Brand building through storytelling

Kate McGarrigle on my mind

McGarriglesKate McGarrigle, the singer/songwriter who died of cancer this week at 63, was so wholly and happily bound up in my mind with her sister and partner Anna that in 30-odd years of loving their luminous harmonies I never bothered to distinguish the two. But any fan can tell that “Matapedia” is a story from Kate’s life as daughter, mother and middle-aged woman contemplating mortality. I couldn’t get Kate off my mind tonight. And so on the elliptical machine, where I usually pound away to hard-driving stuff, I couldn’t stop playing “Matapedia.”

I’ve been listening to this song, off and on, since its first appearance as the title track of a 1996 album. To the rueful strains of “Matapedia,” I’ve chopped onions, sorted laundry and hunted for missing socks.  I’ve looked out my window while the music broke over my head like a wave and a longing not yet spoken floated to the surface of my consciousness where I could finally touch it and name it. I had been drifting on memories of a younger, more impulsive self, as only those no longer young can do. The whole album rides the currents of time and change: it followed the death of the sisters’ mother, whose funeral they evoke with tenderness and grace in another track. Only the McGarrigles would sing of such a moment that they “waltzed her down the aisle.”

“Matapedia” plunges deep into another charged moment: the unexpected appearance of a lover from Kate’s youth. Seeing Kate’s 17-year-old daughter (singer Martha Wainwright), he exclaims, “Oh my god, it’s Kate!” Martha has never heard of this man, yet in the wordless way of all observant daughters, she instantly knows what’s up. In a matter of a few Alice Munro-ish minutes, “Matapedia” captures two women’s astonishment—the almost-grown daughter’s at being excluded from a secret, and the mother’s at the tug of memory, which could be any woman’s: “two kids in love in a car…flyin’ over mountains/ Trying to catch a boat that’d take ’em up river to home.”

I didn’t have a boyfriend when I was 17—just fantasies in which I too flew over mountains in a fast car after breaking curfew. I knew exactly how sexy and brave and dangerous that ride would feel. Playing “Matapedia” on my iPod, I’m there in the driver’s seat, charging ahead and counting down the minutes with Kate, racing time in a larger sense than any 17-year-old can understand. “I could not slow down ’cause I was not afraid,” the sisters sing.

The younger half of the duo, Kate McGarrigle was a woman of surprises. She studied engineering (unlike Anna, who chose art), yet as a lyricist she was a poet. She was painfully divorced from fellow singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (father of the famously musical Martha and Rufus), yet he sang with the clan and assorted friends on their album The McGarrigle Hour—a favourite of mine because has that mellow, jamming-in-the-family-room ambience that characterized the McGarrigles’ concerts. They always seemed more intent on their own pleasure in the music and one another than on charming the audience. Good for them.

Predictably, Kate’s obituaries have been trotting out that tiresome phrase “battle with cancer.” I’d say it was more of a duet. Barely more than a month ago, she and the family performed together at the Royal Albert Hall. Who knows how much effort this cost her? But Kate sang with her usual radiance, looking for all the world like an artlessly elegant matriarch who planned to stick around. She did not slow down and she was not afraid.

Click here to read my tribute to another folk icon, Mary Travers.


Posted by Rona

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