Perfect Sound Forever

Anna McGarrigle & Gabby McGarrigle

Anna (left) and sister Kate

interviews by Georgia Christgau
(April 2012)

When you visited the McGarrigle Sisters in Montreal, Canada, it was a package deal: Mother, sisters, husbands, children, assorted friends were all present and stayed close by. Anna was more circumspect than Kate, and while Gaby (Gabriel, Kate and Anna's mother) deferred and disclaimed, this interview (which took place on November 18, 1976) evidences her support of, respect for, and pride in them both.

GC: I'm old and gray, my car says.

ANNA: I have to do that to my car, warm it up about 5 minutes (she has an old '50s American car, turquoise).

GC: How many miles does it have on it?

ANNA: 73,000. The thing is my car may have gone around one time already because it's so old, a 55. Did you notice if Kate had that tapestry bag of hers?

GC: I think so. I did see it someplace. The first thing I wanted to know was, if you could tell me what influences you've had. Do you have any heroines? Like musical or otherwise?

ANNA: Well (pause)

GC: You can even tell me people I won't know. Like John McCormick.

ANNA: Yeah, well that's a voice and also it's combined with the kind of music he sang. I don't really know John McCormick's opera singing that well but I know all those sorts of schlocky Irish songs and some of them are…

GC: Why are they schlocky?

ANNA: Well, I mean they're very romantic. A lot of people totally dismiss them as being sort of the crap that John McCormick sang, I don't know, maybe to make money or something, because he had given up his opera career to go into film.

GC: Do you think that "Heart Like A Wheel" is schlocky?

ANNA: Yeah, well a lot of people find it extremely corny, but I love corny things so obviously that's the stuff that's going to appeal to me.

GC: Have you lived in Montreal all your life? Ever live anywhere else for a while?

ANNA: No, I've always lived in this general area. Here or Montreal (we were driving from Gardencourt to Morin Heights).

GC: The thing that impresses me about being here is, the close relationships that you have with the people that you work with and the people in your family, not just Kate. People who seem to have become like your family.

ANNA: Yeah, the thing is, we're all, it's a very incestuous little scene in Montreal with our friends. Because not only were they people that we sang with, actually we don't seem to have too many girl friends, but of the people we seem to spend the most time with most often are the guys we have sung with. Still sing and play. And a lot of our practices in the old days would just kind of turn into parties where we wouldn't sing. we'd always have our own parties or else go to a friend who also sang, maybe with something with we didn't know really well but if he was also single then he would become our friend and we would become his friends and the group would just kind of branch out.

GC: How do you mean it's incestuous?

ANNA: Because we sang with them, also because we went out with them--they were our boyfriends, and then they became something like our closest friends.

GC: How did you meet Dane? (Dane Lanken, Anna's husband)

ANNA: Dane I met in Saint-Sauvaur (Quebec) in 1963 on my father's birthday. October 13. He'd come up with some friends and was staying over with some other people. I kind of met him that weekend, saw him on and off for a year, then eventually started going out with him. Living with him.

GC: Do you feel like, have you always been writing songs since you met him?

ANNA: Since I met Dane? Oh, I just started writing songs about the same time as Kate, about 1969. Actually, Kate wrote a song, collaborated with somebody else in 1966 in a National Film Board centennial project. She wrote a song that was used in the film and she and I sang it. I guess that was probably the first sort of important thing that we'd done. But then we both started writing. Kate was singing with a duo with this other girl who played guitar and they needed material, so she was writing and I tried to write some; they sing the ones they liked.

GC: Did you feel like, you seem very well organized about your career and about…

ANNA: I am? (laughter)

GC: … getting things exactly the way you want them.

ANNA: Yeah, I was going to say, you never know 'til you hear it, whether it's exactly what you want.

GC: Uh huh. Do you feel like it interferes with your relationship with Dane at all, to be so busy?

ANNA: Well, the thing is, I'm busy in spurts, like now. But there's a lot of periods where I'm not really doing anything. Sure, it's a strain on the relationship, it really is.

