Perfect Sound Forever

KATE MCGARRIGLE

Interview by Georgia Christgau
(December 2011)

In the 1970's, all me and my women friends talked about were the four topics covered here: sex, relationships, family, and career. The difference is that Kate and I didn't know each other. She was hardly naive, yet she trusted me. As an artist and a woman, Kate McGarrigle symbolized my ideal: she sought a reasonable balance between the old way of sacrificing everything for others, and taking ownership of one's life. Having both recently gone through romantic breakups, we also connected on the topic of loss. Kate's loss, however, was more complicated; she was thrilled to become a mother, and wanted to share that, but it hurt her professionally. The births of her children following her stunning debut with sister Anna and before the release of the record they were making at the time of this interview, Dancer with Bruised Knees, dismissed thoughts about the kind of tour that would have introduced them to a larger audience. At the time this really bugged me but I didn't say anything. We used to be awfully hard on each other, us women. Now I'm just glad we had this conversation instead.

Our interview began on November 18, 1976, after Kate got news that her mother had placed an ad in the Montreal paper for a new mother's helper without Kate's consent or the current employee, Helen's, knowledge. Anna said Kate was furious, but her response here is less than that.

ED NOTE: Special thanks to Robert Christgau for arranging and transcribing this article.




G: Briefly, your mother told me that she didn't like Helen and Helen told me she didn't like your mother.

K: Well, you know, the thing is, I have to... my mother has been so good, I mean I have to give my mother a lot of... obviously... I would be stupid in choosing Helen over my mother, I mean, Helen, as far as mother's helpers go: she doesn't drive a car, I have to sponsor her to come back from England, I probably have to pay her way back; she's being deported Tuesday. I mean, if my mother can find somebody better, great (laughter).

G: First of all, what does it fell like to have a song written about you called "Rufus Is A Tit Man"?

K: It feels great. It's the only love song Loudon ever wrote about me. (laughter)

G: Really? That brings me to my second question: who did he write "Say That You Love Me" about?

K: It was about me, but it was . . . he wrote it about . . . I shouldn't be saying this to you... it was put in the position that I was the one who was saying 'say that you love me.' Originally the lyric was 'I don't want any flowers I don't want a new dress.' He changed it to 'I don't want a new bowtie I don't want a new dress. '

G: How did it change? Or does that have anything to do with you?

K: Why did he change it? I guess to make it... I think it really upset me, it upset me when I first heard it.

G: I think it's the best song he ever wrote.

K: Yeah, well, that song, I mean, off the record, and I mean this [Tape off.] So that's the way it was written.

G: That is pretty ass-backwards. As though that was what you thought of him?

K: Well it was at the time, because obviously I needed to lean on somebody; I wasn't in very good shape.

G: I guess I thought it had something to do with you, though he was singing it to you. I don't to dwell on it, 'cause I know that it's not an easy thing; 'cause you're separated and all.

K: (under her breath) It's not that hard. (laughing) It's not that hard.

G: It's better being broken up, but you never forget someone; even that facile; I broke up with someone and I don't have any children and I still you know, I think about starting over again with him.

K: You would? Oh I would too, with Loudon, not if I had two kids; at some point, having children in a relationship. Anna and Dave have been together 11 years, and they're always in breakups; when you don't have children, you have all the time in the world to spar with each other, right? But once, I find, a lot of people break up after they have kids.

G: Why is it different?

K: Because you just can't devote as much time to each other, fighting with each other, whatever; one of the parents has to devote more time to the kids. You get into a situation, it's a volatile situation. If there's no children around, you can stay up 24 hours and yell and scream at each other. But if you have kids around somebody's got to throw the towel in somewhere, it gets very...

G: Did you want to have children a lot? Was it a big deal to you or did it just sort of happen?

K: Uh... I, no, I had never particularly wanted kids in a lot of ways. I mean I never thought about it. I was pregnant when I was 25, that's the year I had the miscarriage, and I told you I was sick after that for about six months, the doctor said I couldn't have another kid. So after two years, when I got pregnant, it was more like--wow--I can, so I went ahead, and had the baby. Not to say--I mean I like Rufus. I'm a terrible mother.

G: He seems okay.

K: So there was a little bit of that involved too I think.

G: What, a little involved in just the fact that you knew you were okay so you were gonna go ahead with it?

K: Right. Well no, I knew I was okay, the fact that I conceived, I was very happy. (Laughter) I got tested out for the pregnancy in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was playing at this club. It was a Saturday morning. The only place I could find was--to find out if the test was positive or negative--was a family planning place and it was only for 18-year-olds and I went over... I was 27, I guess, at the time, and the girl said, "Miss McGarrigle"--I was working under my own name there--she said "I'm afraid I've got terrible news for you. You're pregnant." And I went, "Oh. Great. Fantastic," She said, "You're happy?" I said, "I'm delighted." She said, "You're the first person happy we've ever had in here." And they all came over and congratulated me.

G: Oooh, a real happy person.

K: (Laughter) It was really funny. It was an abortion clinic or something.

