Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian singer and songwriter who, with her sister Anna, recorded a string of critically acclaimed albums of literate and wistfully romantic homespun songs and then became the proud matriarch of an extended folk-rock-pop musical family, died Monday after battling cancer in recent years. She was 63.
McGarrigle died at her home in Montreal surrounded by Anna and their older sister, Jane, as well as Kate’s children, singer-songwriters Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
“There were a lot of people in the living room when she went,” Rufus Wainwright said Tuesday. “There certainly was an audience. We all sang songs. ... It was really a beautiful and very mystical thing.”
McGarrigle had been diagnosed with cancer in 2006 but with treatment had continued performing periodically. She accompanied Rufus on piano during his 2007 salute to Judy Garland at the Hollywood Bowl, then joined Martha on stage during her daughter’s headlining gig the following night at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. Rufus recently postponed an upcoming tour, citing an illness in the family when his mother’s condition started deteriorating in December.
Elton John on Tuesday called her death “a sad moment for music and for the Wainwright and McGarrigle families.”
Numerous artists recorded songs written by the McGarrigles, including Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Maria Muldaur. Ronstadt’s 1974 album “Heart Like a Wheel,” which became her first No. 1 album, took its title from the Anna McGarrigle song she recorded on that collection.
A few years later, Ronstadt recorded what became one of Kate’s best-known songs, “Talk to Me of Mendocino.”
“They were like nothing else,” Ronstadt said Tuesday. “Nobody sounded like that, nobody wrote like that. She was a complete original. ... She had this kind of bravery to her. She was absolutely unabashed — she made no apologies for the most unbridled sentimentality. But what she wrote was beautifully said, and it had an intelligent and subtle nature to it.”
The sisters wrote and sang songs plumbing the deepest crevasses of human relationships. Ronstadt said it took her several years after first hearing “Talk To Me of Mendocino” before she felt ready to record Kate’s plea to a loved one who is far removed:
Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes, I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow?
Won’t you say “Come with me?”
“The first time I heard it I was in my car, and I had to pull over to the side of the road and really boo-hoo,” Ronstadt said. “There are only a few songs that have affected me like that.”
The siblings were given a lifetime achievement award for songwriting in 2005 by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers
For most of their careers, they handled their own business affairs, avoiding a professional manager and other industry handlers that might have helped elevate them from their status as cult favorites to broader commercial acceptance. But they both had young children at the time and chose to focus more on raising their children than advancing their careers.
“We don’t have a plan,” Kate told the Ottawa Citizen in 2005. “We never had a plan. It’s worked out, and it hasn’t worked out.”
Kate McGarrigle was born Feb. 6, 1946, in Montreal, 14 months after Anna, and was raised in St. Sauveur in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec. Their parents, Frank and Gaby, grew up accustomed to music being played at home, before recorded music was widely available. They passed that tradition to their children, who took piano lessons from nuns in the neighborhood. The sisters also became fluent in French, which later yielded two albums sung in French.
Kate and Anna began singing in local coffeehouse and clubs while they were in college, where Kate studied engineering at McGill University. As a following grew for their amalgam of folk, rock, art and theater songs and cabaret, they began playing folk clubs across the border in the United States, and word of their distinctive songwriting and harmonizing began to spread. Singer Maria Muldaur included two of their songs on her debut album and further championed their music among her circle of musician friends at the time.
In recent years, Kate and Anna recorded two albums as “The McGarrigle Family,” bringing in their children, siblings and even Kate’s former husband, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who is Rufus’ and Martha’s father.
Their albums and concerts often projected an intimacy that their small but loyal audiences prized.
“They had a vibe when you went to see them,” Ronstadt said. “You felt privileged that you were invited into their living room — it wasn’t like they had gone on stage and they were performing. It was like you were invited inside this secret world they shared together. It felt like they were just continuing the conversation they’d started while they were doing the breakfast dishes that morning.”
McGarrigle is survived by sisters Anna and Jane and children Rufus and Martha Wainwright.