GC: How is it different from before you were working so much? Just 'cause you're not around or…

ANNA: The thing is, Dane has had the same schedule, working later afternoons into the evening, coming home between 8 and 2 in the morning, depending on what night it is, whether it's getting ready for the weekend paper or what. I work sort of half the year doing just about any kind of work I could find- that's when we started living together, and I was used to his routine. I had a 9 to 5 job, but I was also sort of off for six months and (was) kind of able to stay up late, do all the things around his schedule, since it was the one we were used to, and he's still got the same schedule; now suddenly I'm in, I have a new job, which is making records, the songwriting part I can do at home. I just love to spend hours sitting and playing, but the record-making part is the new job. You don't ever really know when you'll be busy, if we'll be busy at all, next year.

GC: What about touring?

ANNA: Well we've only done one tour, and that was the summer, in England, and the Continent, and we were successful, and that was an up for us, so we're anxious to go back and do it again. We were well received. But I don't know what it's really like to be away from home for long periods of time. When we made the first record, Joe Boyd and Greg Prestopino who was working on that record and the three of us were flown into New York and put up in apartments there, because Kate was there at the time, and she had Rufus, it was kind of the most convenient thing to do. And I lived in this apartment by myself and I was really incredibly lonesome up there because I wasn't used to ever living by myself.

GC: How did you work it out?

ANNA: Well, I mean… the thing is, I had to go to work every day, which meant sort of going into the studio and that was OK. But if we didn't have to go in one day or we were in for a very short period and come home, you wouldn't exactly be exhausted: I mean, if you sit around and read, or I rented a television. I mean, you just kind of overcome it eventually, sort of. Every opportunity I got, I'd go home, back to Montreal.

GC: I've never seen this close knit a group of people. Maybe when I was in college, but then we knew we were together for a few years and then we would all go our separate ways. And the other time I experienced this kind of closeness was when I lived in a collective, and I think that we knew that our being close depended on our continued living together, or we thought that it did, the intensity of it. So when somebody started going out with someone else who wasn't in the house, or people in the house broke up, everyone got insecure 'cause we knew that in the end, we knew in the back of our minds that people who weren't related were not gonna stay real real close the rest of their lives. One guy had two children and an ex-wife, there were all kinds of outside entanglements and eventually it broke up. But that was the best living arrangement I was ever in. The most intense and the most fun, where I felt like I was contributing something to the lives of other people and getting something back, too. Plus we were all working on the same thing which was kind of like you working on your music with your friends. So I think that must really help your work a lot.

ANNA: Yeah, it does.

GC: I wonder if it's helped your work evolve, change from what it was at the beginning to now, if it's made it get better, or if it maybe threatens to make your work stay the same because you're always around the same people. You think there's a fear of that?

ANNA: Well, I can't speak for Kate, but I think kind of we're in the same boat as it were, you know like I don't think that there should be some kind of huge evolution. You know, it's a very slow moving thing. I'm always suspicious of people who evolve very rapidly, it just doesn't seem real somehow.

GC: Can you give an example of someone you think that's happened to?

ANNA: Well, I don't know, I'm just (thinking) sort of to going from a guy who was a folk singer who suddenly became an acid rock guitar player.

GC: What about Bob Dylan?

ANNA: I think he's evolved actually quite slowly.

GC: I do too. Somebody like David Bowie?

ANNA: David Bowie I don't know that well.

GC: Believe me, he changed every season. Whatever was in. But actually, I like him.

ANNA: But it works for some people. The thing is, I'm not putting down people who do that kind of thing, 'cause that's what he is, an entertainer. It's a whole show, and that's a very valid thing, like people who paint in a variety of styles. I mean, it's kind of hard to figure. I kind of guess he doesn't want to get to know something, through a record or a painting. It's difficult, when there are too many changes.

GC: What do you think people get to know about you from your records?

ANNA: Um, oh… I don't know. (laughter)

GC: I mean, what do you think you communicate?

ANNA: I really have no idea. (laughter)

GC: An honest person.

See our interview with Gabriel 'Gabby' McGarrigle
Also see our Kate McGarrigle interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER