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."
Clearly, Matapedia did: Among its best tunes are "Goin' Back to Harlan," which Emmylou Harris covered on her brilliant disc Wrecking Ball, and the title track, which was inspired by an encounter Kate's daughter Martha had with a man her mother hadn't seen for many years. "At the time, Martha was in college and she'd dyed her hair black, so that she looked quite a bit like me when I was her age," Kate says. "It's the kind of resemblance parents see when their children reach their full growth, and it can be a bit frightening. Well, when she came home from school, she told me about this man and how he looked at her as if he'd seen a ghost. And when she described him to me, I said, 'That was my boyfriend when I was your age.' Actually, we were supposed to get married, but I couldn't slow down. I didn't want to become the wife of a professor. I wanted to go on and do...this. Why, I don't know, but I did."
Martha would likely have made the same decision. She's studying theater at Concordia University and appearing in Montreal clubs, where she sings her own songs and plays guitar. Her brother, Rufus, 23, is a step further along the music-business food chain: He was signed to Dreamworks, part of the Steven Spielberg-David Geffen-Jeffrey Katzenberg entertainment conglomerate, by Lenny Waronker, the man who inked his mother and aunt to their first contract at Warner Bros. His first album will likely appear in stores later this year, and Kate couldn't be prouder. She never tried to dissuade him from becoming a musician because, she says, "it wouldn't have done any good. He started doing these sorts of creative things when he was two. My favorite anecdote about him goes back to when he applied to go to a music camp, and after he gave me his application, I noticed that he put down his height as 'five feet twelve.' And I thought, should I correct this or just let it go?" She laughs. "But he just doesn't think about those things. He's so totally focused on what he's doing artistically that I don't think he knew there were twelve months in a year until he was 22. But that's one of the reasons I love him."
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The relationship between Kate and Anna is just as relaxed and affectionate--although it took a while to achieve this status. "With women, there's competition, especially when men are involved," she says. "Women tend to fight with each other more than men. They're more bitchy. But after a while--when we were in our early thirties, I'd say--we were able to recognize just how much we complement each other. She has attributes that I don't have, and I have attributes that she doesn't have. And our voices have always worked together. When we were growing up, we would sing harmony and somebody else would sing lead, so there's not a lot of ego in our voices. I suppose we're like the Everly Brothers in that way.
"Sometimes we get on each other's nerves. We stay in the same room when we're on tour to save money, and if one of us is starting to bother the other, we'll speak up. But we always know we're there for each other. And in this life, that's the most important thing."
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, with Geoff Muldaur and Stephen Bruton. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 1, Boulder Theater, 2030 14th Street, $12-$14, 800-444-