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Canadian folk and roots music singer Kate McGarrigle, best known for her work with her sister Anna as the McGarrigle Sisters, has died at age 63.

McGarrigle, who was born in Montreal, died there Monday night after battling a rare form of cancer, confirmed her brother-in-law, journalist Dane Lanken.

She is the mother of musicians Rufus and Martha Wainwright through her previous marriage with American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, a beloved folk icon in Canada.

Reports that McGarrigle was critically ill surfaced over the weekend after her son cancelled his tour of Australia and New Zealand, scheduled to begin in February, to be with her.

McGarrigle died peacefully and surrounded by friends and family in her home on Monday night, said Dr. Roger Tabah, one of the team at the Montreal General Hospital that had treated her.

McGarrigle 'departed in a haze of song and love'

McGarrigle had battled sarcoma for 3½ years before taking a turn for the worse in December, Lanken said.

She had a very cutting wit that she kept until falling into a coma Saturday, Lanken said.

"She was very stoic about ... [her illness]," Lanken said. "Life is a lottery and I think she understood that."

A posting on the McGarrigle Sisters' official website, attributed to Anna, read:  "She departed in a haze of song and love surrounded by family and good friends. She is irreplaceable and we are broken-hearted."

Kate and Anna McGarrigle, known for the originality of their music and their vocal harmonies, performed together for three decades.

Decades of successes

The McGarrigle Sisters recorded 10 albums in French and English, and their songs have been covered by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Billy Bragg and Emmylou Harris.

Kate McGarrigle, who was of mixed English and French-Canadian heritage, was born on Feb. 6, 1946, and grew up in Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts, Que. Her sister Anna is two years older. They took piano lessons from the village nuns and sang together as a family while growing up.

"Any time you spent at the McGarrigle house, music was just a part of every day life," Lanken said. "One would sit and sing little Beatles or folk songs."

In the 1960s, while studying engineering at McGill University, McGarrigle began performing in the Montreal folk scene with her sister. In a 2005 interview with The Canadian Press, Anna McGarrigle said her father objected to them performing.

The McGarrigle Sisters perform Heart Like a Wheel (1990)

"He would have hated the idea of us becoming professional musicians because he thought professional musicians were bums, people that wandered from town to town," she said, after accepting a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP, the respected American songwriting association.

They began composing their own songs, including Heart Like a Wheel, which was picked up by Ronstadt. On the strength of their songwriting, they were offered a contract with Warner Bros., recording their debut album Kate and Anne McGarrigle in 1975. It was named album of the year by Melody Maker and the No. 2 record of the year by the New York Times.

Other internationally acclaimed albums include Dancer with Bruised Knees, Pronto Monto, an all-French album, Love Over and Over and Heartbeats Accelerating.

Their repertoire includes songs such as:

  • Heart Like a Wheel.
  • Goin' Back to Harlan.
  • Complainte pour Ste. Catherine.
  • Love Over and Over.
  • Heartbeats Accelerating.
  • Talk to Me of Mendocino.
  • On My Way to Town.

The 1996 album Matapédia and 1998's The McGarrigle Hour earned them Juno Awards for best roots and traditional album of the year.

The following year, The McGarrigle Hour, featuring performances by Loudon Wainwright, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, became a TV concert special and a DVD release. In fact, the McGarrigles appeared widely on television, including on Sharon, Lois and Bram's Elephant Show, Saturday Night Live, CTV and CBC.

They performed and recorded with the Irish group The Chieftains, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur and Quebec's Gilles Vigneault.

In the 2000s, Kate and Anna were invited by producer Hal Willner to participate in a series of concerts celebrating the work of Harry Smith, the filmmaker and collector of American folk music. They performed concerts in Los Angeles, London and New York with artists such as Brian Ferry, Nick Cave, Van Dyke Parks, Jarvis Cocker and Lou Reed.

The McGarrigles' final album, released in 2005, was The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, though they contributed to the Northern Songs in 2008. Kate McGarrigle gave her final performance in Montreal just before Christmas.

Rufus Wainwright said in an interview with London's Telegraph that his musical parents helped set the course of his life.

"The truth is, I've drawn a lot of my creative inspiration from Mum and her background," he said. "She's a very earthy, very instinctual woman, and that comes out in her music. I knew very early on that, like her and Dad, I wanted to be a singer-songwriter."

In 1993, McGarrigle was appointed a member of the Order of Canada.

The extended McGarrigle family has set up a fund in her honour, benefiting the Cedars Cancer Institute.