Parlor Secrets

Kate and Anna McGarrigle gather family and close friends to create a recording built on deep bonds and memories

Family forms our first community and gives birth to our first lies, first loves, first dreams. We never escape it. If we're lucky, we simply won't be haunted by it. Some even manage to make something new out of those unconditional affections and fears. Two sisters, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Canadian-born singers, songwriters, folk renovators and revivers, have done just that. Drawing on the deep bonds of family and the equally deep bonds of remembered songs, The McGarrigle Hour (Hannibal/Rykodisc) places husbands and wives (and in the case of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright, ex-husbands and wives) with sons and daughters, brothers and sisters -- and documents just what is revealed when they all make music together. But as a sister recording team, Kate and her older sister Anna have dabbled in familial experiments throughout their careers. The McGarrigle Hour extends the tension and harmonies they've been exploring since the 1970s.

I talked separately with Kate, Anna and Loudon in three telephone interviews.

Kate: If you put a southern pole next to a southern pole, they're going to repel each other. If you put it toward a northern it's going to start attracting. But the closer they are to each other, the more they'll repel. I remember this guy explaining this about his children. It got to the point with his fraternal twin daughters that he had to put them in different schools in different towns. Identical twins, of course, have to be together. In families when you have a year-or-two difference, once a personality is established and the parents deal with that personality and the kid with the parents, the child who comes later takes on the opposite traits, in order to get the attention from the parents. All the individuals in a family, though they come from the same gene pools, come out differently because they're seeking a place, looking for that light. Even though Anna and I are only 14 months separate, we're very different.

Anna: There was some sibling rivalry. Because I was in the middle, I was the quietest. Kate was the youngest and required a bit more attention. Janey, who was the eldest, had gotten the attention and was more sure of herself. Kate and Janey smashed guitars over each other's heads more than I did. Janey was three-and-a-half years older; Kate is only about a year younger than I. Our parents treated us like twins. We wore the same clothes, identical outfits. Our mother had fun with that. We slept in the same room. We shared boyfriends, but not at the same time, of course. We liked the same boys; they liked us. Then in the '60s we sang together in this folk group the Mountain City Four. Working with Kate, it's almost like a marriage. When you're sisters and you work together and are each other's best friends, it's almost an exclusive relationship. It makes it difficult to have another life apart from it. We both found this out, but there's nothing we can do about it. It's like Siamese twins without having the operation.

The McGarrigle Hour assembles familiar and unknown voices and songs, songs like secrets, which, of course, are the deepest truth of any family. Songs by Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin, an obscure Jesse Winchester tune, songs by Rufus and Martha Wainwright (the children of Kate and Loudon), musty Sing Out! traditionals -- the songs and arrangements weren't mapped out but rather appeared, materialized the way memories and stories will whenever a family comes together, whenever you put dissimilar yet intricately bound personalities together in a small space.

Kate: Joe Boyd, who produced our first two records for Warners, said he'd like to make a live record, not of our best songs but rather a record that sounds live with a different concept, different people, getting whoever we wanted involved. Some of our kids were starting their own recording careers, and Joe also recommended Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt and Loudon. I asked Joe, "What should we put on the record? How should we plan it?" He said, "Let's not plan anything. Let's get everybody there and see what happens." We did the whole recording in about a week. We just started going down lists of songs. Emmylou brought a tape and said, "I always wanted to sing in French with you. Let's do 'Porte en Arriere.'" The others would wait in the wings playing pool. Joe would say, "Well, they're almost done in there. Anybody got ideas for another song?" They'd say, "Ahh! I always liked such and such, can we try that?" These were songs everybody was familiar with. They may have heard their parents do it, or in coffeehouses. There wasn't much, "Let me teach you this song." It was more, "Oh, yeah, I remember that one!" Because everyone knew the songs, they could be comfortable. Something like "Green Rocky Road," that was my idea. "Does anybody remember that corny song from the '60s, the one Dave Van Ronk did in the coffeehouses?" And, of course, everybody remembered.

Anna: Making this record gave us the opportunity to do, you know, the garage-band version of whatever. When you're working with young people, they bring different arrangements. Kate and I will be very picky; somebody's gotta cover this note or that note, and Rufus and Martha have their own way. It's nice to have that youthful quality. If you only put your ideas into things, it gets very closed, closeted. That's what I loved most about the record: the young people who have different ways.

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