Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz talk new album What to Wear in the Dark

It was several years ago that I first discovered the music of Kate McGarry and I was instantly captured by not only her mesmerizing voice, but also the exquisite treatment of her chosen material material. I soon realized why Fred Hersch didn’t hesitate in referring to McGarry as his favourite singer.

When I was later introduced to the astounding playing of guitarist Keith Ganz, their partnership made sense, because he’s the most enlightened of musical tour guides, bringing you down unexpected pathways that always lead to the best musical landscapes.

The pair’s latest release What to Wear in the Dark, coming out Sept. 3, is perhaps one of their most interesting to date, derived from a challenging stretch of life that involved, as they put it, “loss of home, health and tribe.” Teaming with keyboardist Gary Versace, trumpeter Ron Miles and a host of others, McGarry and Ganz use their decorated jazz backgrounds to offer imaginative and fresh perspectives on the indelible pop standards that have helped them transcend their own challenges.

The Grammy-nominated dynamic duo joined me to tell us a little more about it.

Let’s start with that quote: “loss of home, health, and tribe.” Can you talk a little more about this and how it affected this recording?

Kate McGarry: There were things that were happening personally, but also that we were seeing mirrored in the world. Refugees and children at the border, natural disasters and people losing everything that they had. And then you go through those dark nights of the soul where everything crumbles in your own life. We were going through a similar situation, not with catastrophes of that magnitude, but big shifts in our lives where everyone died away — parents and loved ones all left at the same time. We made a big move from New York to Durham, N.C., and lost a lot of perspective: Who am I now if I don’t live where I used to live, where I had a community and all of the things that made musical life work? I had a vocal injury that was very threatening to my career and lasted quite a long time. There was a lot happening all at the same time, and there was a feeling of being backed into the corner where you don’t see a way out. These songs started coming to me. We started working on them, and they felt like answers to different questions that we were seeing mirrored in the world.

Many of the tunes on this record resonate because of a connection with various events in society and your world — gun violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, 9/11 and the 2016 Presidential election. Did you choose songs based on their connection to a subject you wanted to broach, or did you choose the songs and then realize their connections to various subjects later?

Kate McGarry: A line from a song would be like an answer or a prayer, or something that would connect me when I was in a place where there weren’t any resources. The connection to that narrative would come and console me and open up a door. Definitely, the songs came up that way.

You guys have been together 17 years both as life partners and musical partners. It started out as just Kate McGarry, and now it’s the Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz Ensemble. Keith, has your role changed during that time? Do you perceive yourself any differently now?

Keith Ganz: No, I’m just getting more credit. [laughs] The whole time, Kate gets ideas for songs to do and for different ways to do them, which sometimes have a lot of specific musical parts already … and then other songs she might just have an idea for the mood of it, but not actually have it written, and I might help with that. Whatever she does, I take it to the guitar and flesh it out in a way that makes sense for me to play, whether we’re going to do it as a duo or for a band.

Obviously, you guys already have that musical connection. You probably know what the other person is going to vibe with.

Keith Ganz: Definitely. That was actually there right from the beginning. We have remarkably similar musical instincts. That’s always been the same.

What to Wear in the Dark: Where does the title come from?

Kate McGarry: That came to me as those songs were starting to come up, and that Leonard Cohen song Anthem — “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in” — it was that feeling of being in a darkness that you don’t have the resources to get out of, and that idea of facing it instead of trying to hide or run away or ignore it. It sprouted from that Leonard Cohen song. It just arrived and I thought, That’s what to wear in the dark. A different part of myself arrived, and I was going to sing about it.

Was this therapeutic to you? How has making this record helped you get through this period of time, with everything that was going on with you in addition to the pandemic that has disallowed artists from connecting with their listeners?

Kate McGarry: I think for both of us, there was a lot of blessing in [the pandemic] because it shut down a lot of things that were not working and helped us realize a self-sufficiency, or a feeling that the running on the hamster wheel wasn’t really working. There were so many things that just weren’t working. This has been a reprieve in some ways. We also still connected with people online in ways that felt really real and strong.

Keith Ganz: Making the record was kind of what we did the whole time. It probably would’ve been hard to spend as much time on it as I did under normal circumstances. We had months to work on it and make it as close to exactly how we wanted it as possible, which isn’t always the case.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.