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Sister act 

Quebecois sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle and kick off the Pop Explosion with an iconic, folky bang. Lezlie Lowe calls Kate at home.

It’s 24 degrees and sunny and Kate McGarrigle —one-half of the Canadian folk duo known as Kate and Anna McGarrigle—is looking through the stash of albums in her Montreal home, trying to find Richard Verreau’s Chantons Noel. Her favourite Christmas song is on it—or the first favourite that comes to mind, anyway—and she can’t remember the name. “‘Noel.’ ‘Noel’? I think it’s just ‘Noel.’ Or ‘Noel Noel.’”

McGarrigle’s got until Tuesday to find it, when she and sister Anna hop a plane to Halifax to play the Rebecca Cohn for the opening night of the Halifax Pop Explosion, October 11.

Ten-and-a-half weeks to Christmas or not, Kate and Anna might pull a noel or two out of the bag. They’re a few weeks away from putting out their first-ever Christmas record, The McGarrigle Christmas Hour; the release is set for November 1. But on the phone, McGarrigle doesn’t know the date. “When’s it coming out? I know it’s coming out. I just don’t know when. We only just signed off on the artwork.”

McGarrigle’s not incompetent. She’s relaxed. What else can you expect after more than three decades making music, largely on your own terms? Kate and Anna McGarrigle hobnob with the best of them—their song “Heart Like a Wheel” sold a million records as a Linda Ronstadt title track; their 1976 self-titled debut was dubbed best album of the year by Melody Maker and number two album of the year by The New York Times—but they have taken what might be called a holistic approach to their career, sticking close to Montreal and maintaining a writing and singing schedule while raising a brood of children between their respective families (insert obligatory mention of Kate’s kids, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, here).

“We have never wanted to be part of that thing where you’re on the road 10 months a year,” McGarrigle says. “And Anna, she’s even worse. She thinks of making music as her Wednesday afternoon thing. She’s out on the farm and refuses to even get a cell phone. She loves it, I mean, she does, she loves rehearsing and playing, but she thinks of it as the thing she does on the side when really it’s the thing that has allowed her, and everyone else, to do everything all these years.”

The laidback attitude is understandable when McGarrigle talks about the opposite approach. “Some people never get off the tour bus. Emmylou,”—and yes, McGarrigle is on a first-name basis with Emmylou Harris; the country/folk legend sang on the new record and Kate and Anna have contributed to hers over the years—“Willie Nelson, they never get off the tour bus. Bob Dylan has a house on 34th in New York and he was playing five nights at this place called the Hammerstein Ballroom—it’s on 34th—and I met him and he told me: I stayed on the bus. Us,” she says, laughing lightly, “we never got on the bus in the first place.”

Kate and Anna McGarrigle, October 11 at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 8pm, $39.50, 494-3820.

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