to add them to Maria’s version and she asked if she could bring Anna. I approved the extra ticket thinking she needed help with the baby. But that unforgettable day in the studio they all turned up, Kate and Anna stood around the piano with Maria and sang while Rufus kept quiet in a basket in the corner.”
The demos that Boyd describes and on which their songwriting careers were based appeared in 2011 as part of the album ‘Tell My Sister’ following Kate’s death from cancer the previous year. The demos reveal a lot about the McGarrigle’s approach to songwriting with the evolution of songs like ‘Heart Like Wheel’ set out plainly. There are two demo versions, one recorded in 1974 and an earlier version from New York in 1971. Ronstadt clearly heard the 1974 version as she recorded the first half of the song almost identically. The McGarrigle’s own take from their first album has evolved again with banjo and organ replacing the piano, and changes in the phrasing of the verses, something closer to the earlier demo.
Those first two Kate & Anna McGarrigle albums have become reference works, particularly for those singers like Ronstadt and Muldaur who are more interpreters of songs than writers themselves. ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’ has enjoyed a similar life to ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ and has changed with each new voice that has sung it. From Ronstadt to Norah Jones and Bette Midler, the arrangements have shifted but the core of the song remains largely similar to the demo versions from the early seventies, before the sisters’ career as performers had really begun.
Emmylou Harris had regularly recorded their songs since the late eighties. When she started writing more of her own material at the turn of the century, she worked extensively with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, especially on the album ‘Stumble into Grace’. Here they contributed, along with another sister Jane, to several songs. Harris said of their work together. “Any chance I had to be in their company, to be able to collaborate with them was wonderful. Some of the few songs I wrote over my career, I was lucky enough to write it with them. ”
Joe Boyd’s description of Kate McGarrigle from his obituary for her sums up the unmistakable style of their music. “Her songs are smart, romantic, cynical, tuneful, and deeply rooted in the traditions she loved”. The mark of truly great songwriters is that an artist can take the raw material and make it their own, without losing the unique identity of the writers. The McGarrigles’ songs can be sung by nearly any singer. The lyrical content is only ever theirs but the singer always has space to put their own interpretation on the tune. That Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s songs are strong enough to support singers as diverse as Muldaur, Rufus Wainwright and Bette Midler puts them firmly in the front rank of songwriters.
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