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For Kate McGarrigle, Folk Music Was A Family Affair

Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle died Monday after a lifetime of making music with her family and friends. She was 63. McGarrigle grew up singing old French and Irish tunes with her parents and sisters, and went on to perform in a duo with her sister Anna.

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Other segments from the episode on January 22, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 22, 2010: Interview with Jonah Lehrer; Review of the film "Extraordinary Measures;" Obituary for Kate McGarrigle.

Transcript

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'How We Decide' And The Paralysis Of Analysis

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. If you're
someone who has a hard time making decisions, you may be interested in Jonah
Lehrer's book "How We Decide," which is now out in paperback. It's about what
neuroscientists, with the help of brain imaging, are learning about how the
human mind makes decisions. Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired.
He's also written for the New Yorker and other publications, and is the author
of "Proust was A Neuroscientist." He also writes a blog called The Frontal
Cortex. Terry spoke to Jonah Lehrer in March, when "How We Decide" was first
published.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Jonah Lehrer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you describe yourself as
pathologically indecisive. I relate to that.

Mr. JONAH LEHRER (Author, "How We Decide"): Yes. Guilty as charged.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so as an example, tell us about the decision you were struggling to
make that led to this book, this really important decision.

Mr. LEHRER: The revelation occurred in the cereal aisle of the supermarket. I
was sent to the supermarket with what seemed like simple instructions, which
was buy a box of Cheerios. And it wasn't until I got the supermarket that I
realized that there were 20 different kinds of Cheerios. There were original
Cheerios. There were honey-nut Cheerios, apple-cinnamon, multigrain, the
yogurt-with-the-berry thing, and then, of course, there are all the generic
varieties of Cheerios.

And so I found myself spending literally a half an hour, 30 minutes, in the
cereal aisle of the supermarket, trying to choose between boxes of Cheerios.
And that's when I realized I had a problem, and I became really curious as to
what was actually happening inside my head while I was struggling to make a
decision.

GROSS: Now, were you struggling to make this decision for your own breakfast,
or for somebody else's?

Mr. LEHRER: It was for my breakfast and my wife's breakfast. So it was clearly
a very weighty decision. You know, I won't bore you by discussing how hard it
is for me to choose floss and toothpaste.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEHRER: So this is something I struggle with every day. It's a classic case
of paralysis by analysis.

GROSS: Which means what?

Mr. LEHRER: Which means I'm simply thinking too much in the supermarket. I come
up with long lists of reasons to prefer honey-nut Cheerios, and then I look at
the apple-cinnamon Cheerios, and then I come up with long lists of reasons to
prefer apple-cinnamon Cheerios. And it goes on and on like that. I'm stuck in
this loop of self-consciousness, where I come up with reason after reason after
reason. And so it was really that very basic, everyday failure that really
first got me interested in the subject of decision-making.

GROSS: Now, one of the things you learned for sure from writing your book is
that sometimes too much information is a really bad thing when it comes to
making a decision, and that's part of the predicament you were in. You had all
these different brands, and they each have a certain, like, topping and a
certain amount of sugar, and...

Mr. LEHRER: And there's price. I mean, there are so many variables to consider.

GROSS: Right, right, yeah. So is that - was that part of your problem in the
supermarket aisle, and why is too much information so paralyzing?

Mr. LEHRER: Yeah, that was definitely, I think, a big part of my problem. And I
think the reason too much information is paralyzing ultimately gets back to the
brain and the way the brain is built and the fact that our prefrontal cortex,
the part of the brain that's responsible for these kinds of deliberate,
rational decisions - when we try to think through our breakfast options -
that's a pretty feeble part of the brain.

It's kind of depressing to hear that, but it's actually a relatively limited
and bounded part of the brain. It can only hold about seven pieces of
information in the prefrontal cortex at any given moment. So when you try to
think through, even a decision as banal as choosing a breakfast cereal, you can
very quickly overwhelm your prefrontal cortex.

GROSS: Wow. Now let me just ask you, before we get to other things that you
report on in your book, if you were making that decision in that same
supermarket aisle now, knowing what you know now about the brain and decision-
making, how would you do it differently?

Mr. LEHRER: I still take a little too long in the cereal aisle, to be perfectly
honest. But now what I try to do is I try to honestly pay attention to what I
refer to in the book as the emotional brain, that part of my brain that has a
better understanding of what I actually want to eat for breakfast.

So I try to really pay close attention to that, and, you know, and eavesdrop on
my, you know, on my own brain and try not to pay so much attention to the
reasons I'm generating on the fly and actually listen closer to my feelings.

