Kate McGarrigle sang in public for more than four decades, yet even in later life, when she stepped in front of a microphone, she seemed ageless. Her voice called to us from another era, and (maybe more importantly) from our dreams of other eras, when life surely must have been simpler, if no less mysterious than it is now.
She had a clear, light and yet somehow gutsy voice, and it went straight to the heart. It revealed its quiet power most of all in her own songs, such as Talk to Me of Mendocino, which seems on the surface to be about a road trip from New York to the California coast. But somewhere along the way, the focus of the trip shifts, and it's the sun we're following, as it moves inexorably over the land and away from us over the sea. The journey is really one toward knowledge, sadness and death, and also toward a simple radiant beauty: a vision of light through redwoods, a melody that comes to us with the sweetness of an old Stephen Foster song.
We tend to think of Kate almost as one entity with her sister Anna, her partner in singing and songwriting for so many years. Their voices twining together on their own records, or on those of many other eminent musicians, is one of the most distinctive sounds in popular music.
People think we sat around and everybody played the fiddle and we clogged or something, but it wasn't like that at all Kate McGarrigle
They've often been rhapsodized as a kind of living relic of Old Quebec: sheltered in a village, schooled by nuns, steeped in the folk songs of La Belle Province. Kate, an urbane and observant woman, enjoyed scoffing at that caricature.
"People think we sat around and everybody played the fiddle and we clogged or something, but it wasn't like that at all," she told me during a long lunch interview several years ago. She and Anna came from a striving middle-class family with a streak of show business in its DNA. Their father sang at intermissions in his father's movie houses in New Brunswick; their aunt played piano and wrote songs in a style reminiscent of Cole Porter; their mother spent nights as a girl translating for her grandfather at a Montreal burlesque house.
The McGarrigles came into their own during the folk-music boom of the sixties, and brought to it a much broader frame of reference than some of their more doctrinaire colleagues. Kate was a practical woman who studied engineering at McGill University, and had the knowledge and the wit to see a jaunty love song in, say, the mundane chemistry of salt. Her song NaCl is all about the seaborne tryst of a fun-loving chlorine atom with a manly bit of sodium. Typically, it harks back to an earlier type of popular music, with a naughty lilt in its step.
Kate was the more outspoken of the sisters, and it may have been her more headstrong character that led them to reject a contract offer from Warner that might have extended the glare of celebrity they got from their self-titled debut album in 1975. But part of their strength was their ability to stick to their own path, come what may.
"It hasn't been bad," said Kate, summing up her career in 2004. "In terms of the music, we've done what we wanted. I like the records we've made [mostly for Hannibal Records] I think we could have done some things a little better, been a little sharper, a bit more realistic. … Maybe our father really did discourage us as kids. Neither one of us is dying to strut onstage and be somebody, and I don't think we ever were. We like to play music, and it's fun to be loved and have people applaud you."
The McGarrigles are known and applauded internationally, but we in Canada always knew them to be a treasure native to this place. They spent most of their lives around Montreal. Their music, in both official languages, brought the two old solitudes together, and carried forward the past we're always in such a hurry to forget.
When Kate became ill, with a rare cancer called clear cell sarcoma, she reacted practically, and generously. She started a fund for research and treatment of "orphan" cancers like hers and played benefit concerts with her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright to swell its coffers.
She's gone, too early, but she's still giving, and not only through her music.