The New Zealand music world lost one of its brightest stars when Margaret Urlich died on August 22, 2022. Debbie Harwood reflects on their career together and the sisterhood formed by their band, When the Cat’s Away.
Musician Debbie Harwood opens up her laptop to read the last email sent to her by Margaret Urlich, her close friend and fellow member of iconic Kiwi band When the Cat’s Away. Margaret, one of New Zealand’s most successful female vocalists, died of cancer in August, aged 57. Debbie reads the message out loud to show how kind, passionate and loyal Margaret was towards those she loved.
“Miss you so much,” Debbie reads the first line, trying not to break down in tears. “You are in my heart and in my mind. Love you so much. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss.”
Debbie is still in disbelief that one of the core members of When The Cat’s Away, which also included Annie Crummer, Kim Willoughby and Dianne Swann, has died, and she will never get to sing with her again.
“Margy had this interesting personality juxtaposition where she was incredibly sweet, gentle, humble, and quietly spoken,” Debbie says. “When Margy talked, everything was calm and measured. She seemed very soft but she had this fierce intelligence. That combination was formidable.
“She could also see straight through bullshit. She could see right to the core of what was actually going on in every situation. Her sense of justice was incredibly strong. She had mana, but underneath it all, she was calm and sweet.”
Margaret was born in Auckland in 1965 and began her career as the lead vocalist for Peking Man. The band had a number one single in 1985 with Room That Echoes. Margaret joined When The Cat’s Away in 1986. Four of the members attended the New Zealand Music Awards and wanted to showcase their combined musical talents. The group became a side-project to the women’s burgeoning solo careers.
“What sparked everything was an interview I did with The Listener on emerging young women in rock,” Debbie says. “The poor interviewer couldn’t get a word in at all because the energy between us was amazing.” After the interview, the women hugged each other goodbye and didn’t want to let go.
“We just wanted to stay with each other.”
Debbie remembers first seeing Margaret perform as a 20-year-old at the Gluepot in Auckland and was awed by her talent and her unique sense of style. When Debbie formed When the Cat’s Away, she was surprised that Margaret agreed to join because she was already fronting a chart-topping band with Peking Man, where she was the only woman in a group of males.
“In hindsight, I think she was lonely in that environment of just boys on the road all of the time. I could feel that. She had so much joy with us.”
Debbie remembers the first rehearsal she had with When the Cat’s Away in Auckland. She described the moment as “magic” as they took to the mics to sing their first song together, the disco hit Boogie Nights.
“It’s etched in my mind and heart vividly,” Debbie says. “We walked into our rehearsal room, and there were five mics set up. We just filed in, and where we stood were the positions that we would stand in whenever we toured and performed. I ended up in the middle, Annie on one end and Kim on the other, and Dianne and Margy next to me.
“The band started playing and we started singing. I had my head in my hands and knew that what was happening in that room was very special. This was something bigger than us. It was overwhelming.”
The group mostly sang covers – songs that they “liked to sing in the shower,” according to Margaret. They had a massive hit with their 1988 cover of Melting Pot, originally by Blue Mink, and performed concerts and sold out large venues across the country. Margaret released her solo album Safety in Numbers in 1989, which featured the hit song Escaping, topping the charts on both sides of the Tasman. She juggled her busy solo career with touring and singing in When The Cat’s Away.
The band won Group of the Year at the 1989 New Zealand Music Awards and were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in 2021. Sadly, Margaret was the only member who could not attend the ceremony due to her illness.
Until recently, Debbie, Annie and Margaret continued to perform together for corporate and private gigs across the country. Debbie last performed with Margaret just over two years ago.
“It would be the last time Margy would be singing with us. That absolutely broke my heart. Our lives and our music were intertwined,” Debbie says.
Margaret is survived by her husband, sound engineer George Gorga, and their two children, Ava and Carlo. Debbie hopes to organise a tribute concert for her colleague and best mate.
“When we were younger, we thought that this would last forever. We used to think this won’t change, we will always be able to pull a crowd, have a great performance and make people happy. I’m lucky that I have stood next to and performed with Margaret Urlich.”
This is public interest journalism funded by NZ on Air.
PHOTOGRAPHY: John Cowpland/alphapix, supplied