GROSS: You write in your book, though, you know, we're supposed to be rational
creatures. Plato wrote about how we're rational creatures, and we should be
making rational decisions. But you learned that that's not exactly how
decision-making works, that there's a lot of emotional parts of the brain that
come into play when making an intelligent decision. Can you talk a little bit
about that part of the brain and how it helps inform decision-making?

Mr. LEHRER: Well, Plato had this great metaphor for the mind, which was that
there's this rational charioteer, and it's his job to oversee these emotional
horses who tend to run wild. And you know, this is - you know, reason's in the
seat, reason's in the driver's seat, and we make the best decisions when we
trust the rational charioteer.

I think most scientists would modify that metaphor a bit and say, well, it's
not quite a, you know, rider with reigns on horses. It's more like a rider
trying to control an elephant, and the elephant is the emotional brain, and we
have much less control over what we actually do than we think we do.

It's sort of the illusion of rationality, where we're great at rationalizing
decisions, but we're not quite so rational. And so what I refer to an emotional
brain, and what scientists tend to refer to as the emotional brain or limbic
system, is the collection of brain areas scattered throughout the cortex -
includes the amygdala, the insula, the nucleus accumbens, the ventral striatum
- brain areas that tend to traffic in Dopamine, and they generate all sorts of
subtle feelings that drive our behavior, even when we're not aware of them.

And I think one of the best examples of this comes from the work of a
neurologist named Antonio Demasio, who, in the early 1980s, was studying
patients who, because of a brain tumor, lost the ability to experience their
emotions. So they didn't feel the everyday feelings of fear and pleasure. And
you'd think, if you were Plato, that these people would be philosopher-kings,
that they would be perfectly rational creatures. They'd make the best set of
decisions possible. And instead, what you find is that they are like me in the
cereal aisle, that they're pathologically indecisive, that they would spend all
day trying to figure out where to eat lunch.

They'd spend five hours choosing between a blue pen or a black pen or a red
pen, that all these everyday decisions we take for granted, they couldn't make.
And that's because they were missing these subtle, visceral signals that were
telling them to just choose the black pen or to eat the tuna fish sandwich or
whatever. And then when we're cut off from these emotional signals, the most
basic decisions become all but impossible.

GROSS: You know, brain imaging is being used to help scientists, help
neurologists, understand the process of decision-making and which parts of the
brain come into play when decisions are being made. Are there parts of the
brain that the scientists are beginning to understand play a significant role
in the decision-making process?

Mr. LEHRER: I think one thing that's surprised scientists, that's become
visible in brain scanners, is what's sometimes referred to as the vulcanization
of the brain, the fact that there are - at any given moment, there's a
tremendous argument happening inside your cortex, that it's not simply one
brain area that reacts to one thing, that, you know, for example, choosing what
to buy activates this emotional tug of war inside your head, that some brain
areas respond to the pleasure of getting something new, of buying that new red
sweater, and other brain areas react to the pain of having to spend money.

And, you know, so this decision that seems like such a simple, easy decision,
that when you look under the surface of the brain, there's actually this tug of
war taking place, this argument taking place.

So I think that's one thing that brain scanners really allowed us to see, that
decisions often result from this argument happening inside the head.

GROSS: And is there a part of the brain that's responsible for integrating all
the different information that you're getting from the different parts of your
brain - the part of the brain that wants to buy the sweater, the part of your
brain that thinks you're spending too much, the part of your brain that thinks
maybe it doesn't look that good on me anyways?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEHRER: In the case of that shopping example, and this is a general truism,
it seems to be the prefrontal cortex. It seems to be different parts of the
frontal lobes, like the orbital frontal cortex, that are responsible for
integrating these emotions, and you know, and helping you integrate them into
your decision-making, you know, into what you actually choose to buy.

But I think one crucial thing to do in decision-making is not to force a
settlement onto the argument. I think what we too often do is we tend to shut
off different brain areas and kind of impose certainty from the top down. And I
think that's a bad thing, that it's sometimes disquieting for us to have these
emotional arguments taking place inside our head, to not know if we should
actually buy the red sweater.

And so I think what we too often do is turn off brain areas and ignore brain
areas that are trying to tell us something, that, you know, these feelings
coming from the unconscious, percolating up from below, they're signals that
are trying to tell us something. And I think too often, we shut them off and
ignore them just because we actually really want to buy the red sweater.

DAVIES: Science writer Jonah Lehrer's book "How We Decide" is now out in
paperback. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with science writer Jonah Lehrer,
author of the book "How We Decide."

GROSS: One of the things you write about in your book is Dopamine, and many of
us know that Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that's related to Parkinson's
disease. But you're not writing about Parkinson's, and you're not even writing
about Dopamine in terms of movement, and the symptom associated with a lack of
Dopamine in Parkinson's disease is an inability to move, or a twitching.

