The Canadian singer-songwriter scion mouths off about open marriages, messing around with synthesizers, and maintaining her late mother’s legacy.
Other people’s dirty laundry can be therapeutic.
Wainwright’s catalogue is filled with descriptions of her peccadilloes and personal demons. You could argue it’s a genetic imperative: The daughter of two folk legends (Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III) and the sister of one of pop’s reigning razzle-dazzlers (Rufus Wainwright), she comes from a family where everything from her parents’ divorce to her brother’s reflections on fatherhood is fodder for songs. Martha’s tunes are as lacerating as they are achingly personal—see, for example, “Bleeding All Over You,” the lyrics of which provided the title of her second album, I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings Too. Written in the wake of her son’s birth and mother’s death, her latest record, the arresting Come Home to Mama, is no exception. She opens the album with a seven-year-itch reference couched in an apology to her husband, and closes with a message to her son: “I have been really, really sad / Except for having you with your dad.” Wainwright is a firm believer in using candour for the greater good. “First of all, I’m always trying to get attention.” she says. “But songs are supposed to be useful to people, so humour, or subversive thoughts—they’re fun to listen to, and more thought-provoking. If something comes out of my brain like that, why wouldn’t I say it?”
She learned to spill her guts from the very best.
The centerpiece of Come Home to Mama, by design and by emotional wallop, is “Proserpina,” the last song Kate McGarrigle wrote before she passed away in 2010 from cancer. Wainwright says she was eager to cover the song before Rufus claimed it. Based on a mythic mother-daughter conflict—the story of Demeter, who failed to prevent her girl, Persephone, from quite literally going straight to hell—it’s gorgeous and gut-wrenching. “That was Kate’s thing,” says Wainwright. “My mother wrote songs about her life, but she was clever about it. ‘Tell My Sister’ is about going home after having a wretched miscarriage. When she says, ‘Tell my sister to tell my mother that I’m coming home alone,’ it’s just…oh my god. For people who do know, it’s harrowing. Otherwise, it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s coming home from college.’”
She saw someone else for the sake of her marriage.
Wainwright is used to working with people who show up at family dinner. Her husband, bassist Brad Albetta, produced her first two albums and has appeared on all of her recordings. But for this record, Wainwright decided to team up with Yuka Honda, the Tokyo-born, N.Y.C.-based co-founder of the beat-driven pop group Cibo Matto. She selected Honda in part because she didn’t want to succumb to the “Canadiana/Americana/alt-country” sound, “which can happen a lot with singer-songwriters.” But aside from her secret love of arpeggiators, keyboards, and things that sound like LCD Soundsystem, Wainwright’s choice of collaborators allowed her more creative freedom—and allowed her to write whatever the hell she wanted without having to worry about rehashing it later at home. “I wanted a good result. I’m not saying that people should have open relationships and fuck everybody and not cherish the responsibility you have to other people. But if I feel shackled, then the marriage and the home will really and truly be destroyed.”
The McGarrigle sisters had new wave aspirations.
Those arpeggiated keyboards make an appearance on one of Come Home to Mama’s most unusual tracks, “Four Black Sheep.” The song, a moody, textured mass of glitchy keyboards, free-form guitar tones, and programmed beats, was originally a straitlaced tune composed for CBC’s Great Canadian Song Quest initiative. What’s more surprising is that Wainwright credits her aunt, Anna McGarrigle—not Honda—as the real production wizard behind the song. “Kate and Anna spent eight years not working because they brought up their kids, and other people, like Emmylou Harris, sang their songs,” she explains. “And they spent those eight years in the basement with Juno-60s [vintage synthesizers] and really weird keyboards, making really weird music.” Attention, CBC: Apparently, somewhere in the Wainwright-McGarrigle vaults, tapes of these ’80s-era experiments exist. You’re welcome.
Martha Wainwright plays the Great Hall (1087 Queen St. W.) on Nov. 8. thegreathall.ca.