R.I.P. Kate McGarrigle

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | 11:35 AM ET

The descriptors "Canadian icon" and "national treasure" are often used as lazy shorthand to refer to those artists who've made some sort of impact on our country's music scene. But Kate McGarrigle was one of the awe-inspiring few who truly deserved those epithets -- and then some. McGarrigle, who passed away Monday after a drawn-out battle with clear cell sarcoma (she was diagnosed with the rare form of cancer in 2006), was one of Canada's legendary voices, a woman who celebrated and elevated the rich history of our country's musical traditions throughout a career that spanned more than three decades.

Though Kate and sister Anna McGarrigle may have viewed themselves as "accidental" recording artists, it was clear from the outset that the pair were unique talents. Raised in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, the McGarrigles were originally introduced to French cabaret chansons, French-Canadian folk music and jazzy standards as children -- their family was given to cozy group singalongs around the piano. Kate and Anna honed their own piano skills at the elbows of nuns; later, they would make a career out of performing a fresh variation on the homey, honest music of their youth in folk clubs and on recordings.

Shortly after she gave birth to son Rufus Wainwright (one of two children she had with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III), Kate and her sister were recruited to contribute backing vocals to a version of Anna McGarrigle's Cool River that was being covered by another folk artist (Maria Muldaur). By some twist of fate, the right set of ears heard magic in those McGarrigle harmonies and offered the pair a record deal. And in 1976, Kate and Anna McGarrigle released their self-titled debut album, an enchanting collection of old-fashioned folk songs. It was immediately lauded by fans and critics. The New York Times and the music magazine Melody Maker named Kate and Anna McGarrigle one of the year's best albums.

The album even included one tune, the arch Complainte pour Ste. Catherine, in which the two neatly encapsulated the sighs of a '70s-era Montrealer in wry Québecois French:

"Moi, j'me promene sur Ste Catherine / J'profite d'la chaleur du métro / J'ne regarde pas dans les vitrines / Quand il fait trente en d'ssous d'zero." ("Me, I walk along St. Catherine [street] / Getting the warmth from the Metro / I don't look in shop windows / When it's 30 below zero.")

That these two unassuming sisters from Quebec could bring such an idiosyncratic tune to the largely Anglophone masses (the late English singer Kirsty MacColl even covered Complainte in 1989) is a testament to the great gifts of Kate (and Anna) McGarrigle.

Kate used her music to share her appreciation for Acadian culture and the understated beauty of folk songs, but she also instilled those same values in her children. Both Rufus and Martha Wainwright have paid tribute to their mother in their own songs. It's not uncommon for listeners to be privy to the intimate family portraits that appear in the work of sharp songwriters who draw inspiration from their own lives, but it's rare that we are familiar with the parties depicted in song.

Rufus's rollicking Beauty Mark (from his self-titled 1998 debut album) is an homage to his lovely black-haired mama. The playful tune draws inspiration from Kate's modest upbringing and the jaunty folk songs she played with her sister. "No, I did not have a fear of nuns / Who dressed in black," Rufus sings. "I had no radio show, nor did I have / Home-made clothes, home-made curtains / Of the same material."

On the bracing In the Middle of the Night, from her 2008 album I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too, Martha Wainwright addresses her mother's fight with cancer.

For Kate McGarrigle, music was always a family affair. She grew up singing around the dinner table, found fame performing alongside her sister and passed on that tremendous love of music to her talented children. If you were ever lucky enough to see the generations of the family -- which also included Anna McGarrigle's daughter Lily Lanken, a fine singer in her own right -- performing tout ensemble, it was immediately apparent that nothing gave them more joy than raising their voices together in song.

Early in December 2009, Kate McGarrigle joined Rufus and Martha onstage during a massive holiday gala at the Royal Albert Hall in London, UK. The clips at the top and bottom of this blog entry were shot during that show. It was to be one of her final public appearances, and she must have been very ill at that point, but you wouldn't know that from her performance: it's clear that Kate was in her element as she fires off quips and contributes both vocals and piano accompaniment. What a heavenly talent.