So where does Dopamine come into play in the process of decision-making?

Mr. LEHRER: It comes into play a lot. It's one of the crucial neurotransmitters
behind decision-making. I talk about Dopamine. I think Dopamine is often
associated with Parkinson's, and is also associated with stuff like sex, drugs
and rock 'n' roll. You know, it's the neurotransmitter responsible for all
those feelings we probably shouldn't indulge. It gets tossed around a lot when
people talk about stuff like cocaine and sex.

But Dopamine's even more important than that. It also seems to modulate many of
our feelings, from the pleasure of eating chocolate cake or a crack high to
feelings of fear and disgust.

So it, in many respects, is one of the key neurotransmitters of emotion in
general. And I think when you talk about decision-making, that's part of what
makes it so important. And I think there's also been a lot of really
interesting work, much of it done by a scientist named Wolfram Schultz at
Cambridge University, that have shown how Dopamine neurons react in detail to
the real world.

GROSS: Can you tell us about one of those studies?

Mr. LEHRER: His experiments observe a really elegant protocol. He'll monitor
individual Dopamine neurons in the brain of a monkey, and he'll show that at
first, the neurons respond to a reward, to a squirt of juice.

So if you give the monkey a squirt of juice, these Dopamine neurons will fire,
and the monkey experiences the pleasure of getting a squirt of apple juice.
That's the reward. But these neurons quickly adapt to the pleasure. So they
quickly stop firing.

That, you know, that makes perfect sense. You have an iPod. It makes you happy
for a day or two, and then it stops, you know, giving you squirts of joy every
time you look at the iPod. We adapt to these kind of hedonic pleasures.

But what Wolfram Schultz found is that if you then play a bell before giving
the monkey a squirt of juice, the Dopamine neurons will fire whenever you play
the bell. And if you flash a light before playing a bell before giving a squirt
a juice, they'll fire whenever you flash a light. And if you play a song before
flashing a light before ringing the bell, et cetera, et cetera, the Dopamine
neurons will always try to predict the reward.

So they're called prediction neurons. Their job is to predict the first event
that signals a reward is coming, a squirt of juice is coming. And so you can
begin to understand how these neurons are so important in terms of allowing us
to make sense of reality, in terms of finding the patterns and correlations and
causations that allow us to actually figure out what's going to happen, and
most importantly, from the perspective of evolution, figure out when our
squirts of juice are going to arrive - try to make sense of those rewards.

You know, and so you can begin to understand why they're so important for
decision-making in terms of allowing us to make decisions that allow us to
maximize our rewards.

GROSS: Another interesting study pertaining to Dopamine had to do with people
who develop gambling addictions. Tell us about that one.

Mr. LEHRER: I talked to a woman named Ann Klinestiver, who - she was diagnosed
with Parkinson's in 1998. And she was put on, like many Parkinsonian patients,
put on a drug called a Dopamine agonist. And the purpose of these drugs is to
increase the amount of Dopamine in the brain to help compensate for the massive
cell loss of Dopamine neurons in the back of the brain, the part of the brain
that controls bodily movement.

One of the common side effects of these drugs is gambling compulsions. Some
studies estimate that as many as 10 to 15 percent of patients on these drugs
develop some sort of gambling problem. And in the case of Ann, it's a very sad
story. It really ruined her life. She lost her entire life savings, more than a
quarter of a million dollars. Her husband left her.

It was a very traumatic experience. And, you know, one of the saddest parts of
the story to me is that it never occurred to her that it might be her
medication that was doing this. She thought it was that she just all of a
sudden discovered this thing she couldn't control.

As soon as she was taken off her Dopamine agonist in 2004, the compulsion
disappeared within the week, and she was all of a sudden able to control her
slot-machine habit. She had a compulsion for slot machines. She would spend 18
hours at a time putting quarters into one-armed bandits. And I think one of the
reasons slot machines and games of chance in general are so addictive is
because they hijack the Dopamine system.

The Dopamine system's great at finding patterns. It can find the pattern that
predicts a squirt of juice, but it's terrible at dealing with random systems.
It's terrible at dealing with that random-number generator inside the slot
machine, because it generates a consistently surprising reward.

So even though there's no pattern to find, we can't help but search for a
pattern.

GROSS: So explain a little bit more why taking this Dopamine-related drug would
turn somebody, would possibly turn somebody into a compulsive gambler.

