Last night, Canada’s First Family of music and some of their friends brought their folksy brand of Christmas merriment to Carnegie Hall, and while we didn’t catch the show, someone who saw it called it “AMAZING. Hilarious and brilliant.” The family in question is none other than dandy troubadour Rufus Wainwright, his sister Martha, their mother Kate McGarrigle, and her sister Anna. This was the third edition of The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, an off-the-cuff evening of festive sing-alongs, with guests that included Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Jimmy Fallon, and Emmylou Harris. The show also acted as a fundraiser for The Kate McGarrigle Fund, a Montreal-based cancer research foundation. The first fifty donors are at the Knitting Factory today, where the gang reconvened to tape the concert for an upcoming DVD called A Not So Silent Night. I had a chance to speak to Rufus first, then to Martha, about playing music with mom, what Christmas was like growing up, and just where the hell Jimmy Fallon fits into all of this.
This is the third time you guys have done the Christmas show at Carnegie Hall. What’s it like playing there? Well there’s a hilarious story. When we were looking for a venue for the Christmas show, we’d done it at Carnegie Hall before, and we thought maybe we could do it at a church or St. John the Divine, or Town Hall, and we kind of looked into the different spots. And finally my manager said, “It’s looking like Carnegie hall makes the most sense on many levels.” And then my mother turned to him and said, “Carnegie Hall again?” So yeah, we do it there.
What’s Jimmy Fallon’s role going to be? Because that strikes me as being a little bit odd. Well, he’s very good friends with my sister Martha. If you were to look at it as A Christmas Carol, I guess Lou Reed would be Scrooge, and I guess Jimmy would be the ghost of Christmas past, or something when everything was rosy and wonderful and there was no financial crisis. Well, actually no. Things are looking up now with Obama. He’s the glowing, elfin, happy spirit.
Does he sing? Oh yeah, he sings. He’ll sing, and scream and laugh.
Is there a variety aspect to the show? It’s very variety-esque. Mainly because my mother hates to rehearse. So we make up for lack of study with some good old fashion shenanigans. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad or anything, but it means that it’s very unpredictable. Which I think is great with Christmas music because it’s so well-known and so ingrained.
Are there any new songs from you? I’m premiering a new song that’s called, “Christmas Is for Kids” that I wrote about my jealousy of my sister Martha at the holidays.
Why were you jealous? Because she gets more gifts. They always tell me, “It’s easier to buy for girls.” But we all know that’s bullshit.
Is this essentially the equivalent of your childhood before a large audience? Well, growing up I was definitely prodded to perform by my grandmother and my mother. I wasn’t allowed to watch television, and I wasn’t allowed to eat cereal. We grew up in a very wholesome Canadian family, so singing and playing instruments was mandatory. And it was hellish at times, but it obviously paid off.
What’s the biggest difference when you played with your family when you were 13 and doing it now? It hasn’t changed at all. It’s still a total, whatever, reversion and inversion of my adult front.
Does it make you feel like a kid again? Yeah and no. My mother makes no qualms about taking advantage of her psychological power over us. And that’s the way it should be.
I asked your brother what’s changed since you guys were touring as children with your mom and your aunt. The first thing that pops into my mind is the amount of stress that you take on as an adult. But in a good way. I think as kids, it was really fun, and we were really guided through our musical experience by our parents. And then with this show, I think that Rufus and I feel a responsibility to help Kate and Anna with the stresses and a lot of the organizing that comes in. It’s really like working with your family in a very even playing field, and a neat thing.
Does your mom play the role of matriarch, or are you all equals? I think that we’re equal in terms of certain amount of responsibility and what we want to sort of get out of this show. This show is really to raise money for the Cancer Society in Montreal, and it’s also for us to be able to play together. I think that oftentimes Christmas shows can be sort of seeped in over-sentimentality, and they’re not always that great. You know, Kate and Anna and Rufus and hopefully myself, bring kind of a seriousness to it.
And then the seriousness is broken up when Jimmy Fallon comes on stage, right? Exactly.
And how did you get Lou Reed to join you on something like this? We had Lou and Lori last time, two years ago, and I think that it was nice for them to be asked together. It’s not like, “We want Lou Reed.” It’s like we want Lou and Lori, and now they’re married, they’re a famous New York City couple and fans of Kate and Anna. They’ve known them for years, so it seemed like a no-brainer.
What were your Christmases like growing up? They were pretty fucking idyllic. Kate and Anna were brought up in Saint-Sauveur, Quebec, so there’s still this little plot of one acre land. We have this old house, and four cabins, and it looks like that’s where Santa Claus could live. And, you know, it was a place that their father built, and where they grew up, and it’s still really old school.
I know that area of Quebec. It’s beautiful when it’s covered in snow. It’s ridiculous, it’s like a total postcard situation. And the house is really beautiful, with the old furniture in it and the old piano. And Kate and now myself, more and more as I get older, we do a massive amount of cooking and make everything from scratch. The whole nine yards. A lot of cross-country skiing.
You said massive amounts of cooking. It sounded like for a second you were going to say cocaine. That happens too sometimes. That was back in the day. Rufus and I have probably matured by now.
Yeah, it sounds like it. Where are you going to spend the actual Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? In bed. Definitely in bed.