10 Questions With…Lian Lunson! Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You

2006 Sundance Film Festival - "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" Portraits

I set Friday afternoons aside to write. Occasionally I will visit local cafés, but what I love to do is just stay home, throw in a DVD, and write while it plays in the background. The one I choose most often is Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005). This is a brilliant movie! It’s billed as ‘a documentary on the legendary singer-songwriter, with performances by those musicians he has influenced’. I can listen/watch I’m Your Man eternally. The aves given to Leonard are dead-on. The performances are all beautiful. The segments in which Leonard speaks are spellbinding. He always gives thoughtful, poetic interviews…the insights from him caught on film for this movie are no different. Just genuine Leonard.


My much-used copy of I’m Your Man!

Let me assure you that this is one DVD you NEED for your collection. With Cohen tunes covered by U2, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and many more…it’s a brilliant musical score filled with adoration for the man in the fedora.

Lian Lunson is the writer/director/producer of I’m Your Man. What she has given the world with this movie is an absolutely beautiful love letter to (and from) Leonard Cohen. I’m thrilled she has generously agreed to be interviewed for All the Write Notes. We will be speaking to her about her soon-to-be-released documentary. SING ME THE SONGS THAT SAY I LOVE YOU: A CONCERT FOR KATE McGARRIGLE is directed by Lian and co-written with Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright.

Before we get to Lian Lunson, though, a quick background on Kate McGarrigle. Kate was a folk music staple in Canada. The McGarrigle sisters rose to acclaim in the 60s and 70s. Their 1975 debut album, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, was called Best Record of the Year by Melody Maker. In the 90s, the sisters won two Juno Awards for their albums, Matapedia and The McGarrigle Hour. In 1993 Kate received the high honour of being made a member of the Order of Canada. Besides being an icon of the Canadian music scene, Kate was also a mother. She was, in fact, the mother of this generation’s musical icons Rufus & Martha Wainwright. The movie SING ME THE SONGS THAT SAY I LOVE YOU: A CONCERT FOR KATE McGARRIGLE is a love note from the siblings to their recently deceased mother. As a fan of the McGarrigles AND Rufus and Martha, I’m thrilled that Lian Lunson was at the helm of this ‘love note’. After crafting such a work of art with I’m Your Man, Lian was the obvious choice to take on the celebration of Kate McGarrigle’s life.

Martha & Rufus Wainwright, in I'm Your Man

Martha & Rufus Wainwright, in I’m Your Man

Without further ado, please enjoy these 10 Questions With…Lian Lunson!

1. Firstly, I personally feel that the McGarrigle sisters are underrated in the musical landscape of not only Canada, but the world. I understand you first started listening to their music after filming I’m Your Man, in which the McGarrigles appeared. You’ve come to a rather deep appreciation of their songwriting talents. Could you please give us your personal perspective on Kate McGarrigle, the musician?

I actually didn’t become aware of her talent as a songwriter until I started making Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You. It is astounding how brilliant the level of songwriting is. Kate wrote about everyday life from the perspective of a mother a wife, a sister, going through a divorce, raising children..all of these subjects and so much more. She and her sister were such rare talents..and deeply genuine. They weren’t chasing pop careers, they were raising their kids and fitting their music careers in and around that. Who knows she may have been more famous and more widely known if her perspective was different. But that is what she chose to do which I have enormous respect and admiration for.

2. You have said that Rufus Wainwright asked you to take on this project. Can you tell us a bit about the Genesis of Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You?

Well he first just sought out my advice about filming the concert that they were putting on as a tribute to Kate. It just started out from there. We met to have lunch so I could give him some advice and we walked away making a film together.

3. It must have been such a deeply personal thing to record the grieving that Kate’s family was experiencing, while they were experiencing it. As I’m sure you yourself were grieving the loss of a friend. How rough was this project, on an emotional level, for you? 

I actually didn’t know Kate. I met her obviously when I was shooting Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man. The first thing Rufus did when it was decided I would make the film was to show me photographs that were on Kate’s computer detailing the last year of her life. That affected me very deeply. I saw a woman so in love with her children and her life and she knew the time she had was short. It was heartbreaking. To look at her and know what she knew. Yet in every picture there was this beautiful look of gratitude and defiance and love. It stayed with me throughout the whole process and will always be with me.

