12:00pm

Wed May 11, 2011
The Fresh Air Interview

Anna McGarrigle: On Life Without Her Sister

Originally published on Thu May 12, 2011 10:31 am

Singer-songwriter Anna McGarrigle says it took her a long time before she was able to listen to recordings of her performing with her sister Kate, who died of cancer last year. She was 63.

"It took me a few months," McGarrigle tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And then I had to do a lot of listening to things and I thought, 'I'm just going to grit my teeth and do this.' But every now and then, I heard her sing something and sometimes it would be so unexpected ... I'd break out in tears."

In the interview, McGarrigle discusses her relationship with her sister and their music, which The New York Times once described as "bending traditional folk styles, from [their] native Quebec and beyond, toward a contemporary and deeply personal expression."

The McGarrigle Sisters released their first album together in the 1970s, and many more followed, including Pronto Monto and Love Over and Over. Their self-titled debut album, as well as 1977's Dancer With Bruised Knees, have recently been remastered and reissued as part of Tell My Sister, a new three-disc collection, which also includes several previously unreleased songs and demos.

'Heart Like A Wheel'

In the mid-1970s, Anna McGarrigle had already established herself as a songwriter — her first song, "Heart Like a Wheel," was a hit for Linda Ronstadt — but, she says, she wasn't thinking seriously about her own singing career until Kate asked her to harmonize on several duets so that she wouldn't have to perform by herself.

"I never would have done this on my own," McGarrigle says. "I wasn't a very good musician. I could sort of accompany myself, badly, and I could sing and I could harmonize easily enough — but I think together we sounded nice, and I think she convinced me that it would be a good thing to do."

Kate's death, Anna says, has changed things in ways she hadn't anticipated.

"I still have a hard time walking around in Montreal, because we were always together," she says. "We did everything together. When we were here, we shopped together and we were in the car together, running errands. It's that much harder to do on your own."



Interview Highlights

On writing 'Heart Like A Wheel'

"We were big followers of [Bob] Dylan. When he came along, it made it hard for anybody else to measure up to his talents, so people just didn't bother writing songs. We were in folk groups and we would always sing covers of Dylan, but somehow by 1969, there were a lot of people who were out there writing ... new folk. So when [Kate] told me that, I ran with the idea and sat down at the piano."

On Accidentally Getting Into Music

We used to sing backup in a folk group in Montreal. But by 1969, I was definitely not singing and Kate and Roma had become a duo. And then, after Kate got married in 1979 [to Loudon Wainwright III] and they moved to London, she lost a baby, their marriage broke up temporarily, she came back to Montreal. And then, sooner or later, Rufus was born and it was after that that she still wanted to do something in music. And at that point, we already had three covers of our songs, so we weren't exactly chopped liver. People took us seriously."

On Her Sister Kate's Personality

"She was fearless. She was a hyperactive child, even though later on in life she was the kind of person who would sleep in or fall asleep on the couch or something. Whereas when I got older, I got more nervous. We kind of switched places."

On Kate's Realization That She Was Going To Die

"She was incredibly brave, and also, Kate was always the great escape artist. She hated unpleasant situations. She would always manage to extricate herself from these things, but this was one that she couldn't get out of. The only time she ever said anything was about a year and a half before she died. She said, 'How come nobody asks me what it feels like to be dying?' And I said, 'Frankly, because we don't want to think about it.' And maybe I was always hopeful, too, but she must have known something was terribly wrong, because she did maybe give in a little more towards the end."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I've been listening to the beautiful music that Kate and Anna McGarrigle made together. The two sisters started recording in the mid-'70s. They never became as famous as their song, "Heart Like a Wheel," which was a big hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1974, but the McGarrigles had a devoted following in the U.S. and in Canada, where they're from.

Kate died a year and a half ago of sarcoma. Two tribute concerts are scheduled for this week, featuring such performers as Norah Jones, Jimmy Fallon, Emmylou Harris, Teddy Thompson, Anna McGarrigle and Kate's children Martha and Rufus Wainwright.

A new three-CD set has been released, called "Tell My Sister." It collects the McGarrigles' early demo recordings, as well as their first two albums, their self-titled 1976 debut and their 1977 follow-up "Dancer with Bruised Knees."

