Kate & Anna McGarrigle – Tell My Sister

 I absolutely love demos.  You should know this by now of course, not least because I have spent the last year endlessly rattling on about music, even if it wasn’t a demo in the first place, has been brutally re-engineered to make damn sure it sounds like one.

These demos, on the other hand, are just fucking beautiful and need no polish to improve them. Tell My Sister is actually a three CD box set, containing two re-releases and a collection of demos.  The re-releases are the McGarrigle’s first two albums – lovely in themselves, but not really what I want to talk about here.  Go and find and listen to them for yourselves; they really are worth it.

Given I already own the first two records, albeit on secondhand vinyl which isn’t in particularly good condition, for me this release is all about the third disc: the collection of twenty-one demos, odds and ends.

My relationship with the McGarrigles is a slightly elusive one, actually.  Their music conjures all sorts of powerful nostalgia in me, probably because my parents had both their first albums when I was a kid.  That sounds sensible enough, but I don’t remember them actually playing them that much, despite the fact that they loved both records.

I think it might have something to do with my Dad being Canadian, although I’m not sure.  My Mum listened to a lot of chart pop – Kate Bush, David Bowie, ABC, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and The Pet Shop Boys.  The music my Dad brought into the house, however, was often North American: stuff like Bob Dylan, The Band, Neil Young and Tom Waits.  I say North American because, being raised in Austria and spending much more time with my English family than Canadian, I didn’t distinguish the fact that Neil Young was Canadian and Bob Dylan American, in particular, it was all just from ‘over there’.

For what I guess are probably similar reasons I also always found the fact that I am half-Canadian to be kind of mysterious.  I had a very vague relationship with the country and with my family over there, and even now it seems kind of odd that I carry a Canadian passport, given I’ve never really lived in the country.

I may not have associated Neil Young with Canada in particular, but that was definitely not the case with the McGarrigles.  There are several possible reasons for this.  Partly, my Dad knew them from when he studied at McGill, albeit it only kind of tangentially – I think they were sort of friends with his brother, but I’m not quite sure.  Partly, they sing in French a fair bit.  And partly there’s a lot of geography in their lyrics, even down to simple things like singing about “farmhouses buried under Canada snow” in the utterly beautiful Walking Song.

So maybe the false nostalgia of not hearing it as much as a kid as I find myself imagining I did is compounded by their music and their Canadian identity providing me with one of the only childhood links I have to a part of my history I still have barely any other means of forming a relationship with.

Lyrically this music is evocative for so many reasons.  Partly the simple storytelling, full of tiny details, and partly the emotional impact they seem to be able to conjure almost at will. They can be playful or heartbroken, and always somehow a little wistful, painting almost everything with the grey-blue wash of a rainy day.

There’s also the actual vocal delivery, and the sisters’ lovely voices which manage that juggling act of being at once utterly characteristic and really quite classic – the kind of blend which gives songs broad, casual appeal, and yet makes them utterly unforgettable at the same time.

Given how into rough and nasty music I am at the moment, I am slightly surprised by how much I loved these demos, from the very first moment I heard them. Shorn of the baubles and bunting of full arrangements, the songs themselves are just so simple and so direct I find it almost impossible not to listen intently to each and every one. Just with their voices, these two could make you feel a heart-rending nostalgia, even if you’d never heard their music before in your life.

Kate & Anna McGarrigle – Heart Like a Wheel
Kate & Anna McGarrigle – Come a Long Way

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