Kate McGarrigle: Singer-songwriter and matriarch of the Wainwright family

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Over the last decade, Rufus Wainwright and his younger sister Martha have become household names and achieved considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic. The coverage afforded them nearly always mentions their parents, the American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and their Canadian mother Kate McGarrigle.

A gifted musician and vocalist, with a high, plaintive voice, and a notable songwriter in her own right, Kate McGarrigle and her younger sister Anna made 10 critically-acclaimed albums, full of haunting compositions like "The Work Song" and "Talk To Me Of Mendocino" which have been subsequently recorded by such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt and Elvis Costello. Neither folk musicians nor singer-songwriters in the traditional sense, the McGarrigles defied categorisation and refused to be pigeonholed. In fact, they remained hard to pin down, and also wrote and recorded in French, further blurring categories and defying expectations.

When her short-lived marriage to Wainwright ended in 1976, Kate McGarrigle concentrated on raising her children, arguably at the expense of a higher-profile career in music. However, the sisters resumed performing in the mid-1990s and established a tradition of playing Christmas concerts in Canada and New York, which their offspring have continued. Indeed, Kate McGarrigle's last appearance in the UK was at the Royal Albert Hall in London in December, for a Not So Silent Night benefit also featuring her sister and her children, as well as friends like Guy Garvey of Elbow and Ed Harcourt.

Born in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec in 1946, Kate McGarrigle was the last of three artistically-gifted daughters, brought up in a middle class family, in a culturally-rich environment, especially on her father's side. "Music was always there at home," she told the historian Mike Regenstreif. "My father would sit at the piano at night and play funny ditties and drinking songs from the 1930s. 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."

Like her sisters, Kate took piano lessons from the nuns and she began playing guitar after her father showed her a few chords. He also gave the girls the odd nickel to encourage their musical pursuits. The family owned a ukulele and a zither, and she became proficient on these, too. However, even though the McGarrigles were half-Irish, they were not familiar with that country's folk tradition and knew more about the French music of Edith Piaf and the emerging rock'n'roll of Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers. When Jane, the eldest – later a film and television composer and occasional collaborator with Kate and Anna – went to boarding school in Ontario, she introduced her sisters to country, blues and folk music, sparking off a lifelong passion for traditional music, especially after they saw Pete Seeger and the Weavers in concert.

Kate and Anna began singing with a friend at coffee houses in Montreal before joining Peter Weldon and Jack Nissenson as the Mountain City Four in 1962. "We entered into the folk scene through the records of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan," she said. "But when we met Nissenson and Weldon, they introduced us to music at the sources and said: 'Forget about Joan Baez! Go to the sources at all times. Don't copy styles, just learn the original music.' I think that's why we have an original sound. We didn't try to imitate anyone, with the possible exception of Dylan, who everyone tried to imitate at one time or another."

The Mountain City Four played standards and contemporary folk songs as well as French Canadian chansons like "V'La L'Bon Vent" and continued gigging while Kate studied engineering at McGill University in Montreal. There, she met Philippe Tatartcheff, a lyricist who also became a frequent writing partner, and she began composing her own songs.

While Anna enrolled at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts but continued writing, Kate moved to New York, where she formed a duo with Roma Baran on guitar. She composed "The Work Song" and the gorgeous ballad "Talk To Me Of Mendocino", which would subsequently be covered by Ronstadt, and sang them, as well as "Heart Like A Wheel", written by Anna. When Kate and Baran supported Jerry Jeff Walker at the Gaslight in New York, he requested a tape of "Heart Like A Wheel" and sent it to Ronstadt, who eventually recorded it and made it the title track of her 1974 No 1 album.

By then, Kate was married to Loudon Wainwright III and was beginning to make a name for herself since Muldaur had cut "The Work Song" on her eponymous 1973 debut co-produced by Joe Boyd. The McGarrigle sisters hadn't played together for years but the producer suggested they reunite to make a demo for Warner Brothers. "It was that afternoon that we became Kate and Anna McGarrigle," she recalled. They signed to Warner Brothers in 1974 and recorded Kate And Anna McGarrigle, with the crème de la crème of Los Angeles session-players. Yet, the label and the producers, Boyd and Greg Prestopino, didn't know what to make of the duo.

"Warner thought we could become the next Laura Nyro," Kate explained. "They saw us as soulful piano-player chicks. When we first got into the studio, there were fights between Greg, who wanted to have a pop sound with no folk instrumentation, and Joe, who wanted an eclectic folk-pop sound. When they recorded Anna's 'Complainte Pour Ste Catherine', for example, we heard it Cajun, Greg heard it pop and Joe heard it reggae."

Nevertheless, the McGarrigles' first album was hailed as a classic by Melody Maker and others in 1976. Its success also created a certain amount of friction and jealousy in the Wainwright household since Loudon Wainwright III was by now on his fifth album and still thought of as the new Dylan, this despite the fact that Kate and Anna had included Wainwright's "Swimming Song" on their debut. The sisters didn't tour since Kate was by now pregnant with her second child, Martha, though she soon separated from Wainwright and went back to Canada.

In 1977, Kate and Anna made Dancer with Bruised Knees, which spent a month in the British charts, but after the release of Pronto Monto the following year, Warners seemed to lose interest. In 1981, they issued the delightful Entre Lajeunesse Et La Sagesse, also known as "The French Record", at the height of the Québécois separatist movement. "There was a French-Canadian record company which wanted to extend a hand of friendship to us and asked us as English Canadians to produce a record for a French audience," Kate said. "It was a political gesture in a sense. The odd thing is that it never came out in France and we've never played in France!"

In the '90s the McGarrigles remained unpredictable and idiosyncratic. They wrote Heartbeats Accelerating, their 1990 album, on synthesisers, while Matapedia won a Juno Award in 1996. Two years later, they won the same Canadian award with The McGarrigle Hour, recorded informally at a family gathering involving not only the Wainwrights but also Boyd, Harris and Ronstadt. The McGarrigle Christmas Hour in 2005 put a festive, holiday spin on the same idea, but still kept it in the family.

"I don't think I've ever talked to anybody about the things that have troubled me in my life," she said in 2004. "When you start realising how finite everything is, then all your differences and misunderstandings and pain should fall away."

Pierre Perrone

Kate McGarrigle, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist: born Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts, Canada 6 February 1946; married Loudon Wainwright III (one son, one daughter, marriage dissolved); died 18 January 2010.