Maggie Roche was “the heart of the Roches” before she died in January 2017. There’s no doubt, her sister Suzzy Roche says, that Maggie was the central, essential person in the quirky three-sister vocal group that released its debut album in 1979 and recorded critically acclaimed albums through 2007’s Moonswept.
“She was the eldest, the one who really had the passion and desire to carry her songs out into the world,” says Suzzy who helped compile a new 32-track double album of Maggie’s songs, Where Do I Come From.“She had an uncommon talent for harmonies and often wrote her songs for three parts. Her songwriting is unique, playful, deep and wickedly smart.”
And Maggie brought a lot more to the musical table. “Her vocal range spanned several octaves,” Suzzy says. “But, above all, Maggie was authentic to the core. It was impossible for her to betray her authenticity, and that meant she ran up against resistance in the world and in the music business. She was fiercely protective of the family and the creative work of artists. She was a rebel with a cause, and that cause was to be true to the uncommon gift that she knew she had.”
With an eye on the new double album, I ask Suzzy if she can summarize the artistry within Maggie’s songs. “Taking Maggie’s songs out of the context of the Roches —to the degree that it’s possible — and hearing them all together, you really get a sense of her singular voice.” Suzzy replies. When I first heard the entire collection, I was amazed at the body of work — and it’s not even all of it.
“I hope that young people will hear her music. Because we were never hugely successful, it’s easy for the work we did to fall by the wayside. By having Maggie’s solo work out there, I feel there’s a chance it will be heard in a new way. There is so much depth to her writing and her voice. She was a fierce feminist, too, though she balked at any label. I think her whole life and work were about being free to express herself the way she saw and felt things. That was her passion. But she was extremely funny, too, and a serious poet.”
Suzzy and sister Terre Roche are also special talents and songwriters and have, through the years, performed solo, as duos and with other family members as well as in the Roches. Suzzy has recently been playing “All in A Family” shows with her daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche and Lucy’s father Loudon Wainwright.
“It’s fun for us all, I think, especially since we like to keep it light and think of them as special occasion shows,” Suzzy says. “Loudon and Lucy are on the road separately much of the time, so I think it’s nice to all come together for these shows. And I think it’s interesting for the audience, too.”
How does performing with Loudon and Lucy compare with past Roches performances? “It’s completely different,” Suzzy says. “I am older now, and I really would not go out on the road alone. I’ve had such a long and lucky career. But I love singing with Lucy. It’s not something I think either of us would have ever imagined doing. It just sort of happened.
“She was on the road with the Roches for much of her young life, so we travel well together. Adding Loudon into the mix only adds to the evening. I am a huge fan of Loudon. I think he’s brilliant, and he’s one of my best friends. He is Lucy’s father, she is our ‘love child’ and indeed that phrase is accurate in this case.”
During the “All in A Family” shows, Suzzy talks about Maggie and performs Maggie’s songs with Lucy. So I ask Suzzy what made Maggie special as a sister outside the music world and whether she can recall some moments that show the essence of Maggie and what she meant to Suzzy.
“There is no way I could begin to describe the essence of Maggie and what she meant to me,” Suzzy replies. “I will probably never get over losing her.”
The Roches, according to allmusic.com, earned acclaim “for their exquisite harmonies — equal parts Terre’s ethereal upper register, Maggie’s near-baritone low notes and Suzzy’s midrange acrobatics.”“I suppose that’s as good a description as any,” Suzzy says. “For me, being on the inside and in the middle of the other two voices for the most part, it was all about giving in to the greater good. My notes in the Roches were usually gluing the chord together.
“There is a physical pleasure in singing harmony when you actually feel your voice blending with the others. Three-part harmony is different from two-part harmony and also different than singing alone. To me, the key to harmony singing is rehearsal and repeated performance, so you can really listen to the other voices and phrase and blend together. It’s such a joy when it really comes together.”
At age 9, Suzzy thought another band had it all together during a live performance, and, today, regards the show as the best concert she has attended. “I had my first trip alone away from home visiting my grandparents in Buffalo, New York,” she recalls. “I was terrified and homesick. At one point, I was taken to a street fair, and there was a band playing ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ Upon hearing the song, my secret excitement dwarfed my secret fears, and I couldn’t wait to write a postcard to Maggie to tell her that I saw the Rolling Stones.
“Somehow, seeing the Rolling Stones made me feel safe and connected. Of course, it wasn’t the Rolling Stones, but I didn’t find that out until I got home, and Maggie broke it to me that the band I saw was just doing a cover of the song. I’ll never forget how excited I was, though. It’s hard to explain how comforting it was for the little girl who was me to hear that song so far away from home. I think that really speaks to the power of music.”