Strathclyde Telegraph

Interview: Martha Wainwright talks motherhood, grief and Come Home to Mama

 

 

When I meet Martha Wainwright, it’s the day after her performance at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, the first of her 2013 tour, and she couldn’t appear more at home on the road. Her latest album, Come Home to Mama, comes three years after her last record of Edith Piaf covers, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris, and four years after her last album of original material, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too. In the in-between, her life could not have changed more radically. The premature birth of her son, Arcangelo, in 2009 coincided with the unfortunate death of her mother, folk legend Kate McGarrigle, in early 2010. With this emotionally charged backdrop, it’s no surprise that Come Home to Mama stands out from Wainwright’s previous work – and is arguably her best to date.

This is her first tour since the birth of her son, and Wainwright is getting to grips with the realities of motherhood whilst simultaneously touring and making music. So far, it’s going well.

“Unfortunately it’s a very different reality for women. It’s a man’s world, especially in music. I’ve been very angry lately because I feel like [the music industry’s] set up in a way that’s not conducive to bringing up children. Something I’d like to do as a mother is try and change that.

“I knew that I didn’t want becoming a mother to delay making another record too much, because that can happen a lot with female artists. It’s very difficult to do both. I was very determined to try and put out another record because I felt it was responsible to do so, and I think my mother would have wanted me to do that.”

“It’s true that as you get older your realities change. Along with the new responsibilities I have, and also now being motherless, I really have to be an adult, which is something I never thought I’d be!”

Family is, of course, integral to Wainwright’s career. Together she, her brother Rufus, her father Loudon, her aunt Anna McGarrigle, and her late mother Kate, make the closest thing Canada has to a royal family. I wonder if coming from such a prestigious musical lineage was a help or a hindrance when it came to forging her own path:

“I think [at the time] I thought it was a challenge but I now realise it was probably helpful in that it really made me have to define myself in order to stand out in a room of standouts. Rufus stands out, my parents stand out, so I really had to find a voice that was different from theirs and also from those of other people. It was probably helpful to me to become particular and that’s a good thing.

“I might have been more ambitious and worked harder if my parents hadn’t been musicians. I felt that I was just a part of something, rather than a creator of something. I think that made me a bit lazy in a way, and made me lean on other people, but I’ve discovered that you have to do everything yourself in order to get anywhere, and not rest on your talent. It takes a lot of ambition when you’re working in a musical arena that doesn’t necessarily set out to be commercial.”

The greatest influence upon her music has always been her mother. ‘Proserpina’, the track from which the album takes its name, was the last song written by Kate McGarrigle. She only performed it once, at a Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall, before her death from cancer in January 2010. It’s an astonishingly beautiful song based upon the mythological Proserpina, or Persephone, the Roman goddess abducted by Pluto and taken to the underworld. Her mother, Ceres, searched the Earth for her, making a desert with every step, and stopped the growth of fruits and vegetables until her daughter was freed. There can be no doubt, then, that Kate wrote this song for her only daughter, Martha.

“I felt it was more mine than anybody else’s because it was a mother/daughter story and my mother always wanted me to come home, but at the time she wrote it especially she was at the end of her life and I couldn’t be with her because my son was in the hospital in London. I wasn’t able to be with her as she died, and so the concept of ‘coming home’ to her was very sad and very strong.

“I felt like it was a gift to me; although that’s probably not true, I like to think it is. What’s so great about it is that my mother was always such a huge supporter of me. She played with me a lot and gave me a lot of constructive criticism, and I feel like this song, even though she’s gone, is her continuing to help me. It really draws people in, and it’s the most powerful song on the record.”

When she performs the song at the Concert Hall, accompanied by fiddler Aly Bain and Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw on harmonium, she brings a tear to even the driest of eyes. She sings it with such fragility, but also with immense power; it’s the kind of delivery that can only come from someone who found herself suddenly both a mother, and motherless.

“I try to have the gravitas that she had when she sang it. She only sang it once, and it was very intense. She had one foot in the grave at that point. I try to sustain some of the importance she put into that song.”

The influence of her mother echoes through Wainwright’s performances, and is the driving force of the new album. Yet despite the obvious grief, the album is far from morbid.

“There’s a lot of anger but there’s also a sense of humour in the face of the sadness. I really like what Yuka Honda [the producer] did. I like the juxtapositions that she created.”

She cites ‘I Wanna Make an Arrest’ as an example; the track is about her mother dying and wanting to turn back time. It’s an upbeat track, but one charged with anger.

“I didn’t want to make it too sad, because it’s also a new era for me. Everything has changed in my life. I wanted to say that with something that was more energetic, rather than be completely down.”

As you would expect, Wainwright’s family life often tumbles into her song writing (who could forget ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’, from her self-titled debut album in 2005, written about her father) but her writing is never saccharine. ‘Everything Wrong’ is the first song written for Wainwright’s son, and addresses the inevitability that she will ‘fuck him up.’

“My career has always had a family context because it’s always been in the shadows of my parents and my brother and it’s always been in the tradition of pulling them into it and probably pulling my child into it and probably making him very unhappy and resentful!”

With tracks that range from the haunting, to the angry, to the apologetic, it’s an incredibly diverse record, and one that seems to embody the evolution of its author. Wainwright cites a varied range of musical influences, from Cyndi Lauper to Edith Piaf, and enjoys the creative freedom an album offers, where she’s not restricted to an empty stage and an acoustic guitar.

For the encore of her Glasgow performance, Wainwright returns to the stage, and in an effort to ‘one-up’ her brother (who on his last visit to Glasgow streaked naked through the audience), decides to ‘try something out’. She sits her guitar down, steps in front of the microphone, and bursts into an a cappella, unplugged rendition of Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’ to a silently stunned Concert Hall, followed by a standing ovation.

It’s surprises like these that give Wainwright her edge. Just when you think you’re comfortable categorising her, she throws you, and that’s just how she wants it. She’s not just Rufus’ sister, Kate’s daughter, Edith, Proserpina, Mama – she’s all of these at once, and still, distinctly, Martha. As much as people may like to neatly place her in the ‘folk’ category in a box marked ‘Wainwright’, Come Home to Mama is a testimony to her unique range and staggering talent.

Louise Logan
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