The cover a period when Kate was married to Loudon Wainwright and gave birth to Rufus. My guest, Anna McGarrigle, is going to talk with us about Kate and the songs they recorded together. Let's start with the demo version of "Heart Like a Wheel," which was written by Anna.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart Like a Wheel")

MCGARRIGLE SISTERS (Musicians): (Singing) Some say the heart is just like a wheel: When you bend it you can't mend it. And my love for you is like a sinking ship, and my heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean.

They say that death is a tragedy. It comes once, and it's over. But my only wish is for that deep dark abyss 'cause what's the use of living with no true lover.

When harm is done, no love can be won. I know it happens frequently. What I can't understand oh, please God hold my hand - why it should have happened to me.

And it's only love, and it's only love that can wreck a human being and turn him inside out.

Some say heart...

GROSS: Anna McGarrigle, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and I'm so sorry about your sister and so glad that these albums have been reissued and that the demos are now available for us to hear.

What's it been like for you to listen back to these sessions without her to listen to them with you?

Ms. ANNA McGARRIGLE (Musician): Well, it took me a long time before I was able to listen to her sing at all, period. You know, this is after she died. It took me a few months. And then I had to do a lot of listening to things.

And I just thought, well, I'm just going to grit my teeth and do this. But every now and then, I'd hear her sing something, and I would just - you know, sometimes it would be so unexpected. I wouldn't know why it was a particular song or the time of day or whatever. It's just - I'd break out in tears.

GROSS: So the song that we just played, "Heart Like a Wheel," was the first song that you ever wrote. And the liner notes make it seem that you would never have written that song if it weren't for your sister, Kate. And she was in New York at the time, becoming part of the folk scene there. You were in Montreal. I think you were in art school at the time.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes, I was just finishing up art school.

GROSS: And so tell us how you were inspired to write a song because of Kate.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Well, the thing is she and Roma Barron had gone down to the Village just to see what was happening. And they had worked out a lot of blues stuff at piano and guitar, and they were really fantastic. And there'll be later demos down the line that they did.

But she called me, and she said: Hey, everybody down here is writing their own songs because Dylan - we know, you know, we were big followers of Dylan. But when he came along, you know, it made it hard for anybody else to measure up to his talents. So people just didn't bother writing songs.

You know, we were in folk groups, and we'd always sing covers and covers of Dylan. But somehow by 1969, there were a lot of people who were out there just, you know, writing new kinds of I guess you could call it new folk because it wasn't really sort of traditional folk.

And so when she told me that, I just, I ran with the idea and sat down at the piano, which I never actually was able to get on because in our house, a lot of people played the piano, and I was, like, the last one to get on it. But I had to wait for everybody to go away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McGARRIGLE: And they were all gone. So I was able to play it.

GROSS: So it's a great song. You know, if everybody could write such a great song as their first song, what a world it would be. But had anybody actually said to you, you know, that the heart is just like a wheel, when you bend it, it can't be mended? You know, because...

Ms. McGARRIGLE: No, nobody had ever said that. But I think I was thinking about a bicycle, and it's true that once you've bent that wheel, you ain't ever going to roll right again. And that - I thought of the heart as being the same way. And at the time, I was having a bit of heartbreak, so...

GROSS: Oh, do you want to tell us what happened?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK, fair enough. So, so - and then eventually down the line, Linda Ronstadt ended up having a really big hit with this. It was the title track of a very popular album. So how did she get the song?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Well, Kate and Roma worked it up. They came back to Montreal, and I played it for them up in my mother's place in St. Sever. They did a really lovely version and actually made a couple demo tapes in studios in New York because they were looking for a deal at the same time, too.

And anyway, so people heard the demos, and I - the story is that Jerry Jeff Walker had either heard them or heard a demo, and he played it for Linda Ronstadt.

GROSS: And I guess she liked it.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes, she did, although she always used to say a lot of people thought it was a really awful song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McGARRIGLE: I think what it is, it's very artless in a way because I think Roma had pointed this out. I was sort of changing metaphors in mid-ocean or whatever. And - but that didn't bother me because that's - I was just writing from the heart.

GROSS: Right, in terms of changing metaphors, it's like the heart is like a wheel, and my heart is on a ship out in that ocean.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McGARRIGLE: That's right.

