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Anna McGarrigle: On Life Without Her Sister

The Canadian singer-songwriter discusses the death of her sister and singing partner Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. Their early albums have been remastered and are part of a new collection, which also includes previously unreleased songs.

44:56

Other segments from the episode on May 10, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 11, 2011: Interview with Anna McGarrigle; Review of Rachel DeWoskin's novel "Big Girl Small."

Transcript

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Anna McGarrigle: On Life Without Her Sister

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.
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'Big Girl Small': Humiliation, High School Style

TERRY GROSS, host:

Rachel DeWoskin's 2005 memoir "Foreign Babes in Beijing" took its title from
the Chinese nighttime soap opera she starred in about Western women footloose
in the capital city. Her new novel, "Big Girl Small," explores an outsider
trying to find her place in another kind of closed world: high school.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Don't read this novel if you have teenagers. Or ever were a
teenager - especially a teenage girl. It will bring back high school in raw,
oozing detail, like a psychic skinned knee. The cliques, the whispers, the
glossy girls, the frantic parties, the stupid drinking, the disconnected sexual
encounters and, perhaps worst of all, the carnival of lost souls that is the
lunchtime cafeteria. High school: a world so hostile to the outsider that even
a Navy SEAL might hesitate at the threshold.

There's one compelling reason, however, to ignore my warnings about Rachel
DeWoskin's new novel, "Big Girl Small": the voice of her narrator, Judy Lohden.
Judy is 16 - a sarcastic, smart, gutsy and thoughtful incarnation of 16 that
any parent would be reassured by. In addition to her other strengths, Judy also
possesses a Susan Boyle-sized voice, so her loving parents, who own a diner in
Ann Arbor, Michigan, scrape up the money to transfer her to the Darcy Arts
Academy, a private school for the performing arts. Here is Judy's description
of walking into Darcy that first day.

The halls were bulging with kids hugging each other, throwing books into their
lockers, slinging on fashionable backpacks, singing, leaping. It was like that
old movie "Fame." I felt sick, tried to focus on the student murals my parents
had pretended to admire. The lockers are all painted by students, too. It's a
big competition, of course, and there are stories of the most famous lockers
ever, like Sophie Armaria's. She graduated 10 years ago but people still
reminisce about how she painted herself naked on her locker, in thick,
glistening oil, so that the combination dial was one of her nipples.

The complication here is that Judy is a little person - all of three feet, nine
inches tall. In the novel, Judy's size functions as both reality and metaphor.
Practically speaking, being a dwarf affects Judy's every social encounter and
makes the whole high school ordeal harder. For the average-sized reader,
however, Judy's size is an intensified version of the alienation that all of us
who were marked as different - by accent, class, weight, acne, sexual
preference, shyness, you name it – can remember.

Things seem to go surprisingly well for Judy during her first months at Darcy.
She bonds with a couple of other outsider girls: Molly, one of the few African-
Americans at the school, and goth Sarah, whose dyed, oily black hair and
piercings - Judy describes her as looking riddled by bullets - mask a sweet
personality.

Judy lands a showcase part in the fall show and even picks up a boyfriend of
sorts, Kyle, a standard-sized hottie. Maybe her parents' anxious hope that
she'll become popular with the rest of the kids - or, as Judy wryly puts it -
become a beloved Lilliputian among the Brobdingnagians, has actually come true.

But, sadly, we readers know it ain't so. We know because Judy is telling us her
story retrospectively, in hiding, from a dump called The Motel Manor on the
edge of town. The press is looking for her, and so are her parents and friends.
Something really, really horrible happened to Judy at Darcy Arts Academy;
something that makes this novel's acknowledged forerunner, Stephen King's
"Carrie," read like a mere drop in the bloody bucket of teen humiliation.

"Big Girl Small" is not flawless. Just as Judy can't imagine a life beyond her
current miserable state of suspended animation at The Motel Manor, DeWoskin
can't seem to figure out how to give her novel an ending that's of a piece with
Judy's harsh experiences and her resilient response to them.

The ending that DeWoskin supplies here is too pat. But, apart from that
disappointment, "Big Girl Small" is a distinctive addition to the already
packed cosmic library of coming-of-age stories. As DeWoskin's novel wistfully
reminds us, the destruction-of-innocence plot never gets worn out because the
ways in which innocence can be destroyed are apparently infinite.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Big Girl Small" by Rachel DeWoskin. You can read an excerpt on our
website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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