>Published: January 20, 2010
Kate McGarrigle, a Canadian singer who, with her sister Anna, captivated critics and fellow musicians with warm harmonies and a style that drew on both folk traditions and the personalized approach of 1970s singer-songwriters, died on Monday at her home in Montreal. She was 63.
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The cause was clear-cell sarcoma, a form of cancer, said Barry Taylor, the manager for Ms. McGarrigle’s son, the singer Rufus Wainwright.
Born in Montreal and raised in St.-Sauveur-des-Monts, a small town about 50 miles north, Ms. McGarrigle absorbed a range of musical traditions around a musical hearth. Her father, Frank, was of Irish-Canadian stock and steeped in Stephen Foster and turn-of-the-century parlor songs; from her mother, Gaby, she and her two elder sisters — the oldest McGarrigle sister, Jane, was a church organist — learned old songs in French.
“Music was always there at home,” Kate McGarrigle said in a 1997 interview in Sing Out! magazine. “At parties, somebody would get up and sing, and my father would accompany them and sing the harmony. There were lots of friends and uncles and each would get up and give their big song.”
In the 1960s Kate, Anna and two boyfriends formed the Mountain City Four, which became one of Montreal’s leading folk groups. Kate — 14 months younger than Anna — also studied engineering and science at McGill University, and in 1970 she moved to New York City for a career as a musician. In 1974 Warner Brothers signed Kate and Anna to a recording contract. Their first album, “Kate and Anna McGarrigle,” was released in 1976.
Critics were immediately smitten. “Their voices have a plaintive allure full of light vibrato and husky emotionalism, and they blend together exquisitely in harmonies,” John Rockwell wrote in The New York Times. Rolling Stone’s review declared, “Not since Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ has the female voice been recorded with such unblemished intimacy.”
But with Kate pregnant, the McGarrigles did not tour for more than a year after the album was released, and however many accolades they received from critics, their songs did not fit radio playlists. They released 10 albums, most recently “The McGarrigle Christmas Hour” (Nonesuch) in 2005, but their biggest commercial success came when other singers recorded their songs, most notably Linda Ronstadt (Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel”) and Maria Muldaur (Kate’s “Work Song”).
Love and family life were central themes in both women’s music, and their songs often addressed romance’s place in the quotidian details of life. Kate McGarrigle’s 1990 song “I Eat Dinner” contemplates love lost among the leftovers, and both sisters’ “Matapedia,” from 1996, is based on a real event in Kate’s life, when an old flame saw her 17-year-old daughter, Martha, and mistook her for her mother.
Martha, like Rufus, has become a noted singer and songwriter. Their father is the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who was married to Ms. McGarrigle in the 1970s. That marriage ended in divorce. Both children survive her, as do her two sisters and a grandson.
The McGarrigle sisters rarely toured, but when they performed it often became a family affair, with musical friends and relatives sitting in. Their 1998 album “The McGarrigle Hour” (Hannibal) was based around this model, with Ms. Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Martha, Rufus and Loudon Wainwright. For a number of years the McGarrigle sisters performed a Christmastime show at Carnegie Hall, and Kate’s final concert was another family Christmas show, at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Dec. 9.
“They were brought up in a very close-knit and somewhat old-fashioned way,” Rufus Wainwright said of his mother and aunt in a telephone interview on Tuesday, “a nice ‘Waltons’ way, and so they could never be too far away from each other.”