GROSS: OK. So it sounds like you hadn't necessarily thought seriously about a music career, about, you know, performing a lot when your sister was in New York looking for a recording deal. And it was only through accident, through a mistake, really, that you ended up recording with her.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes because we used to sing backup in a folk group in Montreal. But by 1969, I was definitely not singing, and Kate and Roma, you know, had become a sort of duo.

And then when Kate - after Kate got married in 1979, and they moved to London, she and Loudon moved to London, she lost a baby, their marriage broke up temporarily, she came back to Montreal.

And then, sooner or later, Rufus was born, and it was after that that she still wanted - she wanted to do something in music. And at that point, we already had three covers, I think, of our songs. So we weren't exactly chopped liver.

People took us seriously because Maria Muldaur had recorded "The Work Song," and then she did a song that I wrote with a friend called "Cool River." And "Heart Like A Wheel" had just come out on Linda Ronstadt's record. So we were a known quantity at that point.

She said to me: I don't want to do this by myself. So - and I wasn't really doing much of anything. So I said sure.

GROSS: So because she didn't want to perform by herself, you joined her?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes. I would never have done this on my own, never.

GROSS: Why not? Did you not, were you not interested in that kind of life, or did you not have faith in your voice, or...?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yeah, I mean, I didn't - for one thing, I wasn't a very good musician. I mean, I could sort of accompany myself badly, and I could sing, and I could harmonize easily enough. And I didn't have an amazing voice. But I think together we sounded nice, and I think she convinced me that it would be, I don't know, that it would be a good thing to do.

GROSS: Well, you harmonize so beautifully together, and I thought I'd play something from the demo recordings that have just been released as part of the box "Tell my Sister." And this is a traditional song that I guess you figured out your own arrangement for. And it's called "Rose Blanche," "White Roses," and before we hear it, tell us something about how you learned this song.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: You know, I think that Kate may have sung this once not really for a soundtrack for the National Film Board, but it was possibly something that they were thinking of using because she had done a couple of soundtracky type things.

And I think she and I knew the song because when we sang in this folk group in Montreal, we had two or three French songs in our repertoire, and that would have been one of them.

GROSS: So who's singing the high part, and who's singing the low part?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: We switch.

GROSS: Wow.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: We switch back and forth, yeah.

GROSS: OK, well, these are two sisters harmonizing beautifully, and you'll be hearing Anna McGarrigle and her late sister Kate McGarrigle, and this is from a demo that's on the new box-set, "Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Tell My Sister."

(Soundbite of song, "Rose Blanche")

Ms. ANNA McGARRIGLE and Ms. KATE McGARRIGLE (Singers-Songwriters): (Singing in foreign language).

GROSS: That's "Rose Blanche," sung by my guest Anna McGarrigle with her late sister Kate McGarrigle, and that's a demo recording from the very beginning of their career, and that's been released, along with their first two albums, in a new box-set called "Tell My Sister."

And there's a memorial concert for Kate McGarrigle May 12th and 13th in New York.

So as we could hear from that recording, you sound so much like sisters. Your voices, they sound so similar.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes, I think what it is, you know, you find your place in the family. Kate was the youngest. I was the middle. And our sister Janie was the eldest. And the three of us actually sounded very nice together, as did, you know, Kate and I sounded nice together.

And it's just you find your voice, you know, in more ways than one. You find the note, and you also find your - well, the way you're going to be.

GROSS: Well, you were very close in age, also. You were a year older.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yeah, we're 14 months apart, yeah.

GROSS: My guest is Anna McGarrigle. We'll talk more about the music she made with her late sister Kate after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of piano music)

GROSS: My guest is Anna McGarrigle. For over four decades, she performed with her sister Kate, who died a year and a half ago of sarcoma. Their early demos and their first two albums, recorded in the mid-'70s, are collected on a new three-CD box-set called "Tell My Sister."

So were you and your sister competitive as singers, or did you enjoy singing together and feel like you were better together than individually?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: You know, I think when we started out, we probably didn't think too, too much about it. Kate was definitely more competitive than I was. But I think that she also appreciated the fact that maybe I wasn't as competitive.

I think if I had been very competitive, we probably wouldn't have worked very well together.

