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Sister Act

Kate & Anna McGarrigle on their continuing family affair.

The enigmatic folk music of Kate & Anna McGarrigle has a certain darkness about it. A few songs on their most recent disc, Matapedia (issued late last year on the Hannibal imprint), might be cautiously characterized as upbeat--especially "Talk About It," a beguiling ode to making love after the party's over. But there are many more moments when sentiments that might have seemed sunny in other hands turn black around the edges. Check this anti-romantic couplet from "I Don't Know": "Love...love is like a bullet in a gun/Aimed at your heart/Tears your heart apart/You scream and you bleed."

In conversation, Kate, the younger of the McGarrigle sisters, doesn't give off the sort of mysterious energy one might expect from the author of lyrics like these; she's good-natured and talkative, with a self-deprecatory sense of humor. But you don't have to dig too deeply to uncover a melancholy streak. While discussing the duo's current tour, she says, "We weren't originally going to come to Denver--it was a bit out of the way from the rest of our itinerary. But we had a cousin there who we hadn't seen in many years. We've been told that he loved our music, played our records all the time. So he was one of the main reasons we decided to come there. And then yesterday he died--he'd had quadruple bypass surgery, so it was heart failure. We feel incredibly guilty."

Another of Kate's Denver memories is less painful than mildly absurd. She and Anna, her senior by fourteen months, began singing in the Mountain City Four, a combo based in Montreal (a city Kate still calls home), during the early Sixties. When the quartet faded away toward the end of the decade, Kate began casting about for other musical accompanists and found one in guitarist/cellist Roma Baran. Together the women played old blues songs inspired by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, a Thirties-era team: In fact, they sometimes called themselves Scrapper Baran and Leroy McGarrigle. As Kate remembers it, they played one of their first out-of-town gigs in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1970. Afterward they met someone from the Denver Folklore Center who invited them to play a show there the following summer. "We decided to do it," she goes on. "So a few months later, Roma and I and a guy from San Diego--a folk singer we knew who needed a ride--headed south. I remember that we ran out of gas in the middle of a field in Iowa; Roma and this guy woke up and said, 'What on earth happened?' But we finally got to Denver and played--and although the crowd was very enthusiastic, it wasn't very large, since no one knew who we were at the time. Our joke was that we traveled 1,800 miles to make fifty dollars."

Kate's teaming with Baran wasn't destined to make much of a mark in pop-music history: She calls a good review from the New York Times for an appearance at the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival "the peak moment of a very tiny career that never really went anywhere." Still, it was an incident at a Kate-and-Roma date in Greenwich Village that autumn that ultimately caused the McGarrigle sisters to team up. The two closed their set with "Heart Like a Wheel," a song Anna had written, and the headliner, Jerry Jeff Walker, asked for a copy of the tune to give to a friend of his, Linda Ronstadt. Three years later Ronstadt used the tune as the title cut of her breakthrough album. Around the same time, Kate and Anna were asked to make a demo tape for Warner Bros. They hadn't sung together since the days of the Mountain City Four, but the layoff obviously did them no harm. Warner Bros. signed them immediately.

What followed was a string of delicate but exquisite recordings, including 1976's Kate & Anna McGarrigle, 1977's Dancer With Bruised Knees, 1978's Pronto Monto, 1981's The French Record and 1982's Love Over and Over. But while reviewers consistently raved about the sisters' efforts (Melody Maker and Stereo Review called their debut the year's best album), the sisters never achieved across-the-board commercial success. A full eight years passed between the release of Love Over and Over and 1990's Heartbeats Accelerating--and six more years elapsed prior to the arrival of Matapedia. But whereas the Eighties pause had a great deal to do with child-rearing (Kate's two kids, Rufus and Martha, were fathered by her former husband, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III), she says the Nineties have been busier than they seem at first blush.

"We were on the Private label for the Love album, but we didn't like them and they didn't like us," she says. "So we let that contract lapse. Then, in 1992, we reissued our old Warner Bros. albums on Rykodisc and talked about doing a new record, but we could never really agree on what we wanted to do. We did do some music for some film projects and a couple of musicals that have never seen the light of day. And we've toured the East Coast and England as well. But anymore, what we do isn't based on making a record a year and then touring to promote it. We don't really make a plan of how we should do things, so things tend to slow down if we don't have the answers. We do things when they naturally come together."

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