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"We could sit and talk till words were coming out our ears"

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 24-Jan-2010 by ewencadenmoore

I’ve been sitting at the computer for a while now, trying to write this blog post. I’m reminded of something Neil said to me the other day when we were discussing the Hearsay website. He pointed out that neither of us have ever got the hang of blogging – we can’t grasp the fact that you are just supposed to freeform thoughts. We both want to write ‘finished articles’ and maybe that’s why our blog posts are so few and far between.

Anyway, there’s no way this is going to be a finished article because I’ll never get my thoughts in a coherent order, and rather than writing nothing at all I’d rather just attempt to freeform and maybe some insights will come out of it. What I want to write about is the death of the wonderful singer and songwriter Kate McGarrigle, earlier this week, when she lost her long battle with cancer. I heard the news while I was at work, and it floored me. The world has, of course, lost an extremely talented musician, but that alone couldn’t explain my reaction and my clear need to write this post. Also, it’s not as if Kate was the first of that exclusive bunch of Hearsay singer-songwriters to shuffle off this mortal coil. David McComb, Grant McLennan and, most recently, Vic Chesnutt have all left us. I never got to meet either David McComb or Grant McLennan, but Vic gave us a memorable interview, and a most idiosyncratic performer has left the building. But Kate McGarrigle was something else.

The interview Pete and I conducted with her and her sister Anna in the summer of 1997 was perhaps the most wonderful of my entire Hearsay career. It came right at the height of the magazine’s success and seemed to be the interview I had been building up to, the one where our idiosyncratic questioning technique found its match in our subjects, and the result was bizarre, slightly crazy, but full of insight and often beautiful.

More than this, however, it felt as though we were being admitted, however briefly, into that wonderful Wainwright-McGarrigle musical family. The interview took place in Kate and Anna’s hotel room, rather than some anonymous lobby or record company office, and they took most of the afternoon to just sit, chat and laugh with us about any and everything. It wasn’t really an interview, more a wonderful conversation, and I think they enjoyed it as much as we did.

The family nature of the affair was enforced when they told us about the making of the upcoming debut album by Kate’s son Rufus Wainwright, giving us a glimpse into what (although we didn’t know it then) was a career that would go on to equal, or perhaps even eclipse, that of his famous parents. They then introduced us to daughter Martha and we took her down to the Twelve Bar Club on Denmark Street, to introduce her to the proprietor, whom we knew from playing gigs there ourselves, and secured her her first solo London gig. The following day, we bumped into them all heading to their Festival Hall gig and waved a big hello.

I’m not saying all this to name-drop; simply because what I loved most about that family was the way they epitomised an honourable tradition of wandering family music-makers, a folk tradition that stretches back over centuries but is almost entirely absent from the modern commercial music world. To be admitted into that circle, however briefly, was a rare and magical privilege. Of course, back in those days, the likes of Rufus and Martha would tour with Kate and Anna during the summers, visiting folk festivals on extended holidays, and play and sing on stage together. In more recent years, especially since the diagnosis of Kate’s cancer and the burgeoning careers of Rufus and Martha, Kate would be more likely to be witnessed joining one of her children on stage to provide backing or to sing one or two of her own classic songs. The roles were reversed but the tradition, and the balance, was exactly the same.

I’m not sure Kate McGarrigle ever quite got the respect and acclaim she deserved as a songwriter and singer. In many ways, her career was overshadowed by the existence her family – her ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III, her children, the fact that she made her albums with her sister; although of course Anna McGarrigle is an equally talented songwriter in her own right. I think what I am saying is that, for Kate McGarrigle, making music wasn’t about being a star, or about ego – it was just a joyful communal activity that she happened to be exceptionally good at. The fact that her music-making happened in the public arena was almost neither here nor there, but we can all be extremely grateful that it did.

When we interviewed the McGarrigles, the subject of mortality came up quite a bit, largely because it was a recurring theme on their then-current album, Matapedia. Kate ended the interview by saying something quite wonderful, that epitomised her attitude to family and to music and to life and, I think, means that the seeds of her music, which she got from her own parents, will never die. She said, "My father died 31 years ago and my son went into his closet and found one of his sweaters – we leave our parents’ clothes hanging in the closet – and… Rufus went in and took out the sweater and said ‘hey mom, can I wear this?’ They’re wearing the clothes, they’ll see a jacket, a coat, a hat… and that’s immortality. That’s life.”

I think she was talking about more than clothes. I think she was talking about music, about songs or – even more than that – about the way that nothing ever quite ends. The way Kate McGarrigle lived is the way we all should live, doing what we love most, sharing it, passing it on, not caring for convention or what others might think. Making music is about being alive and, cliché it may be, through her music Kate McGarrigle will never die.

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