GROSS: It sounds like Kate was more of the traveler, more of the adventurer.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yeah, Kate was fearless. You know, I have no idea, if I hadn't had a sister, a younger sister, would I have been different? I don't know. I have a feeling -you know, Kate was very - she was God, she was a hyperactive child, even though later on in life she was the kind of person that would sleep in or fall asleep on the couch or something, whereas I could never - as I got older, I got more nervous. So it's strange. We kind of switched places.

GROSS: You mostly stayed in Montreal.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes, I did.

GROSS: And she lived in several places and wrote about coming and going places. And I want to play one of her songs about leaving, and this is a song called "Tell my Sister," and it's about leaving London, leaving England, anyways, to come home. And the refrain is: Tell my sister to tell my mother I'm coming home alone. Is this song based on a real story?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes, it is. Kate and Loudon, after they got married in 1971, moved to London. And she was expecting a baby. She lost the baby at about five and a half, six months.

GROSS: When she was pregnant with - it was a miscarriage, or?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yeah, a miscarriage. And her marriage kind of fell apart at that point. I think Loudon decided he didn't really want to be married. And now that this had happened...

Anyway, so she did come home alone, and the other thing is, like, when Kate wanted to get out of a tight situation because she was often - I'm not saying she was often in tight situations. She didn't like to disappoint people.

So if she wanted to leave a job or something, she would always say: You're the oldest and more responsible one. You tell so-and-so that I can't do such-and-such. So I would be the one to do that. And then she would, you know, sort of scoot off and be free.

But so in this way, she sang. She doesn't want to tell my mother. So she says tell my sister to tell my mother.

GROSS: Well, this is a really beautiful song.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yeah, it's great.

GROSS: So we'll hear Kate McGarrigle singing lead on "Tell My Sister," and Anna, you sing some harmony on this.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes. And Kate is also at the piano.

GROSS: This is "Tell My Sister."

(Soundbite of song, "Tell My Sister")

Ms. ANNA McGARRIGLE and Ms. KATE McGARRIGLE (Singers-Songwriters): (Singing) Weatherman on the radio threatens rain, maybe snow. He don't know. I need blue skies. I've got to go.

I'm not a cowboy, I've never been shot. I'm not a convict, I've never been caught. Tell my sister to tell my mother I'm coming home, home, alone.

Sunday morning, I boarded a plane, leaving London, England, in the rain. Tell my sister to tell my mother I'm coming home, home alone.

GROSS: That's the McGarrigle sisters, "Tell My Sister," a song written by the late Kate McGarrigle, who also sang lead on it and was featured on piano. My guest Anna McGarrigle is singing harmony.

And that's released on the new box-set "Tell My Sister," which features the McGarrigle sisters' first two albums and their first demos.

Did singing together make you closer or create new conflicts as sisters?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Kate and I grew up, we were very, very close friends when we growing up. But then we became teenagers, we all sort of knew the same people, but we, you know, we weren't together 24 hours a day.

And in fact, at one point, I wanted to get my own apartment. This is after my father had died. And my mother said: I want your sister to live with you because I want to go back to the country, because she was leaving Montreal. My mother was leaving Montreal.

And I really didn't like the idea. I really, I was so looking forward to having my own place, and then suddenly, oop, here we are, Kate and Anna again in the same apartment.

But we were just so completely used to each other that, you know, new conflicts, sometimes we'd argue about how to do things or how to go about doing things. But, you know, I think down deep, a lot of things didn't get done because, I don't know, we'd just move on to the next thing.

You know, maybe sometimes we didn't solve all the problems.

GROSS: My impression is there's probably a lot more drama in her life.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Certainly there was more drama at one point in her life, yeah.

GROSS: Which point was that?

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Well, when, you know, when she split up with Loudon the first time, she was walking around with peritonitis for about two months. And she and I were doing a few gigs, and she was living at my mother's place up in St. Sever. And we went into - you know, we went and did a couple of folk festivals together.

And then it occurred to everybody that maybe she was sick. She had lost a lot of weight. She was running a fever from time to time. And my mother said let's go to my doctor.

And anyway, so we went, and the doctor said don't expect to have children because she had, you know, blocked fallopian tubes or whatever. And she couldn't believe her ears. You know, here she was now told she couldn't have any children, and it just, it kind of broke her heart.