Mr. LEHRER: Well, because what it does is the surviving Dopamine neurons in
mid-brain, the part of your brain that seems to respond to those kinds of
rewards in a casino, those kinds of rewards generated by, you know, the
clanging coin of a slot machine when you actually get some money in return,
those neurons were - became very saturated with neurotransmitters. So those
Dopamine neurons simply had too much Dopamine.

So when Ann got a reward from a slot machine, when she got some coins in
return, the end result was this surge of emotion, this surge of Dopamine that
signaled something really good had happened. And so she became transfixed by
this random system.

Her brain was literally trying to figure it out, in essence. It was trying to
find the pattern that predicted the clanging coins, that predicted when she
would win in the casino.

But the reality, of course, is that there's no pattern to be found, you know,
that no matter how hard her Dopamine neurons tried, they would never find the
sequence of events that predicted the payout. But because they were so
saturated with neurotransmitter because she was on this Dopamine agonist drug,
she simply couldn't walk away.

GROSS: You know, you point out that our brains weren't designed to deal with
the amount of information that we're confronted with now and the number of
choices that we're confronted with.

You say that some scientists think that we can deal with, say, four distinct
variables at any one time, and others say maybe between five and nine. But
still, that's a pretty low number of variables, considering the difficult
choices that we have to make now and the options that often present themselves,
both in silly, trivial and important, profound decisions.

So do you recommend trying to block out some of those variables to make a
decision possible?

Mr. LEHRER: You know, blocking out might not be the best option, but I think we
should definitely be conscious of the fact that we have limited machines, that
our brain isn't omnipotent and that it can only take in so much information at
any one time.

One of the studies I talk about in the book concerns a study done by a Stanford
psychologists who - they had two groups of people. One group they had memorize
a two-digit number. The other group they had memorize a seven-digit number.
Then they marched these two groups down the hall and gave them a choice between
two snacks.

One snack was a rich, gooey slice of chocolate cake. The other snack was a
responsible fruit salad. The people who memorized a two-digit number were twice
as likely to choose the fruit salad as the people who memorized the seven-digit
number, who were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake. And the reason
is that those extra five digits - doesn't seem like very much information at
all, just five extra numbers - so overwhelmed the prefrontal cortex that there
wasn't enough processing power leftover to exert self-control.

So that gives us a sense of just how limited in capacity our brain actually is
and, I think, points to the fact that we should absolutely be aware of these
limitations.

So that doesn't necessarily mean, you know, you have to block out information
and never use Google. I think it just means that we should be aware of this and
that if you've had a hard day at work or if you're trying to - you know, if you
just spent all morning on a crossword puzzle, then be aware that your
willpower's going to be a little bit weaker, that especially these rational
faculties of the brain are very limited in capacity.

GROSS: You know, in addition to writing about science in books and for the
Boston Globe, you have a blog and write about all kinds of interesting things
on there. What has gotten the most reaction of everything that you've written
about?

Mr. LEHRER: I think probably - this is probably a year ago. I wrote about a
series of experiments involving wine. And I've since learned about this
wonderful subculture on the Internet of wine aficionados. And this experiment
concerned an experiment done by a scientist at the University of Bordeaux, and
it was done on wine experts, people who were going to school to learn about
wine.

And he showed that basically you can trick these wine experts into believing
all sorts of silly stuff, that you could give them a white wine that was dyed
red, and they would describe this white wine in terms of, you know, they'd talk
about its crushed red fruit and how it smelled like blackberries and full of
tannins.

And you could give them a cheap wine, but if you served it in an expensive
bottle, it would be called refined and elegant. And these basic findings
wouldn't be surprising to a psychologist. We're doing this kind of stuff all
the time. The brain is constantly warping its sensations to reflect our
expectations, that in a sense we, you know, we see what we want to see and
taste what we want to taste and disregard the rest. And yet somehow when you
talk about it in terms of wine, people become very sensitive.

GROSS: You're very good at translating science, and I'm wondering how you got
interested in science. I think a lot of people would probably complain that
science isn't emphasized as much as they'd like in schools anymore. How did you
realize that you loved science?

Mr. LEHRER: You know, I've always loved science, and I always thought I'd be a
scientist. And I worked for several years in a really wonderful lab, the lab of
Ayr Kendell(ph) at Columbia. I was just a technician, you know, the manual
laborers of science. You make the gels and you do the PCRs and stuff like that.
And one of the things I learned from that was that I was a very bad scientist.

The post-doc I worked for, who remains a very close friend, used to joke that I
excelled at experimental failure, that I found new ways to make his experiments
not work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEHRER: And I think that, you know, I realized that as much as I love
science and the ideas of science, I didn't quite have the discipline. I didn't
love the process. I didn't love the actual experimentation. I wasn't good at
taking a very complex question and finding ways to parse it into very testable
questions.

