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Kate McGarry Explores the Music of Her Childhood to Deal with Contemporary Issues

The past is present on the vocalist's latest album, What to Wear in the Dark

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Kate McGarry (photo: David Goddard)
Kate McGarry (photo: David Goddard)

Since her arrival on the jazz scene in the early 1990s, vocalist Kate McGarry has carved out a unique niche, respected by her fellow singers as someone who can take on rock, folk, and pop songs and make them her own. Her latest album, What to Wear in the Dark—for which she shares billing with her partner in music and life, guitarist Keith Ganz—takes on compositions from classic rock and singer/songwriters of the early ’70s, including the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, Steely Dan, and the Eagles. In choosing the material, McGarry was inspired by two very different sources: the music she heard growing up in the ’70s on Cape Cod (thanks in large part to her six sisters and three brothers) and the vision of a powerful literary figure from the ’60s.

That figure was author James Baldwin, whom McGarry first came across as a student at UMass Amherst. At the time, he was an artist-in-residence in the university’s Afro-American Studies program. “He’d give a two-hour lecture a number of times throughout the year, along with question-and-answer sessions,” McGarry recalls. “Being able to hear about his life and perspective—it made a huge impression on me. His lectures were incredibly fiery. To me that was what jazz was all about: freedom, and digging into your soul and your culture. It was much more than scales and notes.”

McGarry studied in the jazz department at UMass, and soon learned that imitating jazz masters only takes you so far. “I was listening to Sarah Vaughan sing ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ and heard a certain way that she was redoing the melody on the second chorus and I thought, ‘I can’t copy that.’ I was afraid of trying to sound like her. Later I realized that I have my own sound and not to worry about that.”

Her first album, the straight-ahead Easy to Love, was released in 1992 and left her disappointed. “There was a feeling that this isn’t really what I want,” she says. “I started to hear Craig Street’s productions of Cassandra Wilson [on Blue Light ’Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter]. She’d made a new setting to tell her own story. That gave me the road in.” 

McGarry’s stayed on that road now for more than 25 years and seven albums. She attempts to describe her trademark blend of genres: “There’s that ’70s-music influence plus the jazz influence, plus Celtic influences are all in that well that will help me tell that story. I used to fret over that battle between folk and jazz, but now I don’t. I feel that they’ve fused in a beautiful way.” 

“I used to fret over that battle between folk and jazz, but now I don’t.”

The new album was 10 years in the making, with two songs—Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”—recorded in 2010. “They came from a particular place,” McGarry explains. “We had just left New York [she and Ganz moved to Durham, N.C., where they still reside] and I felt like I lost my identity as a jazz singer.” 

As she worked on arrangements, she began to see contemporary messages in songs from her past. The Eagles’ “Desperado,” for example, became a gesture to perpetrators of mass shootings like Sandy Hook, “like a prayer of ‘Get these people back before they keep doing this stuff.’” McGarry connected the Becker/Fagen song “Barrytown” to the death of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that “the words and music felt like a horror-film soundtrack for the terrible sadness and anger around that incident.”

While recording the album, McGarry reflected on the messages that Baldwin had imparted to her and her classmates decades ago: “That we have to deal with the wrongs, the inequalities, or the country won’t thrive. I feel like that moment is back.” 

Kate McGarry: Singing Silence