So I think she just went out and tried to prove them all wrong, and she did. She came back and, you know, got back with Loudon, and suddenly she was pregnant again, this time with Rufus.

GROSS: And she had two children, Rufus and Martha, who are both singers and songwriters.

Ms. McGARRIGLE: Yes, yeah.

GROSS: Anna McGarrigle will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Anna McGarrigle. She's best known as half of the duo the McGarrigle Sisters, which performed their own songs. Anna's sister Kate died a year and a half ago of sarcoma. She was 63.

Two concerts will pay tribute to Kate at Town Hall in New York this week, and a new three CD set has been released, collecting the McGarrigle Sisters' early demo recordings and their first two albums, their 1976 self-titled debut and their 1977 follow-up, "Dancer With Bruised Knees."

The collection is called "Tell My Sister." It covers a period when Kate was married to singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright and gave birth to their son Rufus, who has become a well-known singer and songwriter.

Now we heard the song "Tell My Sister," which was about Kate coming home from England. You wrote a song, a beautiful song called "Kitty Come Home." And Kitty was Kate's childhood nickname.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah. A lot of people still called her Kitty.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So what's the story behind this song?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Well, this is written after she and Loudon split up for good, and she was kind of at loose ends. She was living in New York City on 115th Street with the two children and Loudon was living in the country house and he had a girlfriend at the time. And my mother and I went down, we rented the biggest car we could rent and we went down, and we scooped her up and with the kids and all her belongings and we moved back to Montreal temporarily because I don't think she really want to stay here forever.

And she rented an apartment and my mother helped her a lot with the children. And she would find girls who were mothers helpers and that because at this point we were already signed to Warner Brothers and we were about to start in our second record, "Dancer With Bruised Knees."

So anyway, I wrote "Kitty Come Home" because of that thing. I was - I guess I was really angry.

GROSS: Angry at?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Angry at her husband for whatever reasons. You know, I mean I wasn't - I don't know all the exact causes of their breakup, but I just felt terribly for her with the two young children and it just kind of broke my heart, and I thought, well, come back here. At least people love you here.

GROSS: Well, it's a beautiful song. And it's a song by my guest Anna McGarrigle. We'll hear her singing lead and featured at the piano with Kate McGarrigle playing organ.

(Soundbite of song, "Kitty Come Home")

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) No scheme and no direction with only one way to turn. Pack up all your children. Come home to our love and concern. Kitty come home.

No being however mighty, where chaos reigns alone, will see his feeble love grow when cast upon a stone. Kitty come home. Home, Kitty come home.

GROSS: That's Anna McGarrigle singing her song "Kitty Come Home," with Kate McGarrigle featured on organ and piano. And Kate died a year ago January. And there's a concert in her memory that will be given May 12th and 13th in New York.

The McGarrigle Sisters first two albums have just been reissued along with their first demo recordings. It's a three CD set and it's called "Tell My Sister."

You know, we talked a little bit about how Kate had lived in several places and had some songs about coming and going. And you read a passage from "On the Road," Kerouac's "On the Road" at her funeral. Was that a passage that she particularly loved?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: You know, I don't know whether she liked that particular passage, but I think he talks about the dangle doadies, who are these, you know, the people that he's attracted to, the people, you know, who burn with a kind of artistic ambition and who are, you know, sort of kinetic energy. And I think of Kate as being that kind of person.

If you met Kate on the street you would want to know her because she had that kind of power, that aura about her. Anybody that met her never forgot her and she made sure that you didn't forget her. She wanted to be - she wanted to make an impression on people.

GROSS: What about yourself?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: You know, less so. I'm not driven the same way. I'm a completely different animal.

GROSS: You know, it's funny, she'd been married to Loudon Wainwright and they had two children together and, you know, had a difficult separation. And when you compare their songs, their songs are so different.

Like Kate's songs not all of them but so many of them are kind of, you know, sad and, you know, about lost love, broken relationships, a nostalgia for places or having to leave places. And so many of his songs not all of them, but so many of his songs are kind of cynical or funny, clever. They're just like the tones of their songs are so different.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah, and complimentary in a lot of ways because, you know, if you put their songs together there's a story there. And yes, Kate was an incurable romantic on one hand, but at the same time she was also cynical about a lot of stuff but not in her songwriting. I was going to say maybe Loudon was a romantic too but not in his songwriting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Anna McGarrigle. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Anna McGarrigle. For over four decades she performed with her sister Kate, who died a year and a half ago of sarcoma. Their early demos and their first two albums recorded in the mid-'70s are collected on a new three CD box-set called "Tell My Sister."