So that's when I first got interested in science writing and the idea of
translating science, because as much as I love the ideas of science - and most
days, I still can't believe that someone lets me do this for a living, you
know, just getting to talk to scientists is as good as it gets - I found that I
wasn't good at the day-to-day science. And I think all great scientists really
excel - they don't just love the ideas. They also love the manual labor of
science.

GROSS: Jonah Lehrer, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. LEHRER: Thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: Writer Jonah Lehrer's book "How We Decide" is now out in paperback. He
also writes a blog called The Frontal Cortex. I'm Dave Davies, and this is
FRESH AIR.
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‘Extraordinary Measures’: The Least A Father Can Do

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

In 2006, Geeta Anand published a book called “The Cure: How a Father Raised
$100 Million and Bucked the Medical Establishment in a Quest to Save His
Children.” The book's now a film called “Extraordinary Measures,” starring
Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: There’s a basic tension in the true-ish documentary
“Extraordinary Measures” that lifts it above the formula disease-of-the-week
picture. Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, an executive at Bristol-Myers
Squibb with a daughter and son who have the rare Pompe Disease, a cousin to
muscular dystrophy that fatally weakens muscles — including the biggie, the
heart. Although Crowley works for Big Pharma, there’s no discussion in the
movie of his particular company doing research for a cure.

Pompe is an orphan disease, which means a giant pharmaceutical or biotech
entity has little financial incentive to pursue a treatment. Instead, the
distraught Crowley tracks down Robert Stonehill, played by Harrison Ford, a
cranky scientist in Nebraska with big ideas but few resources. With the clock
ticking on his children’s lives, Crowley forms a company with Stonehill and
goes in search of venture capital. He has to convince corporate bottom-liners
that despite his personal stakes, he can be objective. He can coolly calculate
profit margins and patient acceptable-loss percentages.

When a bigger company buys his own and there’s finally a drug to test, he
learns his dying daughter and son are too old for the first wave of trials. The
real Crowley, as portrayed in Wall Street Journal reporter Geeta Anand’s 2006
book “The Cure,” might even agree with Michael Moore on the doggone unfairness
of it all. But he rarely questions the economic system that both makes him and
his partners rich and would let his kids die. The screenplay by Robert Nelson
Jacobs doesn’t address that dichotomy directly either, but it hits it much
harder.

Jacobs and director Tom Vaughan build nearly every scene in the movie around
it. Ford’s character, Stonehill, is fictional — a composite allegedly — and his
confrontations with Crowley, whom he calls Jersey, come down to pure science
versus the marketplace. It’s a nasty moment, when Crowley informs Stonehill
he’s selling the company.

(Soundbite of movie, “Extraordinary Measures”) Mr. HARRISON FORD (Actor): (As
Dr. Robert Stonehill) What are you doing?

Mr. BRENDAN FRASER (Actor): (As John Crowley) Giving you a preview of what’s
going to happen if we are not in clinical trials in four months. Our investors
will turn up out the lights.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. FORD: (As Dr. Robert Stonehill) Science takes time, Jersey. Don’t they
understand?

Mr. FRASER: (As John Crowley) Yeah, they do. They can read the Wall Street
Journal, they see that Zymagen(ph) is testing three different Pompe drugs.

Mr. FORD: (As Dr. Robert Stonehill) They’re testing three because they don’t
know what the hell they’re doing. I’m testing one because it’s the right one.

Mr. FRASER: (As John Crowley) I know, I believe you, Bob. I want you to go toe
to toe with Zymagen scientists. That’s the reason I’ve entered into
conversations with them to buy our company.

Mr. FORD: (As Dr. Robert Stonehill) You're telling me? You're not asking me?

Mr. FRASER: (As John Crowley) Oh, come on, Bob. I’m just being fiscally
responsible.

Mr. FORD: (As Dr. Robert Stonehill) Nobody is going to tell me how to run my
lab.

Mr. FRASER: (As John Crowley) If I can engineer a deal, and that is a really
big if, you’re going to have to forgive me for all the money I'm going to make
you.

Mr. FORD: (As Dr. Robert Stonehill) I don’t care about money. I’m a scientist.
I care about more important things than that.

Mr. FRASER: (As John Crowley) Don’t tell me about more important things to care
about.

EDELSTEIN: That scene is very Hollywood, and “Extraordinary Measures” comes on
as a conventionally inspiring story of courage and determination. But as in the
recent Will Smith vehicle “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the filmmakers attempt to
strike a balance between good old-fashioned Horatio Alger capitalist hustle and
the primal dread of not being able to protect one’s children. Anyway, I cried -
a lot. I’m a sucker for kids on ventilators wasting away. When Crowley tells
his little blonde daughter in the ICU with a tube in her arm that he’ll find a
special medicine to save her, she makes him promise it will be pink.

