Catching Up With Martha Wainwright
By Jerry Portwood
Photo by Matthu Placek
Everything changed for Martha Wainwright a couple of years ago. She had her first child and she lost her mother, legendary folk singer Kate McGarrigle. How did she deal with it all? She wrote songs, of course. Come Home to Mama, Wainwright's first collection of original music in four years, is confessional, to say the least, and at times heartbreaking. But it can also bring a smile. Take, for example, the lyrics to "Can You Believe It," which begins with the cheeky line: "I really like make-up sex, it's the only kind I ever get."
"A lot of the subject matter is about the difficulty that you sometimes face in marriage," Wainwright says. "It's about wanting to stay together but that it can be really difficult, too. It started being sad, difficult, and lonely, but it's nice to have a sense of humor about it. It’s a three-sided or four-sided thing, these big life issues."
All of the songs on the album were written by Wainwright, except “Proserpina,” the last song written by her mother (who never recorded it), that includes a lyric which gives the album its title. "It came up halfway through recording: I realized I needed a song, and I wanted to put a song of my mother’s on it. I’d recorded 'Prosperina' a year before, soon after she died, but it was never used," she says. "I don’t know why I recorded it; I wanted to keep her alive. I felt like if I sang the song, when I closed my eyes, maybe when I opened them, maybe she’d be there again. I found it, and I played it for Yuka. It was exactly what the record needed. It is the most important song, the cornerstone of the album. It's another gift I feel she’s given me. From whereever she is. She’s helped me."
So was the album a form of therapy? "I think that after a few months after the funeral, without falling apart, turning into a puddle on the floor, I began to work on these songs," Wainwright explains. "I thought the songs would be voice and guitar, have sadness. I was writing these very angry songs, playing songs with quite a bit of speed in them. I don’t know if that was just because I was desperate another album or excited. I realized these songs needed to be produced in some way that was going to bring out these weirder stranger textures. I wanted to to steer clear of what normally happens when you add instrumentaion, when it becomes alt-country or Americana." So Wainwright turned to Yuka C. Honda of Cibo Matta to produce. "I enjoyed trusting her," Wainwright says. "I felt very taken care of; it was very exciting."
Wainwright is embarking on a tour for the album, and she's turned to her fans to help support it so that there can be a band other musical elements that Wainwright says she couldn't finance if left completely on her own. "I don't make enough money to always travel with musicians," Wainwright explains. "This is necessary for me. I’m sort of humble going into it. I wish I weren’t in this situation—that I could bring three or five musicians with me— but I don’t have a label that will give any tour support, so this is the option."
For the most part, if fans give smaller donations of $25 to $100 and get something in return that is of equal value (a T-shirt or signed poster). But Wainwright, who loves to cook, says that if someone's generous and gives a couple thousands dollars, she'd gladly come and cook you dinner in your home. "A few of those, and we'd be set."
Wainwright and her older brother Rufus knew the reality of having a father who was on tour when they were growing up, so Martha is careful to include her son Arcangelo in the planning, along with husband Brad Albetta.
"It's certainly making it more difficult, rushing to a van and getting in at 1 o'clock in the morning," says Wainwright. "Unless I keep Arcangelo at home with Brad’s mother, we bring him along. That being said, my goal has always been to continue making music. So I bring him with me. It’s a really big incentive to bring this career to a bigger level. Not only for my son’s future and my family’s, but also so we can be together. My father spent 40 years on the road by himself. I think he’s enjoyed some of that solitude. And my mother certainly sacrificed some of her career to Rufus as we were growing up. She and her sister did not make a record for seven or eight years because of us. I don’t know if I can afford to do that."
So as she begins her tour, she's hopeful for the future. "I really love this record," she says. "I want it to make a bigger splash, but you always sort of protect yourself because you think, This is gonna be a big record for me. Maybe it will win a grammy. But I’ve learned from experience that it’s probably not going to happen. And so I just try be happy with the great life that I lead."
The 10-song Come Home to Mama features performances from Yuka C. Honda, Nels Cline (Wilco), Sean Lennon, Jim White (Dirty Three), Brad Albetta and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) and releases October 16.
Watch the haunting video for "Prosperina" below.