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.

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.

Anna: Heartbeats Accelerating and Matapedia are a little darker than our other work. Heartbeats especially was a dark concept. At the end I was so drained I thought I'd never want to go into the studio and make a record like that again. But when we made Matapedia, it became an extension of Heartbeats, which was the nearest thing to what we've done, but with an Appalachian feel. We were brought up in a Laurentian village, but it's like a new religion, folk music, the folk revival of the '60s. You're suddenly converted to it and make it your own. It's like becoming a Buddhist. Banjos become a part of you. You think in terms of strings.

Coming after their two darkest recordings, The McGarrigle Hour's suite of show tunes, parlor songs and bring-down-the-coffeehouse numbers feels like a deep breath of whimsy and release and a redemption through family's indissoluble bonds. Blood ties may hold dark secrets, but they also give meaning to the disparate, fraying threads of our individual lives.

Kate: Many singers today are less into the idea of projecting in a living room, projecting to an audience. They're either in a coffeehouse with a microphone or a small place, where you can sing softly. It's almost like they're singing to themselves, as opposed to reaching out and singing. It's very internalized. Whereas the songs on our record, songs like, "Goodnight Sweetheart," have a very different feel. You're in a room, and someone is singing to you. They're parlor songs, made to be sung for an intimate audience in a living room.

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