Parlor Secrets

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

Loudon: The recording really was loose. The two days I was there, we just sat around thinking, "What can we do?" We'd try some songs, then we came upon "The Baltimore Fire." We faxed down to people for the lyrics, because we weren't sure of them. And then in two hours after the discussion it was recorded. One of the great things about the record is that it's not labored. These are songs we've been singing for maybe 30 years, and so the preparation was done way ahead of time.

The album begins with "Schooldays," an autobiographical song by Loudon Wainwright: From the secret life of one boy at St. Andrew's boarding school, the song, through tripartite duo harmonies and surging guitar riffs, is transformed into the coming of age of nearly every voice on the album. The family extends to include friends and fellow travelers like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Chaim Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum's vocal and instrumental accompaniment, especially, has been a long-standing part of their musical world.

Anna: People probably wondered what happened to Chaim. We always thought he was going to make a record, but he didn't. He's been writing for some 15 years, and I hadn't heard anything till we were in the studio. He's that kind of person. I'd never heard Chaim sing his own songs. Years ago he played this Dylanesque song, and I thought it was his, but he said, no, no, that's an old so-and-so song. I never believed him. That was a pleasant surprise, to discover his songwriting.

Loudon: In London, this would have been '70 or '71, we used to go down to the Portobello Road on Saturdays. Kate would play the fiddle, I'd play guitar, Chaim would play banjo. We'd do "The Baltimore Fire" or "If I Lose," an old Charlie Poole song, or "Weave Room Blues," just old folk songs. We did quite well. We weren't real buskers, though. I had a record contract; I had made my first album, and Chaim was a college student. The serious buskers got wind that we were using up a spot, what's called over there a pitch, a place where you work or play. Musically we cut it, but we weren't the real thing. There were some vibes like, who are these interlopers, dilettantes, or worse, professionals? Chaim is a secret. I love the fact that Chaim gets a song and sings lead on this record. He's not a professional musician, he's a philosophy teacher, but he's an amazing musician.

Hearing these voices all come together for the first time sounds natural and inevitable, as if underneath their ranging styles lies a shared temperament or personality. Rufus Wainwright, especially, singing along with his mother and father and sister, sounds at home, even though the four of them had never sung together before.

Kate: We never did sing together before. Loudon and I split up when Martha was only a month old. And then I moved to Montreal. They would spend summers with him. They sang with me and with him, but not all of us together. Rufus said, "I want to sing a song with my parents. I've never done that." He was pretty feisty, had just finished recording in LA: He was chirpy and powerful. We weren't sure if Loudon wanted to do it, but he did, and with good grace.

Loudon: Some people say Rufus sounds like me, the tone and timbre, but Rufus is his own. I don't know if the gypsies brought him, maybe he just came from outer space. I know he was influenced a lot by Kate. He has his own gift, unto itself. Talking about influence, I've just written a song; the way I sing it and wrote it, I feel like I was shaped by Rufus and his record. He's also a major force.

Anna: One year when Rufus was home from boarding school, we played him some operatic arias by this Swedish tenor. He went back to school and in the space of a year he'd taught himself every opera, just on headphones. That's why he sings the way he sings.

The way Kate and Anna sing is something else entirely. In popular music, their harmonies have no clear counterpart. The Carter Family is a clear influence, but Kate and Anna sing beyond closeness: They refract notes against each other in weirdly contorted angles, yet the effect is sweet and dreamlike; pain and pleasure fuse together. After two decades of slow, savoring recording, they released Matapedia, their last album of new material and their greatest record -- and their darkest and loneliest.

Kate: We were rediscovering our folkness and what I'd call the Appalachian sound. The town of Matapedia is right at the start of the Appalachians, near Quebec. The area is all railroading, mining, poor Celtic people, a lot of fishing and hunting. There's a feeling of white gospel music that puts the fear of God into you, a sound derived from bluegrass but it's not bluegrass. When the British won that area against the French in 1760 or whatever, they put the Irish there so they would kill the rest of the Indians. That's what I'm hearing in the music, a kind of ferocious, oddly beautiful, scary thing. It's not even what the songs are about but the atmosphere, the way you put your voice.

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