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Kate McDonnell mounted a couple of attempts at performing with partners before embarking on a solo career in 1993. She teamed first with her twin during their college and high school years in their birthplace of Baltimore, MD, and the twins billed themselves as Katie and Anne McDonnell. Before moving on to work in a duo called McDonnell-Tane in 1989, she took a four-year sabbatical from performing, settled down in New Haven, CT, and worked at other types of jobs, including editing, hawking ice cream from a truck, selling encyclopedias, and administrative work at a social service agency. While with the New England-based McDonnell-Tane, she opened for a list of stars that included Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Kathy Mattea, Leo Kottke, and Suzanne Vega. The duo put out a pair of albums, Volcanic Rendezvous and a self-titled recording. McDonnell also was part of a trio called Colossal Olive while in New Haven. The sometimes-a cappella group of females were known for injecting humor into their performances, and included Alison Farrell and Cara Burgarella. McDonnell self-produced Broken Bones, her independent debut, and the album hit the market in 1994. She started making a splash and readers of the New Haven Advocate voted the fledgling solo artist the city's top singer/songwriter that same year. She was named the Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk Winner the following year, when she settled in the Northwest region of the U.S. She also was a showcase finalist in the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. Waterbug Records re-released the 12-track Broken Bones in 1996.
McDonnell's love of music began when she was four years old. That was when she stumbled upon one of Joan Baez's albums in her mom's stack of records. A southpaw, McDonnell picked up a Gibson guitar that belonged to her mother and that stood higher than she did. She taught herself to play the instrument backwards and upside down while it sat in her lap. During college she majored in English Literature, graduating in 1983. In 1989, she penned her first tune. Following the release in 1998 of her sophomore effort, Next, which she again self-produced, McDonnell's songs received more airplay and she embarked on tours of the U.S. and Europe. She performed at the Kennedy Center in 1999, and two years later hit the stage of the Newport Folk Festival. Don't Get Me Started followed in 2001.