Let's hear another song that was written by your sister Kate, and this is "Mendocino," which is featured on the new box-set. And it's a beautiful song. The funny thing is about that song is that she was asked to write a lyric for the New York State Department of Tourism...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah, I wrote about...

GROSS: ...promoting New York. Yeah.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: I wrote about that on my blog. She wasn't asked. Somebody else asked me if they could rewrite the lyrics for an ad. And then I had to decline the pairing of her lyrics, you know, that would promote New York with Kate's melody because of something that had happened a crazy thing - where Kate and I were arrested one night because she had to unpaid speeding tickets from 1990 and she couldn't believe it.

Anyway, and they dragged us to a courthouse in the middle of the night and she was very sick at this point. We were driving back from New York. But she was going fast, there's no doubt about it. But that isn't - I mean we got stopped because she was driving fast. She drew attention to us in the little Mini that we were driving in, and the guy found these tickets on the computer when he was sitting in his car. And we just - it was just a nightmare.

They threw her in jail, you know, and I had to - we had to bail her out. And it was just, it was a very messy situation and this was the New York State trooper. And Kate had written this lovely song...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: ...you know, called "Mendocino" they obviously didn't know anything about. And now somebody wanted to use it in an ad for New York. And I just said, because what - can't remember what the lyrics were but it was the exact opposite of what the song was about.

GROSS: What year was this?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: What, you mean when they asked?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Just recently. Just in the last year. It was after she died.

GROSS: Wow.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: They wanted to rewrite the lyrics. Somebody wanted to rewrite it. It wasn't New York state. They hadn't asked. It was a woman who had, wanted to use the tune of "Mendocino" and rewrite the lyrics to suit an ad for the state.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: I mean I have nothing against - she had nothing against New York state. It's just that I thought in lieu of what had happened I don't think she would've liked to - her song to have been cheapened by that.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Kate McGarrigle's song "Mendocino," about leaving New York for California. And this is on the new collection of Kate and Anna McGarrigle's songs "Tell My Sister."

(Soundbite of song, "Mendocino")

MCGARRIGLE SISTERS: (Singing) I bid farewell to the state of ol' New York, my home away from home. In the state of New York I came of age, when first I started roaming. And the trees grow high in New York state. They shine like gold in Autumn. Never had the blues from whence I came. But in New York state I caught 'em.

Talk to me of Mendocino. Closing my eyes I hear the sea. Must I wait, must I follow? Won't you say Come with me?

GROSS: That's Kate and Anna McGarrigle singing Kate song "Mendocino" with Kate singing lead and Anna singing harmony. And that's on the new reissue of Kate and Anna McGarrigle's first two albums, along with an album of their early demo recordings.

So your sister Kate died in January of 2010. She had cancer. What kind of cancer was it?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: She had something called clear cell sarcoma. But, you know, again there's many sort of subtypes of that too. Anna was one that didn't react to there was a drug out that was good if the tumor excreted something called a KIT factor. But her tumor didn't so that drug wasn't good. So they used a more sort of broad spectrum kind of thing that was very, very strong.

And it did sort of maybe keep the size of the tumors at bay but it really messed up her hands and feet and she had to go off the drugs because of something else that had happened, radio ablation where they caught a bit of the intestine and anyway, so, you know, I mean these, the treatment, I mean it's brutal.

GROSS: How did she deal with the fact that she was going to die because she probably - I assume she knew that...

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Well, the thing is you always, you know, you hope, you're always hoping that something is going to happen and she was just incredibly brave. And also, Kate was always the great escape artist - as I was saying, you know, when she hated unpleasant situations, she would always manage to extricate herself from these things, but this was one that she couldn't get out of.

And the only time she ever said anything was about a year and a half before she died. She said, how come nobody asks me what it feels like to be dying? And I said well, frankly, you know, like because we don't want to think about it. And maybe I was always very hopeful, too, but she must have known something was terribly wrong, because she did become I think maybe she just sort of gave in a little more towards the end.

