EMMYLOU HARRIS: GRATEFUL FOR HER GRANDLY DESERVED SUCCESS
FROM THE CANADIAN PRESS
EMMYLOU HARRIS said that late Montreal folk singer KATE McGARRIGLE was “one of the most extraordinary musicians” she’s ever known.
Ms. McGarrigle died of cancer last year at age 63. EMMYLOU’S new disc HARD BARGAIN — which hits stores today — has a delicate tune devoted to the memory of the captivating singer/songwriter called DARLIN KATE.
“I really do miss Kate a lot,” EMMYLOU stated quietly during a recent interview in Toronto.
“Her playing, her guitar playing, was exquisite. Obviously piano, organ, banjo. Her songwriting, just so beautiful…and her singing. And the two of them together just made a sound that thrills my soul. But really, this song was about losing a friend.”
Over a wispy acoustic guitar and piano, she sings a simultaneously hopeful and mournful tribute, which ends with the line:
If there was one name I could consecrate/It would be yours/It would be Kate
She said she met the McGARRIGLES — sisters KATE and ANNA, whose diverse songwriting earned plaudits from around the world — back in the 70s when they shared a record label.
They grew closer in the late 80s when EMMYLOU invited the siblings to sing on her 1989 album BLUEBIRD which also featured a cover of the McGARRIGLES’ LOVE IS. She also invited them to work on her GRAMMY winning 1995 album WRECKING BALL.
“Any chance I had to be in their company…I adore those girls. And I love their music. And to be able to collaborate with them was wonderful. Some of the few songs I wrote over my career, I was lucky enough to write it with them. I loved having them singing on my records.”
“But basically, I just really loved their company.”
And DARLIN KATE isn’t the only heartfelt tribute on EMMYLOU’S latest CD.
Rootsy opener THE ROAD finds her reverently reflecting on her time with late country legend GRAM PARSONS. Not long before his death of a drug overdose in 1973, he heard EMMYLOU sing at a cozy club in Washington.
He invited her to contribute vocals to his acclaimed solo debut GP and the follow up GRIEVOUS ANGEL, which was actually released after his death.
“You get to a point where you are looking back (and there are) more years behind you than are probably ahead of you,” EMMYLOU said of the song.
“What a blessing it was to meet Gram. He changed my life in the brief period of time that I knew him. And he left me all these gifts, really: the inspiration, music. I think I found my voice from singing with him and I had such a short friendship with him.”
“But some people just impact your life in a brief time and it lasts you, really…I’m still reaping the benefits from that brief encounter.”
The album’s title is taken from a tune from the noted Canadian songwriter RON SEXSMITH, which EMMYLOU covers on the record.
“He writes those lovely melodies, so the song just had everything going for it,” she says, later noting that her connection with RON SEXSMITH is only one of her many Canadian ties — she also points out her love of the McGARRIGLES, NEIL YOUNG, JONI MITCHELL and THE BAND.
“How come I’m not an honorary Canadian citizen? Why has this not happened for me? Why do they still hassle me at the border?”
The RON SEXSMITH tune is one of only two covers on the record, with EMMYLOU receiving a songwriting credit on the album’s other 11 tracks.
Over the course of her career, she has been something of a reluctant songwriter, preferring instead to use her haunting evocative vocals to interpret other writers’ songs.
Following her 1969 debut, she waited until 1985’s THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE to release another record composed primarily of her songwriting and it would be another 15 years before she repeated the feat with RED DOT GIRL.
This time, EMMYLOU — who identifies herself as “very goal oriented” — decided beforehand that she wanted to write the bulk of her next record, and set aside a “sacrosanct period of time” in which to work.
“I really have to cordon off some time for myself to get started, otherwise I’m easily distracted. And I’m not a good multitasker.”
Still, it didn’t come easily.
“No, it’s hard work. I think you have to crack the ice. You have to just sit in a room, with nothing happening and not leave to go raid the refrigerator every five minutes,” she saids, before abruptly shifting gears.
“Oh, I talk like I know what I’m doing. It’s all still a mystery to me, frankly, songwriting…I don’t know if I’ll ever write another song. When I finish, it’s like: ‘OK, I got through that and I actually came up with something I feel good about. Now it may never happen again.'”
“So I really don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure.”
That sort of modesty seems typical of the legendary musician.
On this day, the soft spoken chanteuse is cordial and accommodating. As an aide fusses with her appearance in anticipation of a photographer snapping her portrait, she glances at her long white tresses and sighs: “Do you have a towel I could put on my head?”
She’s similarly self deprecating about her wardrobe, which on this day consists of a grey mini skirt, black boots and a loosely fitting open weave sweater hanging off her slim frame.
“I like to look small and yet I can’t stop buying big clothes,” she lamented.
Given her humble approach, it’s not surprising then that she refuses to claim too much credit for her recent success.
Each of her last three albums has hit the top 50 on Canada’s album chart and the top 5 on the country chart — which means that EMMYLOU HARRIS, with the music industry all but crumbling around her, has managed to recently rival the most commercially fruitful periods of her career.
She credits luck, her record company (NONESUCH) and her lineup of great producers, though she acknowledges that her commitment to never releasing subpar material simply for the sake of it — even if it means the occasional extended silence — might help.
“I think it’s hard enough to go in and make a record that you’re excited about — if you’re not excited about a record, man, I can’t imagine what kind of hell that would be.”
“I think I’ve always sold just enough records to have a successful career and yet not have success get in the way of your music, if you know what I mean. So I’m able to literally make a living and do work that I love. It sounds simplistic. But I’ve just been really lucky, I have to say.”
“Because I think there are a lot of artists out there who follow their muse and follow their heart and haven’t had the success I’ve had.”
“I can’t explain it. I’m just grateful for it.”