Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s holiday album, The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, is a characteristically family affair. On it, the sisters and folk music luminaries trade harmonies and even cede lead vocals to Kate’s children, operatic-pop crooner Rufus and alt-folkie Martha Wainwright. Extended family members and guests also join in,
including Emmylou Harris and Beth Orton.
But just because the album favors collaborations and duets does not mean that group song dominates holiday time at the McGarrigle compound in Montreal — the family talent seems to require more of a showcase. “There’s not a lot of singing along,” Kate says with a laugh. “It’s more like, ‘Let’s give everybody a chance to get up and sing a song.'”
But it’s the chemistry — and lush harmonizing — of the sisters and their guests that is the foundation of the
charming McGarrigle Christmas Hour. “It’s definitely casual,” Kate says. “We recorded those songs quickly.”
Case in point: The first song is the traditional “Seven Joys of Mary,” in which each singer tackles a verse. “Last Christmas we had a bunch of people up at the house, being crazy,” Kate explains. “Beth Orton and Jane Adams — a whole bunch of people came to visit. So, I said, ‘OK, you guys are going to pay for your turkey.’ And I brought them all into the studio.”
Many songs were culled from recorded sessions over the years, including Canadian radio broadcasts. The sisters tracked down versions of the tunes they previously recorded and then retouched or rerecorded them for the album. “We had the basic songs,” says McGarrigle. “Like on ‘Rebel Jesus’: We had the basic track, but we changed the whole thing.” The new version of the Jackson Browne tune receives a folksy makeover, complete with gauzy lead vocals by Martha Wainwright and her cousin (Anna’s daughter) Lily Lanken — as well as additional accordion, pennywhistle and piano.
While recording, Kate discovered that her kids had also written their own seasonal tunes. Now the record sports Rufus’ jaunty “Spotlight on Christmas” and Martha’s snappy “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” with its violin-led refrain and family-inspired lyrics: She sings, “Mom’s making dinner for twenty of Rufus’ L.A. friends.”
Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and family, will present material from the album at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on December 21st. “If we can all not kill each other before then,” Kate jokes.