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Jane and Anna McGarrigle on sisterhood and storytelling

Sisters Jane and Anna McGarrigle on their family memoir.
Sisters Anna and Jane McGarrigle tell stories from their early years in Mountain City Girls. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Kate and Anna McGarrigle were an award-winning musical duo, and their sister Jane managed their careers from the late 1970s to the 1990s. Jane was also a songwriter and onstage performer with Kate and Anna, and a producer of their work. Music is in the McGarrigles' DNA — their father played the piano, their mother sang and Kate's children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, are hugely creative musicians with thriving careers. Stories from the early years of this remarkable family are gathered in Anna and Jane McGarrigle's recent book, Mountain City Girls. Kate and Anna McGarrigle received The Slaight Family Polaris Heritage jury prize for the musical era of 1976–1985 on October 24, 2016. 

Anna and Jane McGarrigle spoke to Shelagh Rogers from Montreal. 

On sisterhood

Jane: I was the oldest sister, so I was usually off with my pals. But I loved playing music and singing, and I would be teaching harmonies to people my own age. And one day I discovered that Kate and Anna could sing harmony. And they could sing harmony really well! It came to them so naturally. So we worked up some songs. It was already a family pastime with our dad, who loved harmony and playing piano and got us started off on Stephen Foster songs, which are tailor made for harmony. 

When I was 17 I entered the three of us into a talent contest at this funny little resort in Saint-Sauveur. We won, which I was pretty sure that we would, and I like to think that it launched Kate and Anna.

Anna: In a family of three girls, I'm the middle child. I'm still the middle child, even though Kate isn't here. Janey is the main girl, because she had a head start, so she was the most independent, whereas Kate and I depended more on each other. We were just 14 months apart. 

That talent contest was probably our first stage experience. I always hated being on stage but I don't remember that as being that unpleasant. I remember it as being sort of fun.

On writing the book

Anna: I was very nervous at first. I was just trying to get my memory working. We were sitting in Jane's living room, which tends to be sort of dark. I would go deep into my memory and dredge up these things, and then we would compare notes. And her notes were never exactly the same as mine. You're always the star of your own memories, right? 

Jane: I loved working with Anna. It was really a blast, and I knew it was going to be because I'd written a few songs with her and it's always fun. The one thing that was frustrating with Anna is that she would go very deep, and sometimes you'd lose her — I'd sit there waiting with my hands still poised over the keyboard, waiting for her to come out of her trance. But no, it was altogether pleasant. We had a really nice time.

Anna and Jane McGarrigle's comments have been edited and condensed.