Singer-songwriter and head of a musical dynasty, who was treasured for her elegant and elegiac records
KATE McGARRIGLE, who died on Monday, aged 63, after a long battle with cancer, was an outstanding singer and songwriter whose gentle sensibility was an endearing feature of contemporary folk music for over three decades.
Kate McGarrigle's partnership with her younger sister, Anna, was notable for melancholy songs and tender harmonies. It established the duo as unlikely stars in the Seventies and, despite the fact they toured infrequently while raising families, their popularity endured.
Recently, Kate McGarrigle's fame has been burnished as Rufus and Martha Wainwright -- her children with the singer Loudon Wainwright III -- became major stars for a new generation. As recently as December last year, Kate -- looking frail but otherwise in good form -- played with Rufus, Martha and various other family members and friends at a cancer charity concert at London's Royal Albert Hall. It was there she unveiled a moving new song, Proserpina, which proved to be one of the highlights of the night. It was her last performance.
Kate McGarrigle was born in Quebec on February 6, 1946. Her father, Frank McGarrigle, was an Irish pianist and her mother, Gabrielle, a French- Canadian classical violinist. Kate and her sisters Anna and Jane were raised in the village of Saint-Sauveur.
Originally taught piano by local nuns, she was also playing banjo, guitar, accordion and various other instruments by the time she left home to study engineering at university in Montreal.
Her sister Anna was in the city at the same time studying art, and they started singing together on the lively Montreal folk circuit, forming a group, the Mountain City Four, with Peter Weldon and Jack Nissenson.
But it was only after moving to New York and making her mark on the Greenwich Village folk scene that her songwriting blossomed and her career began in earnest.
It was also there that she met and embarked on a tempestuous relationship with Loudon Wainwright III, the subject of some of her most emotional songs, such as Go Leave, Kiss and Say Goodbye and Blues In D. They married in 1971, just as Wainwright's career was taking off and Kate and Anna's songs were gaining wider currency.
With their profiles growing, Warner Brothers offered Kate and Anna a record deal as a duo. Their debut album, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, was fraught with problems, as producers disagreed over whether they should be tailored as a folk or pop act. It was eventually released in 1975 to ecstatic reviews.
Named Melody Maker album of the year, it is now regarded as a classic. Subsequent albums Dancer With Bruised Knees (1976) and Pronto Monto (1978) followed a similarly whimsical style without matching the success of their debut and, with two small children and a bitter break-up with Wainwright to contend with, Kate McGarrigle avoided the limelight. When they did play live, McGarrigle shows tended to be entertainingly informal and quirkily shambolic. Fans loved their unconventional, unsophisticated honesty, which they regarded as an antidote to the big production onslaughts favoured by most rock bands at the time.
They were dropped by Warner Brothers and, in what they originally regarded as self-indulgence, collaborated with the Canadian poet Philippe Tatartcheff on the 1980 album Entre la Jeunesse et la Sagesse. Sung entirely in French, it made no commercial sense at all, yet its rootsy feel and rich harmonies proved a hit with even non-French-speaking audiences. It went on to become one of their most successful albums.
Subsequent recordings were sporadic but Love Over and Over (1982), Heartbeats Accelerating (1990) and Matapedia (1996), showed they had not lost their touch for beautiful songs, often depicting the highs and lows of family life. The latter included the song Why Must We Die? "We have eyes and intuition/A DNA code and a name/Some tend to logic, some superstition/We have an aura and a frame/Why must we die?"
The later emergence of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, neither of whom were averse to writing about their family (Rufus's Beauty Mark is a tribute to his mother), inevitably attracted more interest in the musical dynasty.
There was even a reunion of sorts with her former husband when he joined her on The McGarrigle Hour (1998), a family record concept that was revived in 2005 with The McGarrigle Christmas Hour.
Kate McGarrigle took great pride in the success of both Rufus and Martha, regularly joining them on stage.
She was diagnosed with clear cell sarcoma in 2007, and founded the Kate McGarrigle Fund cancer charity in 2008. She remained characteristically warm, funny and resolute to the end. She is survived by her former husband and their two children.