4. I understand that Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You is a concert in celebration of Kate’s musical legacy interspersed with personal vignettes as told by those who loved her. As a documentarian, was it hard to find the balance that would portray both aspects of Kate’s life? Did you find yourself favouring one or the other?

That is always a challenge. Some people come to my films expecting a ‘Behind the Music’ feel, but I don’t do that. I am not interested in that sort of work. I enjoy those types of films and think they are very well done, I just don’t have an interest in making them. For me I am more interested in capturing the essence of a person, the aura around them. In this situation Kate’s aura was reflected off her children Rufus and Martha. They carried the essence of their mother, their friend and fellow performer, in all it’s heartbreaking glory. So I filmed the concert and really followed the mood and tone of her children. So the film is really a concert with a window into these people’s hearts. Hearts that are broken. It makes this film quite different, and unexpected for some people. But it is very simple, still and with no film making trickery really.

5. Kate’s children are successful in their own right. Rufus is on record as saying that his mother’s talent is largely under-appreciated. Do you think this visit into the musical canon of the McGarrigle sisters will see a renaissance of appreciation for their music?

Her music is very under appreciated..but I think that is due largely to the fact that a lot of people don’t know her music. My goal with this film was to change that. Every person who sees the film asks about the music. These days you can leave a film and hit the internet, that is what I hope people will do. Look up Kate McGarrigle, buy the soundtrack and also buy her music..it is so wonderful.

6. In retrospect, which of the two do you consider more daunting a task; creating a documentary on a living legend who will eventually view it, or making a documentary on a recently deceased loved one with her children?

I don’t ever think about it in that way. If I did.. it would be hard to stay honest. I just make the film that seems true to me. I have been lucky in that I have gotten to know people well either before or during the process. So I try to listen to my instincts and present the person as to how I feel them..and that’s the only way I know how to do it. Once you start thinking about how the subject will perceive it or like it..you get into a different territory. So I don’t go there.


7. What were Rufus and Martha’s reactions once they viewed the finished documentary? And, for that matter, what was your own reaction? Did it meet the vision you aspired to?

Rufus and Martha did not see the finished version until we were at Sundance London in a large dark theater. I think they were devastated..and still are when they see it. They were very brave and open to make this film. It is something they did for their mother. The film is true to them and their mother’s music and that is the only vision I was going for.

8. You seem to have a knack for capturing these perfectly unique glimpses into the lives of the musicians we love. What attracted you to musical documentaries?

I was never attracted to making music documentaries. But I always loved music..so it just sort of happened naturally. I loved watching music films growing up. So they sort of found me in a way. Which I guess is the way it is meant to be.

9. What other projects are you working on at the moment? Is the adaptation of your novel(?) into the movie The Boom Boom Room going forward? Do you have any upcoming plans for further documentaries on musicians?

I love that somehow on the internet my script became a novel..I am keeping that rumor going..so yes that novel is yet to be made..But it will get made. Sometimes you have to let something go, and it will knock on your door when you least expect it. So that will happen with that film. I do have some plans for another musician..but I will keep that under wraps because I don’t mess with the Universe and how it chooses to present these amazing subjects to me.

10. You’ve written a novel, a screenplay, and you’ve done writing for your documentaries. At All The Write Notes we talk a lot about the music we listen to while writing. Do you listen to music while you write? And if so, what are some of the favourites that you listen to?

I listen to Brian Eno’s An Ending Ascent, that piece of music is a luscious journey into the creative beautiful wasteland..I listen to it endlessly and also Arvo Part and I also listen to a brilliant musician called Richard Souther. Richard’s music is deeply spiritual in all the right ways, and that is inspiring to me.

Thank you so much for your time, Lian. I really appreciate you doing this. Not only for All the Write Notes, but also for the McGarrigles! I love their music, and I hope more of the world falls in love with their words and melodies!
I’ll leave you with one of Lian’s musical choices. Arvo Part’s Tintinnabuli:
(You can follow Lian on Twitter at @lianlunson)