GROSS: Did you take that as a cue that she wanted to talk about dying?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah. We did talk about it. But then when she was actually dying, which would've been a year later, I said tell me your deepest darkest thoughts. And she said I'm not thinking about anything. And then shortly afterwards she went into a coma.

GROSS: Now the whole family was there at the end.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah.

GROSS: And I read that you were all singing as she was in the coma.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: We were all in her room. I hope she didn't mind that. You know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: I hope. But everybody was singing and, you know, holding her hand and rubbing her legs and forehead. And it was the first time I ever saw anybody die and the first time for most people in that room.

GROSS: How has your life changed without her?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: For the first few months I, you know what, I hunkered down. I went home to where I live in Eastern Ontario because mostly I was afraid that I was going to go the same way and I developed hyperthyroidism in a bad way, which I had been walking around with and didn't know I had, and then finally got it treated and then I started to sort of come out of my shell a bit.

But I still have a hard time walking around in Montreal because everybody - we were always together; we did everything together. You know, when we were here we shopped together and, you know, we were in the car together running errands. It's that much harder.

GROSS: So Kate's children became singers and Rufus and Martha Wainwright. And Rufus, of course, became, you know, very well-known. Were you surprised to see them become performers?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: I wasn't surprised to see Rufus become a performer because Kate, I mean she brought out the musician in him from a very early age, you know, as did my mother. He always sang for her, you know, when he was three or four years old, and then he, you know, he took piano lessons. So, and he was never shy either.

And I think what happens is when kids grow up in a family where their parents are both performers and they do get to sort of get on stage, they're not afraid of the stage as much.

And Martha, Kate used to worry that Martha couldn't carry a tune. And one night she and I snuck into a gig that Martha was doing with a band when she was 16 years old, because Martha was much more secretive about what she was doing. And I said but you're crazy. Of course, she can sing. She said oh, I'm really worried that she can't. And so we...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: We kind of skulked into this place and sat down in the dark. And then, of course, she came on and she sang two or three songs and she was fantastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So were you afraid of the stage when you were younger or even when you are older?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Yes. I never...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: I never liked the stage.

GROSS: Because?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: I don't know. Some people love it and some people don't love it. I mean I know a lot of performers who are, you know, who get sick before they go on stage.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, let's close with another song that's been reissued on "Tell My Sister." And I thought we would play "Go Leave," which is another song that your sister Kate McGarrigle wrote. Would you tell us the story behind this song?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Well, I wasn't there when she was writing it. But I believe this has to do with, you know, when Kate and Loudon broke up the first time and her last line is: hearts have a way of calling when they've been true. So there was a reconciliation. And the song, although terribly sad, has a happy ending at least for the time being.

GROSS: Are there any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: You know, I can't think of anything right now.

GROSS: That's fine. I just thought...

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: No, I just wish Kate could've been at these tribute concerts that are coming up. I mean, I was going to say the one strange thing about doing these songs for the concert is that the main girl isn't there. So in a way I've been sort of filling in playing her guitar part or her piano part or filling in for her voice, and it's a very strange feeling.

But in a way maybe when I'm singing her songs maybe that's why I want to do music more because I'm not singing my own songs, if that makes any sense to you. Maybe because she's speaking through me. Who knows?

GROSS: Well, Anna McGarrigle, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Thank you.

GROSS: And again, I'm so sorry about your sister. I really appreciate your being with us.

Ms. MCGARRIGLE: Thank you very much, Terry.

(Soundbite of song, "Go Leave")

MCGARRIGLE SISTERS: (Singing) Go, leave. She's better than me. Or at least she is stronger. She will make it last longer. That's nice for you.

Go, leave. Don't come back. No more am I for the taking. But I can't say that my heart's not aching. It's breaking in two.

GROSS: Anna McGarrigle will perform at tribute concerts in honor of her late sister Kate tomorrow and Friday night at Town Hall in New York. The new McGarrigle Sisters three CD set is called "Tell My Sister."

You'll find a link to a concert the McGarrigle Sisters performed in 2004 at Carnegie Hall on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new coming-of-age novel set at a high school for the performing arts. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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