Dark pink, not light pink, which is babyish. That killed me. And while
“Extraordinary Measures” has a soppy piano-and-strings score, the fear under
every scene gives the film an edge. Fraser doesn’t suggest the drive of the
real Crowley, who looks like a cross between Tom Cruise and Steve Carell, but
he’s such a haggard lump of vulnerability that my heart went out to him.
Harrison Ford’s company bought the rights to Geeta Anand’s book and the role of
Stonehill has been made to fit his mature temperament.

Which is to say, he barks a lot and never cracks a smile. Something bilious in
Ford seems to have taken over and worn him down to sinews and sourness. He’s
not especially convincing as an eccentric, obsessive scientist who blasts rock
and roll while scrawling equations — for one thing, he looks like he works out
too much. But he is the star who made “Extraordinary Measures” possible. If the
film does well and Pompe Disease gets more attention and more funding, well —
that’s the showbiz side of capitalism that strives for a balance between box-
office and beneficence.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Coming up, we
remember singer Kate McGarrigle who died Monday. This is FRESH AIR.
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For Kate McGarrigle, Folk Music Was A Family Affair

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian singer and songwriter who made memorable
recordings with her sister Anna died Monday of cancer at her home in Montreal.
She was 63. The McGarrigle sisters were known for warm harmonies and evocative
love songs. Critic John Rockwell once described their music as delicate and
subtle, so vulnerable and private that you sometimes want to turn your head
away. The McGarrigle Sisters' first album was released in 1975, though by then
their music had already been recorded by other artists, including Linda
Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur.

They never had a pop hit but they recorded 10 albums and kept performing even
as Kate was being treated for cancer. Their last album was released in 2005.
Many of their performances included Kate’s children, Rufus and Martha
Wainwright. Kate was married to Loudon Wainwright in the 1970s. Today we’re
going to listen to an interview and performance Terry recorded with Kate and
Anna McGarrigle in 1993. They opened with Anna’s song “Heart like a Wheel.”

(Soundbite of song, “Heart like a Wheel”)

Ms. ANNA MCGARRIGLE (Singer): (Singing) Some say a 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 like 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,
only love, that can wreck a human being and turn him inside out, that can wreck
a human being and turn him inside out, some say a 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 like that ship out in mid ocean, and it’s only love, only
love, and it’s only love, and it’s only love, only love, only love, and it’s
only love, and it’s only love, and it’s only love…

GROSS: It’s a beautiful song and beautifully sung. Thank you both for doing it,
Kate and Anna McGarrigle. With the song that you just did, “Heart Like a
Wheel,” I think Anna that was the first song that you wrote.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah.

GROSS: It just seemed impossible to me. You know, to just start off with
something that good.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Well, sort of an awkward little song. But anyway…

GROSS: Why did you – wait - why are you calling it awkward?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Well, because it’s sort of moves. It changes metaphors in
the first verse, you know. And it’s just - I think it was just kind of written
off the top of my head. And I didn’t think about what I was doing.

GROSS: And that’s one of the songs that helped establish you commercially, I
think, because Linda Ronstadt recorded it. There’s another singer that helped
establish your reputations.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, as songwriters - and that’s Maria Muldaur…

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: That’s right.

GROSS: …who recorded some of your songs.

Ms. ANNA MCGARRIGLE: Yeah.

GROSS: And one of those songs was – one of your songs, Kate, “Mendocino.”

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: No, she didn’t…

GROSS: She didn’t record “Mendocino.”

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: No, “The Work Song,” Linda Ronstadt recorded later on, but
“The Work Song.”

GROSS: Play a few bars of that, “The Work Song.”

(Soundbite of song, “The Work Song”)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

(Speaking) That one?

GROSS: So what...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...was it like for you to have other people doing your songs? This was
before you had started recording your songs.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Right. It was great. It was truly terrific. To have
something that you’ve written come out - I remember Maria Muldaur did the song
on "The Johnny Carson Show" and she said, I’d like to thank my friend Kate
McGarrigle for writing or something like that, and I was just thrilled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how did you start performing your own songs after other people
started doing them?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Well, on Maria's second record, there was a song she - at
this point what she did or what her producers did, they said, well, the first
record worked so well, let's get some more songs from the same writers. So
David Nichtern and myself and a bunch of other people, and so I gave her a tape
and she learned the song called "Cool River" and they flew me out. And I wasn’t
sure what song they were doing. They said come out and play the piano. And I
got to the studio and they were in the session with about six, you know, heavy
duty musicians. And they said played the piano, please. And I said I don’t know
the song and they said, well, I thought you wrote it. You gave us a tape. And I
said no, that's my sister Anna. And they really didn’t know about Anna. And
they said, well, where is she? I said in Montreal. And they actually said, do
you think she'd come out here if we called her up, and I called you, right?

