With a voice that can flip from battle weary to seductive in a heartbeat, Martha Wainwright has a way of putting a lifetime of experience into one song.
The 36-year-old singer-songwriter from Montreal now lives in New York with her husband, the producer and guitarist Brad Albetta, and their three-year-old son, Arcangelo. She’s making yet another trip to Australia (she comes over at least twice per album cycle, by her estimation) to play both the Melbourne Recital Centre and MONA’s winter festival, Dark Mofo, in Hobart.
Much like her musician brother Rufus, Wainwright is extremely candid – so much so that I once thought I’d come away from an interview with major scoops, only to find that every journalist in town had been told about her trips to the psychiatrist and ongoing father issues. (I suppose you might expect the latter from someone who wrote ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ about dad Loudon Wainwright III. It’s a reaction to his offhand dismissal of her talent when he took her on tour at the beginning of her career – and all that this triggered.) It’s a quality that fans have always enjoyed in her songwriting, too.
Wainwright released her folky, self-titled debut in 2005, followed by I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too in 2008, which occasionally veered into much more aggressive territory, as with single ‘You Cheated Me’, seemingly addressed to a no-good, coked-up man-whore. Her third solo album, Come Home to Mama, was released last year.
While there was a four-year gap between these two releases, in between them she put out an Edith Piaf covers album, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, a Paris, “which was a very good project because I didn’t have enough songs to make another record,” she says frankly. “I became pregnant and my mother was very sick. The Piaf material was quite intense and it allowed me to stay doing music but in a character that was a little more separated from my own personal life – which is probably why, on this latest album, it is so personal.”
The death of Wainwright’s mother, folk artist Kate McGarrigle, has had a profound effect. ‘Proserpina’, on the latest album, is a song McGarrigle wrote as her health deteriorated, about mourning for her daughter. In Wainwright’s hands, it changes stance. Now it’s from the point of view of Wainwright herself, who, being tied up nursing a sickly newborn, was unable to rush to her mother’s side. Listen to versions by the pair and you’ll be startled at how similar their (very distinctive) voices are.
Then there’s ‘All Your Clothes’, in which Wainwright struggles to manage her grief: “Can we pretend we’re talking / I’ll answer for you if you don’t mind / The baby’s doing fine / My marriage is failing but I keep trying all the time”.
“I didn’t wait very long after having a baby and my mother died, to jump in and make this record,” Wainwright says on recording while her emotions were so raw. “I knew my mother would want me to make another album and I knew I had been out of the scene for a while and that is really dangerous. I didn’t want motherhood to be something that was damaging to my musical life, so I worked quickly.”
Ordinarily, husband Albetta produces, but this time around Wainwright chose multi-instrumentalist producer Yuka Honda (Yoko Ono, Cibo Matto, Sean Lennon) for a woman’s touch. “I talked to Brad about it and we didn’t want to make another record together because we had been through so much together with my mom, a newborn and buying a house together that I think we would have killed each other,” she admits. “I wanted the record to have a more of a keyboard and slightly more electric sound, rather than an Americana rootsy sound – and Brad suggested Yuka. I met her through Sean Lennon 15 years ago and we recorded it at his home studio. I was always a big Cibo Matto fan when I was younger.
“It was an odd feeling, because I had never felt that strongly about it before,” she continues, “but just after my mother’s death there was just an impulse in me to want to work with a woman. Maybe also because some of these songs can be a bit feministic, even if they aren’t necessarily girly sounding. There are actually very few female producers. There’s Linda Perry, who is really famous, and I always send her my music every time I write a record out of curiosity. But she has never wanted to work with me – I just get a response from her people saying whatever…”
Yuka Honda brought Wilco guitar wizard Nels Cline with her, who also happens to be her husband. Wainwright laughs at the memory of the initial suggestion.
“I was like, ‘Oh, let’s get Marc Ribot to play on some stuff,’ because I knew it could work very well with this kind of soundscape-y, very creative style, and she was like, ‘Yeah, we can get Marc, but my husband is really good too.’ I thought, ‘Oh god, now have to work with her husband.’ And, of course, then I heard Nels play and I was completely blown away.”
With both Cline and Honda being night owls, Wainwright would awake in the morning to find the couple had been hard at work. “They have very little time together and so did it by tracking on my record. I would show up the next day and there would be these layers of beautiful, virtuosic guitar playing.”
To fund the album cycle, Wainwright both went down the crowdsourcing route and made the most of the Canadian arts grants system. “It has become more and more difficult to make a living from record sales,” she points out. “Pledge [and other crowdsourcing sites] has become essential to artists like me. At first I was disappointed that I had to do it, but it worked quite well, and any shame I might have had about it dissipated very quickly. The amount we were raising was quite small in the scheme of things, and it struck me as a very honest and fair exchange that seemed to make a lot of sense. It also opens the mind, to be able accept how the business has changed, and to have hope that there is a way it can continue.”
Australia has always been one of Wainwright’s biggest supporters, with her last tour selling out almost across the board. “It’s been a bit of a love affair, at least for me,” she says. “I think that this record has been a hard sell and it’s on a different label down there than it was before [from Shock Records to Warners] – and I don’t think it has had a big impact yet. I’m really hoping to change that by coming and drawing attention to these songs and drawing attention to the album, which I think is a really strong record.”