Kate McGarrigle, 63; Canadian singer-songwriter

Kate McGarrigle, left, with sister Anna, was married to Loudon Wainwright III and is the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
Kate McGarrigle, left, with sister Anna, was married to Loudon Wainwright III and is the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright. (Diane Dulude/ryko Films)
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By Emma Brown
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kate McGarrigle, 63, a Canadian singer-songwriter who performed with her sister Anna and whose plaintive songs were covered by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Maria Muldaur, died of cancer Jan. 18 at her home in Montreal.

She was the matriarch of a musical family that included her ex-husband, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, and their children, singers Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright.

The McGarrigle sisters were first known as songwriters whose compositions were covered by more established artists. Kate McGarrigle's best-known pieces included "Go Leave," "Talk to Me of Mendocino" and "I've Had Enough," the last of which appeared on a best-selling album recorded in 1987 by Ronstadt, Harris and Dolly Parton.

The sisters' self-titled debut album, released in 1976, announced them as new talents who blended folk instrumentation with homespun harmonies. They went on to record nine more albums in English and French, receiving acclaim for rootsy ballads, bilingual lyrics spun around enchanting vocals and an old-fashioned blend of accordion, piano and fiddle.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle had a gift for making "small events resonate with unspoken feelings," New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote, and they found a devoted audience. Their albums and famously warm, informal live performances often featured guests such as Harris, Mark Knopfler and family members, including Kate's two children.

Despite their position in a circle of famous musical friends, the McGarrigles retreated from stardom, refraining from one tour in the 1970s because Kate was pregnant. For a seven-year period in the 1980s when they were both raising children, the sisters released no new music, and they never hired a professional manager to oversee their affairs.

"I drive a Ford," Kate McGarrigle said in 1998. "I don't want a Mercedes."

Kate McGarrigle was born in Montreal in 1946, more than a year after Anna, and was raised an hour north in the village of Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts. They and their older sister, Jane, grew up singing the Gershwin brothers' pop standards and French Canadian folk songs with their Anglophone parents. They took their first formal music lessons from French-speaking nuns.

Kate and Anna played the coffeehouse folk-music circuit in Montreal while they were in school there, and Kate earned a bachelor's degree at McGill University. Their break came when Kate's "The Work Song" appeared in 1973 on Maria Muldaur's eponymous record, and Ronstadt chose Anna's song, "Heart Like a Wheel," as the title track on her 1974 album.

Kate McGarrigle's relationships with her ex-husband and children worked their way into her honest, personal songs, including "I'm Losing You," a letter to her grown son, and "I Eat Dinner," a bleak self-portrait of a lonely middle-aged mother eating leftover mashed potatoes with her teenage daughter:

No more candlelight

No more romance

No more small talk

When the hunger's gone.

The sisters worked hours apart during the 1970s while Kate was married to Wainwright and living in New York. But for much of their careers, Kate and Anna lived within a 90-minute drive of each other, sharing the intimate details of everyday life that drove their music.

Besides her children and her sister Anna, of Alexandria, Ontario, survivors include another sister, Jane McGarrigle of Montreal; and a grandson.

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