The Montréal of the McGarrigles

Richard Burnett

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ+ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

Canadian folk icons Kate and Anna McGarrigle and their musical family are adored in their hometown of Montréal. Their songs have been famously performed and recorded by everybody from Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris to Billy Bragg and Pet Shop Boys.

Kate and Anna’s longtime collaborator – as a songwriter and performer – was their older sister, music industry veteran Jane McGarrigle who produced their 1982 album Love Over and Over. She also managed their career from the mid-seventies through the nineties.

Kate died of sarcoma cancer in 2010, but the spirit and music of the McGarrigles live on. About Jane and Anna’s critically-hailed 2015 family memoir Mountain City Girls, Emmylou Harris is quoted on the back flap, “From the moment I met the Mountain City Girls, Kate, Anna and Jane, I wanted to be a part of that magical McGarrigle circle – the songs, the suppers, the families and fellow travellers, and they blessed me with it all.”

All three McGarrigle sisters were born in Montréal before their family relocated to Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts just north of the city. But the family – including Kate’s children Rufus and Martha Wainwright – has deep connections to the city: Kate studied engineering at McGill University, Anna studied painting at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal, Rufus got his start playing at the now-closed legendary Café Sarajevo on Clark Street, Martha runs her community art and event venue Ursa Montréal in Mile End, and Place Kate-McGarrigle in the city’s Outremont borough was inaugurated in 2013.

The hugely popular McGarrigle Christmas concerts have become a yuletide tradition and benefit The Kate McGarrigle Fund and The Kate McGarrigle Foundation to combat cancer.

Jane McGarrigle shares some favourite memories about her famous family and hometown.

Why do you love Montréal?

Jane McGarrigle: I find it a very livable city. I’ve lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans and I always end up back here. I’m tickled by its diversity. I remember standing behind a Jamaican lady in an auto parts store – she was struggling a bit describing in French what she wanted to the young Portuguese guy behind the counter. He was very helpful and found her the part. So Montréal!

What is your favourite thing to do in Montréal?

JM: Pre-pandemic, it was Ursa, Martha’s little club in Mile End. She and Anna’s daughter Lily Lanken put on cultural events – films and talks, like the film bio of architect Gordon Mattah Clark, a Norman McLaren evening, live concerts – always prix-fixe with a beautiful meal and glass of wine. In these times, my favourite place is in Montréal-adjacent Saint-Sauveur at our family home where we can spread out over five places and meet around a winter fire or summer barbecue.

What was it like to work with your sisters? Did you have the special gift of sibling harmony, on and off the stage?

JM: Sometimes, sometimes not. We were partners in more than one endeavour and the crossover could be complicated and sometimes contentious. It couldn’t have been easy for them having their big sister directing traffic … or trying to.

With Anna, you co-authored Mountain City Girls. The narrative ends circa 1975. Can we expect a sequel one day? 

JM: It ended there because Kate and Anna’s career began then and Anna didn’t want to do a career biography. I think a book not strictly a career biography, but stories of the zanier tours, concerts and recording experiences, would be fun. A lot of material there if we just sat down and wrote it.

Do you have a favourite memory about your sister Kate that you could share with us?

JM: In March 2009, Kate and Anna were driving back to Montréal after overseeing some editing in a New York studio. Kate was at the wheel of her Mini, her left arm in a sling because of a compound fracture – the result of a skating accident – but that didn’t stop her from burning up the road. She’d been making that run since the seventies and knew it well.

Two hours outside of Montréal, a young state trooper pulled them over. He ran her plate, and after a very long wait and much back and forth on his phone, he turned up two unpaid speeding tickets dating back to 1990 that, mysteriously, had never surfaced in previous traffic stops. Despite Anna’s tearful protests that her sister had terminal cancer and needed gentle treatment, the trooper made Kate get out of the car into the cold, cuffed her – broken arm and all – and locked her in the backseat of his cruiser.

Anna followed them to the courthouse where Kate was arraigned and given a court date in May. Kate offered to pay on the spot, but no – she must be taken to the county jail to be searched, booked and have her mugshot taken. Back out to the cruiser, still in cuffs, Anna dutifully following them in the Mini to the county jail in a neighbouring town. Only once she was processed was Kate’s Visa card accepted in payment of the $650 in outstanding fines. She was released at midnight, and they got back in the Mini and pointed it North. Anna still refers to this adventure as “Good ol’ Mountain Dues.”

What is one of your most memorable Montréal concerts with your sisters?

JM: The COMPLAINTE POUR SAINTE CATHERINE concert at Le Spectrum in November of 1983, on the Feast of Sainte-Catherine, patron saint of old maids. Kate commissioned a painting of herself as Sainte-Catherine that turned out beautifully and we used it as a poster. We put quite elaborate costumes together and had a lot of guests. Kate was Sainte-Catherine, Anna was Joan of Arc – so she could wear a mini-skirt, Kate was convinced – and I was Santa Lucia with a crown of blinking lights and a 5-lb battery pack. The preparation was as much fun as the actual show.

How would you characterize your family’s relationship with Montréal?

JM: My father was from St. John, New Brunswick, and came to Montréal as a young man. My mother was deeply connected to Montréal. She was born here and went to St. Patrick’s Parish School as a girl. Later she worked for the Bronfmans till she and my father were married in 1935. She loved Montréal and she loved St. Catherine Street. I had a convertible back in the eighties and I’d put the top down and drive her around town. She’d say, “Take me to St. Catherine Street!” We’d linger at the corner of Peel so she could reminisce about her days as a young business girl. She had many good stories.

Learn how you can support The Kate McGarrigle Fund in Canada and The Kate McGarrigle Foundation.  

Richard Burnett

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ+ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

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