Ms. ANNA MCGARRIGLE: Only too happy to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: I think I brought my accordion out with me.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: And so she came out, and at that point we'd already changed
- but since we were both there we sang backup on her version and that came out
on her second record, "Waitress In A Donut Shop." And then Greg
Prestinpino(ph), who was working - helping her get songs, said - can I bring
the girls into the studio since they're both out here? And all that happened in
a week, and literally we went in, put down maybe six or seven songs that we had
written, not really knowing each other's songs that much but, you know, Anna
had had the lyric sheets to my song. She would sing harmony, I'd sing harmony
to her songs. That's why we all ended up singing our own songs at the piano.

GROSS: Let me skip ahead a little bit and let's hear a more recent song than
the song we opened with. And Kate, this is one of your songs. It's called "I
Eat Dinner." Do want to say anything about writing it, Kate, before we hear it?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Everybody thinks the song's about me, but it’s actually
about Frida Kahlo. I know Anna says...

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: The painter? The painter?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah. There's an excerpt in the biography of her by Hayden
Herrera saying where she's between husbands and lovers or somebody's left her.
At this point two people have left her and she writes a letter to a friend
saying for the first time in my life I'm having dinner by myself at the kitchen
table without any candles on it. I mean it was just - it was the vision because
this woman had her life full.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: And...

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: So Kate said, let me see now, I don't have anybody in my
life right now. I have a very pokey little kitchen with a little round table
and I just happen to have a daughter, but it was, I think - Kate says it's not
really about her but I think it is.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: I don’t eat leftovers.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: That's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why don’t we hear the song?

(Soundbite of song, "I Eat Dinner")

KATE & ANNA MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) Never thought that I'd end up this way, I who
loved the sparks. Never thought my hair'd be turning to gray. It used to be so
dark. So dark. I eat dinner at the kitchen table. By the light that switches
on. I eat leftovers with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance.
No more small talk. When the hunger’s gone. When the hunger’s gone. I eat
dinner at the kitchen table. And I wash it down with pop. I eat leftovers with
mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When
the hunger stops. When the hunger stops. Never thought that I’d end up like
this. I who loved the night.

Never thought I’d be without a kiss. No one to turn off the light. Turn off the
light. I eat dinner at the kitchen table. With my daughter who is now
seventeen. We eat leftovers of mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more
romance. No more small talk. When the plate is clean. No more candlelight. No
more romance. No more small talk. When the hunger’s gone. When the hunger’s
gone. When the hunger’s gone. When the hunger’s gone. When the hunger’s gone.
When the hunger’s gone.

GROSS: Kate and Anna McGarrigle, what a wonderful song. And I guess maybe,
Kate, it’s a little bit about you and a little bit about Frida Kahlo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Well, yes, I suppose so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I want to get back to where we were before that, you hadn’t started
performing together till after you recorded back up vocals for Maria Muldaur. I
imagine as kids, you sang and performed, or at least in the house together?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah. Our father thought it very important that we know how
to sing and play. I don’t why, but our parents played at parties of people. I
mean, like they weren’t professional musicians, but my father – my mother, a
very lovely singing voice and he would always accompany her. And they would
sing the party songs.

And he was very, very musical. My father is very musical. And he would teach us
songs and - which we thought were dreadfully boring at the time, but he’d
actually say, you know, I'll give you a nickel for one of the songs or
something like that. We - and - but he would - he found it very important to
teach us what he knew, the songs that he knew.

GROSS: What kind of songs did you think of as boring that he taught to you?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Well, he was - the stuff that he liked, really, was stuff
that was praised. My father was born in 1899. MY father is born in 1899. So –
and he was in the First War. So, in a way, there is a whole period in there of
kind of sentimental ballads of people going away and a lot of them not coming
back.

I mean, my mother remembering her mother crying because her brother was killed.
The passion (unintelligible) and I kind of - and there were many songs that we
heard later like an old John McCormack record and stuff, but mostly American
songs that had to do with people going away. I guess because of that, that war,
that was the first kind of war, which included Stephen Foster songs and that
kind of stuff.