G: Is that song that, uh, "Kitty Come Home," do you think that's true?

K: Uh, I think like, everything in art is an exaggeration. Even the song "Say That You Love Me" is an exaggeration. Most songs are taking a point and carrying it to... I mean it's true, a lot of the things in the song. But not so. I mean, Loudon is not such a shithead, and Anna knows he isn't a shit, and you know, she doesn't, but it's just, to use those words, "Casting your love upon a stone," or whatever, it's just because they're so poetic. Like she was saying she was having trouble singing it because I came home (laughter), she couldn't finish the song. Well the only thing that's actually true is that nothing's changed.

G: You think that's true?

K: Oh, yeah.

G: How can that be so, though? If you're the . . .

K: I don't know, when she means I come home, everything here is the same, and essentially it is.

G: How can it be the same for you?

K: 'Cause I... All the friends, say, that you met Sunday night, Monday night, we've been hanging around with those people for 15 years. They're all in the same place as they were 15 years ago. None of them are married, none of them have any kids; they're all essentially doing... if they were graduate students then well now they're teaching whatever they were studying. They all have the same bad habits they had then. So that's what the lyric is saying, that nothing's changed, and in a way, it hasn't.

G: Are you glad?

K: Yeah, I'm kinda [unclear] one word.

G: I mean, the way I see the situation, things probably have changed for you somewhat. I mean, for having, didn't you break in New York, you lived there to try to break into folk singing?

K: I worked for a year in 1970 with a girl named Roma Baran and we played the folk circuit. We only played New York twice. We mostly played smaller coffeehouses and, Sratoga, and the folks, most of the people on that scene, if they recorded, were on Folkways or Philo Records.

G: Doing that, weren't you kind of going more against the grain than Anna did? Like growing up, and your mother didn't really want you to be in New York living on nothing ...

K: Yeah, but she was very... at that point she was very supportive. All she wanted me to do was finish school. I was in my second year of college when my father died, so she was very nervous about whether or not I was gonna stick around, I was about 19 or 20 at the time. I was ready to bust out a little bit and do something. But she wanted me to finish school, so I did, I went through, got a degree in science and took the first job that became available, worked at it for a month and said, "I really don't like this." So I was 23 at that point. So I'd done that. And then afterwards when I started with Penny Lang, the girl I guess you met, Roma was working with her, and at that point my mother kind of became more supportive when she saw that we got jobs. Not really got jobs, she saw that we were trying to do something and she wasn't so much down my back. I had gone out with this other guy for six years, Pete Weldon's kid brother, it was a very incestuous kind of situation, I was engaged to him. I kind of knew when I was 22 that it just wasn't going to work out. So I was ready to do something. I wasn't 17. At that point, my mother became kind of supportive. She gave me money. I could call her collect. So at that point she kind of started encouraging me. She would come down and see us play if we were in Saratoga.

G: She was probably worried about you.

K: She was worried, but at that point she had nothing really to worry about.

G: I guess my parents stopped worrying at some point.

K: Yeah, well, she's more worried about me now, obviously, the problems I have now are a lot more serious, in the sense that I have two more children. I mean she's not worried about me, she's worried about them.

G: You met Loudon in New York?

K: Yeah.

G: Who organized the tour last summer? Did you and Anna do it together, if Joe [Boyd] didn't?

K: Yeah, the publicity agent in England. We'd had some requests for dates. He approached Warner Bros. and approached Anna and I have a lawyer in New York, Judy Berger, she acts as our manager, more or less, business calls more or less, and she would come back to us and say, ask if we wanted to go. And we had, we were supposed to start the record then, and Anna and I thought it would be fun to go over and play for a while, particularly somewhere like Europe where you go, all the dates are together, and come back, it's not like, it's like a little tour, three weeks, um, so, uh, I guess essentially it was Paul Finn, Judy Berger.

G: They didn't finance it though.

K: No.

G: Did you make any money?

K: No, we went down about $2300. We carried four people. That's not counting Warner Bros. did pay the airfare over and back, not the traveling over there. I mean we're hard-headed too, they wanted us to leave from New York to London 'cause they got a cut-rate thing, and we didn't want to have to go from Montreal to New York to London 'cause we would have to go through customs twice, and all our stuff, so we would have to pay full fare, they were a little angry, I guess it's understandable.

G: What kind of songs are you writing now?

K: Now? Mostly just kind of, let me think. Um, mostly kind of light songs, dumb songs, light songs at the moment, yeah. I think if you're really going through turmoil, big change, emotional in your life, you really can't translate that into a song immediately, you've gotta have a little bit of . . . I think when Anna wrote "Heart Like a Wheel" she wasn't really that incredibly broken up; I think if you really, if your life's kind of turning to shit, it's pretty difficult to really write about it so you have a tendency to write light songs.

G: So you think whatever you're going through now will come out much later.

K: Well, it's not that. I mean what I'm going through now. I mean, I'm not really... I mean I don't feel as if I'm going through any kind of emotional turmoil, I'm really not, in a way, it's just kind of material turmoil, transplanting yourself, all the little things, I go to my apartment it has no furniture, I don't want to put anything in it because most of my furniture is in New York so I have to bring that up and see what I have then, I mean the whole setting up the house is kind of tough and trying to work at the same time.

