By Jason MacNeil
(Album: Come Home To Mama out now. Canadian Tour Dates: Quebec City (Nov. 6), Almonte (Nov. 7), Toronto (Nov. 8))
To quote Dickens, the winter of 2009-2010 was the best of times and the worst of times for singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright.
In late 2009 she had her first child, a son Arcangelo. A few short weeks later, Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle lost her battle with cancer. The emotional roller-coaster she worked through is nakedly found on her new album ‘Come Home To Mama’, one she says was cathartic to create.
“I couldn’t pick up the guitar for a while after my mother had died because I would end up in a puddle on the floor,” Wainwright says. “But after about five or six months I hired a babysitter and my husband stepped in. I asked them to watch the baby for a few hours every day. I tried to go upstairs and just return to being a songwriter.”
The writing process also helped her cope with the joy of motherhood alongside grieving the loss of her mom.
“So much of the sadness and the anger I was feeling, I really didn’t want to have too much around my newborn baby,” she says. “I wanted to keep it together after my mother’s death and try and be strong and capable and relatively emotionally together. Those songs really got (out) a lot of the sadness and anger and fear I was feeling.”
Wainwright said working with producer Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto was refreshing as she provided the lyrics and framework with Honda responsible for the “musical layering.”
“At first I thought of asking her to go even further into a sort of electronic world,” she says. “I think very quickly she realized the essence of this music is still my voice and guitar. The songs are really singer-songwriter at heart. I felt she was able to respect that while still creating a world and adding layers.
“She would say ‘Go home’ which was great for me because I was tired and wanted to be with my family. I was kind of emotionally drained and strained anyway. So it was perfect, she very much took care of me and I decided to really trust her.”
Although it’s incredibly personal, there are also perkier pop songs like “I Am Sorry” and “Can You Believe It?” Yet the album’s real gems are bound to put a lump in your throat, including “Prosperina.” The song was recorded a year before writing commenced. It was also one of the last songs her mother wrote, becoming a “cornerstone” of Wainwright’s album.
“I really wanted to record that song before anybody else did,” Wainwright says. “I sort of felt it was my song in a way because of the mother-daughter song. I just wanted to be around her more and encompass her more into myself and turn into her in some way. At one stage I thought that maybe if I closed my eyes and sang the song well enough she would reappear. That was my truly desperate attempt to bring her back in some way.”
Meanwhile “All Your Clothes” has Wainwright baring her soul, conversing with her mother as she sorts through her mother’s wardrobe. And “Everything Wrong” is equally heart-wrenching as she sings to Arcangelo.
“That was the last song I wrote,” she says. “I was upset. It was one of those songs that you write through tears and through doing that I definitely felt better. I like that song, I hope Arc will like it. Hopefully he won’t be offended by me writing songs about him at such an early age. We’ll see when we get there. You should never wish it upon anyone to be related to a writer apparently.”
Coming from such a musical family with her mother, her aunt Anna McGarrigle not to mention brother Rufus Wainwright, Martha says composing such personal lyrics is never something she shies away from.
“I certainly have a tendency to go a little bit far lyrically,” she says. “I let the songs dictate what I’m going to allow myself to do and how far I’m going to go. Then I’ll take the heat after the fact. It’s poetry to me although a lot of people perceive it to be autobiographical which it is. But to me it’s also poetic. It will be more dramatic than reality and more expressive of a certain moment than the whole story.”
As for her current personal favourite, Wainwright loves how “Four Black Sheep” turned out. The song was produced by her aunt Anna McGarrigle. Wainwright says her aunt has been very supportive.
“Anna sort of took on the role that my mother used to have which was a majorly supportive role in many aspects of my life with music being the main one,” she says. “My mother always used to encourage me and help me with mixing my album, choosing the songs. She always had a lot to say and I always listened to her, I cherished her opinion. Anna has taken that role and I’m glad for it because I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise.”
Wainwright mounts a North American tour in November before heading to Europe behind the new album. She’ll start out with a big ensemble including Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman for the initial dates. To offset some of the touring costs, Wainwright started a Pledge Music drive which as of Halloween reached 102 per cent of its goal. At the time of the interview it was at 95 per cent.
“I’ve already taken off my clothes for the cover and I don’t know what more I can do,” she says. “Maybe I should have kept them on and we might have gotten our goal faster. That’s been an interesting thing that a lot of people are doing in different ways. It’s going to help me get out there and play to some of the deeper pockets of the United States.”
Wainwright was also featured alongside her family and a stellar cast of artists for a documentary concert entitled Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert For Kate McGarrigle. The film premiered earlier this year and will air on CBC in 2013. She wasn’t hesitant about agreeing to the bittersweet tribute.
“It really is a concert film that shows different amazing artists singing Kate’s songs and puts the emphasis on her as a songwriter and how amazing she was as a songwriter,” Wainwright says. “Then also the other theme isn’t so much Kate and Anna McGarrigle or her life in its entirety but mostly the end of her life, her death.”
Martha and Rufus also have two benefit “Christmas 101” concerts in California to prepare for. The annual Christmas gigs were ones Kate planned for in advance.
“That was always something that was really our mother’s project and she was obsessed with it,” she says. “She would drive us crazy trying to figure out what we were going to do by June, so Rufus and I are going to have to dig deep into ourselves to give a percentage of what she gave to those shows to make them so interesting. That’s really going to be hard to do without her, it’s going to be really tough.”
Finally, given her mother’s passing, what would Kate have thought of Come Home To Mama?
“I think she would’ve liked it,” she says. “My mother was really open to music and different styles of music and the concept of music. She liked stuff that was edgy, subversive and angry. At least she liked that in me. I’ve always had this sort of angry, bitchy quality to my music and my mother didn’t really hate it. So I would like to think that she would like it.”