Emmylou Harris asks: "How come I'm not an honourary Canadian?"

Southern musician sings the praises of northern artists, including the McGarrigles, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and The Band.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TORONTO -- Emmylou Harris says that late Montreal folk legend Kate McGarrigle was "one of the most extraordinary musicians'' she's ever known.

McGarrigle died of cancer last year at age 63, and Harris's new disc "Hard Bargain'' -- which comes out Tuesday -- has a delicate tune devoted to the memory of the captivating singer-songwriter called "Darlin' Kate.''

"I really do miss Kate a lot,'' Harris said softly during a recent interview in Toronto. "I think she was one of the most extraordinary musicians I've ever known. 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, Harris 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 Harris invited the sisters 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,'' which was produced by Canadian Daniel Lanois.

"Any chance I had to be in their company,'' Harris said. "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 love their company.''

And "Darlin' Kate'' isn't the only heartfelt tribute on Harris's latest disc.

Rootsy opener "The Road'' finds Harris reverently reflecting on her time with late country legend Gram Parsons. Not long before his death of a drug overdose in 1973, Parsons heard Harris sing at a cozy club in Washington.

He invited her to contribute vocals to his acclaimed solo debut, "GP,'' and the follow-up, "Grevious 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,'' Harris 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 Canuck songwriter Ron Sexsmith, which Harris covers on the record.

"He writes those lovely melodies, so the song just had everything going for it,'' she says, later noting that the Sexsmith connection only one of her many Canadian ties -- she also points out her love of the McGarrigles, Lanois, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and The Band.

"How come I'm not an honourary Canadian citizen? Why has this not happened for me? Why do they still hassle me at the border?''

The Sexsmith tune is one of only two covers on the record, with Harris nabbing a songwriting credit on the album's other 11 tracks.

Harris, over the course of her career, has been something of a reluctant songwriter, preferring instead to use her haunting, evocative vocals to interpret other writers' songs.

Following her 1969 debut, Harris 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, Harris -- 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,'' she said. "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 says, 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 Harris.

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, Harris 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 laments.

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 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,'' she said.

"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.''

More in Canada

The joy of giving

Science is now providing the evidence for what we have long held to be true: that it is better to give than to receive.

Amazing photos of September in Vancouver

Take a look back at September captured through the lenses of our VO Flickr Pool contributors.

A young Iranian helps Syrian refugees adjust to Canada

A young Iranian, himself, new to Canada reaches out to help Syrian refugees settle here. But with the war in Syria, tensions between Iranians and Syrians are rising. How will he succeed?
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.