G: You're going to New York and then L.A.?

K: They're mixing the record in L.A., December. We don't really have to be there, but maybe we'll go. I mean I guess Joe essentially knows, we do a lot over the phone, he essentially knows what we want on it. I'm going to New York next week. Next weekend.

G: Have most of the musicians you've worked with stayed in Montreal all their lives?

K: Ken Pearson, he was in the Full Tilt Boogie Band with Janis Joplin, he was the organ player when they did "Me and Bobby McGee," the last band she had before she killed herself. I don't know what that has to say for Kenny. (Laughter) Scott is in Montreal, and all the other guys, not professional musicians.

G: You spend more time in the States than anyone you're working with. Do you miss them? Or don't you think of yourself as having permanently left?

K: No, I don't think of myself as permanently left. That's probably another thorn in Loudon's side, I had very close ties here. I'd spend at least two months out of the year here, three, because I worked with Anna, for one thing. And if he went away, if he had to go away or something for a month, I'd never stay in New York by myself. I'd come back. I never really made a lot of friends there. I made friends through him, and I guess there are some people I'd consider close friends, but they're all over the place. I have a friend in Woodstock.

G: Did you find people to work with there?

K: Well we never had... we never worked with uh, American musicians. We recorded with them on the first record, but they were just session people for the most part. We put a band together last year for about a month and a half and of those musicians, we tried to get Susan, a drummer, to be a conga player but she was out of town so we couldn't use her on that one. And Larry Packer, fiddler in the band, came to Europe with us, so he's another American musician we've worked with. There aren't that many, that Anna and I have worked with. Very few American musicians.

G: What do you feel has influence your music the most--stuff you listened to when you were a kid, stuff you developed over the last five years, things you learned from other musicians outside of Montreal, or Loudon, or what?

K: I think Loudon's influenced me a lot lyrically. Well, I'm just trying to be cleaner in my choice of lyrics, he's such an incredible lyricist, just his discipline in writing, you're careful not to use a throwaway phrase, it's just, watching him write, listening to his material, 'cause I really like his stuff, and I've been to a lot of his recording sessions, and his delivery and that kind of thing. I think has probably influence me a lot. Musically, I guess most of the things that I heard as a kid. Mostly from the age of, say, well anyway from a kid up to about age 18 or 19. I used to listen to a lot of folk music. The people that we hung around with, that guy Peter that you met, when we first met I may have been listening to, uh, I don't know, a Joan Baez record, when I was 15, and he'd say, Well, what are you listening to that for, why don't you listen to where she got it from? You know, kind of like, go back to the original source, and that was a good way of doing things.

G: The people that you work with now, are they doing things that you think you'll learn from or do you think that you're leading them? Or do you mostly pay attention to what you and Anna are doing together?

K: You mean like in writing songs, or just like in playing them? In writing them, oh that's hard. We don't really get a lot from the people we're working with now. We don't work unless we have a specific date or a tour. So we don't have a group with us. We have a stable of a few people we sort of choose, depending on where the place is, how much they're paying, whatever, you know. So they mostly have to accommodate their plans to us as much as us making our plans by them.

G: Would you say that either of you is dominant, with you and Anna? In your working relationship? I really can't tell.

K: No, because I think that I'd probably say that she's dominant and she'd say that I'm dominant.

G: Why is that, do you think?

K: Well I think what it is that we know each other so well and have worked together so long, even though we haven't, it's so weird, like we haven't worked together ever, just the two of us, we've always fooled around and stuff like that, but just because we've loved with each other on and off the last 30 years that I can tell when she's actually sure of herself and she knows something is right. She has a sense, so I don't argue with her on those points, those points may be harmony lines somewhere. I don't say, Oh, why don't you try this. But there are other fields where she may feel that way about me, so she'll defer to me in that. So we have very little, very little arguing. Even when, you know, when we work together, because of that it's like she'll come out and say I want to put a high harmony and I never say, Gee, I want to put a high harmony. Or I'll come out and say I feel like playing banjo on this. In other words, it's kind of like an understanding that we both know what each other can do. And somehow it just works out. It's amazingly efficient, considering we're two people.

G: Is it like a trust thing or is it something where you're willing to experiment with her ideas and she's willing to experiment with yours?

K: It's more like a trust thing. It's almost as if we don't do that much experimenting, like instead of putting down a whole lot of stuff then taking that stuff off, like the vocals that you're hearing tonight that we're putting down, we'll try a few instead of knocking them off and trying something else; we were sure of those, anyway, then we heard that and we saw places to put more in, not to take off the ones that we had in. We do a little, and listen back, and then do a little more, push ahead slowly. So it's more like a trust than a whole open experiment of taking stuff in and throwing stuff out. 'Cause we don't really throw out a whole lot of stuff.

See part II of the Kate McGarrigle interview

Also see an interview with sister Anna McGarrigle



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