The McGarrigle Sisters at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), Tuesday and Wednesday (February 17 and 18), 8:30 pm. $40, advance $37.50. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
montreal - aross the table, at a resto in Montreal's Mile-End - a neighbourhood that's incubated talents as varied as Mordecai Richler and Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Kate and Anna McGarrigle are debating where they were living when René Lévesque gave his Gens Du Pays speech. Sitting with them, it's easy to see the well from which Kate and Anna McGarrigle have drawn inspiration. Two dominant cultures, in such close proximity, combine to create a new one. Add the spice of a few more cultures adapting to the balance and the effect is bound to be distinct.
When conversation turns to their new album and how they found themselves working in French again, the sisters seem amused.
"In a way, it wasn't too different from how we got involved in the first one," says Anna.
That was 24 years ago. The two sisters recall that moment in 1980, when the mood in Quebec was nothing if not prickly. The first sovereigntist referendum was ramping up under Lévesque's ministrations, and the collective sense of uncertainty, whichever side of the debate you were on, was profound.
In that atmosphere, the Montreal anglophones and newly established folk icons released their third album, Entre La Jeunesse Et La Sagesse - or, as it would come to be known, the French Album.
The French Album, far from being partisan, speaks to the inseparability of Quebec's Anglo and French cultures. The jostling of cultures will never end, because the jostling is the culture. Both sides are quietly aware of this. Neither would choose to be rid of the other, despite how it may seem on the surface. Quebec politics makes a lot of noise, but the society expressed at the street level is embracing, tolerant and a lot of fun.
As a soundtrack for the times, the album was much-needed and reassuring.
"Our mother was a Québecoise who was brought up English," Kate explains. "But I think we would have done something like that without the family connection. Growing up in Quebec, the interplay between English and French is such a constant dynamic that a French project was probably inevitable."
More than two decades after the release of the French Album, the McGarrigles are finding the subject has currency again. This week they'll launch the much-anticipated follow-up, La Vache Qui Pleure, along with a remastered version of the first franco excursion.
La Vache Qui Pleure is the offspring of a perpetually rebellious Quebec and the people who've made that rebellion home. The album is startlingly fresh.
"We were mostly just carried along by the momentum of the opportunity to make another French album," says Anna. "We'd been asked to compose some French music to accompany Michael Healey's play The Drawer Boy. Working with Philippe Tatartcheff again, who wrote the words for the first album, was wonderful," continues Kate.
Tatartcheff's songs are the quizzical musings of a genuine eccentric and poet. And the McGarrigles' musicianship, their ever-youthful voices, carry the songs beautifully. It's been worth the long wait.
"Sometimes people ask me why Anna and I don't write the lyrics ourselves," Kate explains. "The truth is, fluent or not, I just don't have the resources Philippe has. And the combination of our compositions and his words works so well together. It's hard to imagine it working any other way.
"Philippe is actually this great recluse who writes the most beautiful words," she adds. "He's Austrian and Bulgarian in origin but a real Quebecer, a perfect example of the étrangers class that's always been so important to the culture."