GROSS: Do you think that’s responsible, at all, for the melancholy strain in so
many of her songs?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Absolutely. I – we’re explaining last time, we sang the song
- a song called "Gentle Annie" by Stephen Foster and I sort of said this is the
first song I remember my father playing or hearing. And, of course, he taught
it to us and I – and Kate sort of jokingly said other people had songs, you
know, sort of happy, sort of children songs and I said we always had songs of
death…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: …you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: But I mean we were an incredibly happy family. Nobody is
really sad in our family. I think we all, sort of, fairly well adjusted.

DAVIES: We are listening to a performance and interview recorded in 1993 with
Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Kate McGarrigle died Monday at the age of 63. We will
hear more of their FRESH AIR visit after this break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We are remembering singer and songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died
earlier this week by listening back to the performance and interview Terry
recorded with Kate and her sister Anna in 1993.

(Soundbite of past interview)

GROSS: How do you work out the harmonies when you’re working up a song?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: I guess it depends on the song. I was going to say - I would
say less and less - we’re seem to concentrate less and less on harmonies now,
let’s say when we’re on the studio because of our last things "Heartbeat Is
Accelerating" where we had a producer who really – he wanted to get a certain
sound. And I don’t think he wanted big block harmonies, that was what he was
into, but we’ve done all that stuff before like on – on…

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: "Kitty Come Home."

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: "Kitty Come Home" on our second record, you know…

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: "Dancer With Bruised Knees."

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: We just layered and layered stuff.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Eighteen tracks.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: But there is a definite way where we – the way we don’t want
to have them sound and I can’t – when they just too blocking…

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Right.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: …sound and when you have – what note is it on the bottom
that we don’t want, normally.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: The third, the third, you know…

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: It’s third from the bottom. I think also it was nice to have
wide, wider spaces between them as opposed to what I just think is very closed
up together, but also depending whether you are singing from your higher range
or your lower range.

GROSS: So, you live about 90 minutes away from each other…

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: That’s right.

GROSS: …is it good to have that distance so that you’re not with each other all
the time?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: I don’t think it would make any difference. I mean, I think
we probably - you know, when Anna comes to town it’s a great joy for me.
Instead of rehearsing we go shopping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah, the thing is…

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: It’s funny I think as you get older and you have families of
your own - like you just don’t – you don’t have time sometimes for your old
friends. And I miss that. You know, but I also know that Kate is my best friend
and I hope I’m her best friend.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: You’re my only friend.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Yeah, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Kate, so mean is that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: That is awful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: But we are - we are very, very close.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: And I have great bread stores in my street within one block.
I have four in – beautiful – they make beautiful French bread. So when Anna
comes to town, she was this kind of rinky dink…

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Oh, I can get it.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: We can get it.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Like that all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KATE MCGARRIGLE: Because Anna was in the country, so she can only get city
food, but when you live in the city, you get beautiful stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let me ask you to close with another song. And this is a song from your
most recent album from…

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: "Heartbeats…"

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: "…Accelerating."

GROSS: "Heartbeat Is Accelerating." The song is "Love Is." Before you perform
it for us, this is a song that was written by both of you and…

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: And our sister Jane.

GROSS: …your other sister Jane. How did you collaborate on it?

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Anna and Janie wrote this. I actually wrote one line.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: She wrote the best line.

GROSS: And wasn’t it generous of them to give you credit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Very generous, I thank them very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: I really do.

GROSS: And who is playing what on this?

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Kate is playing the nylon string guitar and…

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: And singing back up.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: That’s right, singing back up. And I’m playing the piano and
singing lead - front up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Okay.

GROSS: Well, before we hear "Love Is," let me thank you both a lot for doing
the concert. Thanks so much for being here.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: Thank you very much.

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: Thank you very, very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Is")

Ms. A. MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) Love is a shiny car, love is a steel guitar, love
is a battle scar, love is a morning star. Love is a twelve-bar blues, love is
your blue suede shoes, love is a heart abused. Love is a mind confused. Love is
the pleasures I’m told and for some love is still a band of gold. My love has
no reason, has no rhyme. My love cross the double line. And love is the
pleasures I’m told and for some love is still a band of gold. My love has no
reason, has no rhyme, my love cross the double line my love cross the double
line my love cross the double line my love cross the double line.

Ms. K. MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) My love has no reason, has no rhyme. My love cross
the double line. And love is the pleasures I’m told and for some love is still
a band of gold. My love has no reason, has no rhyme, my love cross the double
line my love cross the double line my love cross the double line my love cross
the double line.

DAVIS: Kate and Anna McGarrigle in a performance and interview recorded with
Terry Gross in 1993. Kate McGarrigle died Monday of cancer. She was 63. She
survived by her sister Anna and her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright.

For Terry GROSS, I’m Dave Davis.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
122852503

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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