The Wainwright name is synonymous with folk music. But for a while, Martha Wainwright, daughter of Loudon and sister to Rufus (her late mother, Kate McGarrigle, is also a legend in her own right) did her best to deny her musical inheritance by taking up acting (blink and you’ll miss her in The Aviator). But that’s all in the past. Wainwright is getting set to release her fourth album, Come Home To Mama, which was written after the birth of her son Arcangelo, and the loss of her mother to cancer. Come Home To Mama, features the last song McGarrigle wrote, “Proserpina,” a poignant tale of birth, loss, and re-birth. The album is out October 15th, and on October 10th Wainwright is hitting the road for the first time in over two years. Late one night, we caught up with Wainwright to talk about Come Home to Mama, losing her mother, and going back on tour.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Montreal. Trying to quickly make this French record for a television show they’ve asked me to do, and I have a week to do it. So I’m desperately trying to learn French songs and put something together that’s semi-professional sounding.
I was listening to your cut of “Proserpina” today. It’s one of the tracks on Come Home to Mama, and the last song your mother wrote before she passed. I also watched the video of her singing it at the Christmas show. Tell me about what it was like to sing her song.
It was very moving to do it. I did it soon after she died, so I recorded the song before making this record and then I put it aside for another time. Then I remembered that I’d done it and it became the cornerstone to this record. I recorded it at a time when I think that I was just hoping maybe if I sang it well enough and then closed my eyes, that when I opened them again she might still be there. I was still in that stage of disbelief. But the song was a great gift that she left my brother and I at the end of her life, and it just keeps giving in a way by being on the record. It’s so nice that people like it, that it’s such a strong, well-written song. It’s a wonderful, wonderful last gift that she gave us.
You said that “Proserpina” is the cornerstone for this record, how do the other tracks compare to “Proserpina” and your previous records? Are they similar in sound?
No, the rest is kind of different from “Proserpina.” “Proserpina” is probably the most dramatic song, the rest of it is quite hard in a way, like intense, angrier, maybe it has some of the anger of the first record [Martha Wainwright 2005]. But I also think Yuka Honda, the producer, really created a soundscape that has elements of electronica, pop, rock and it’s really all over the place in a wonderful way.
You began developing this album after the death of your mother and the birth of your son. What was the recording process like?
The experience was very enjoyable. I would come in every morning and Yuka would offer me tea and maybe make me lunch. She would get a good performance out of me by being very kind, gentle, and careful with me. Some of the songs were kind of intense, the subject matter, and then often times I’d leave and she’d do a lot of the work herself, overdubbing and things like that. She’s also married to Nels Cline, who is the guitar player on the album, an incredible guitar player. So I was very lucky! I would come back the next day and it would sound pretty good.
Every one of your albums seems to represent a different season in your life, so what’s changed for you since Come Home to Mama?
Everything’s changed, you know, in that my life has changed. I would say that the record, for me, is described as having the raw emotion of the first with the quirkier production of the second. There’s some great songs and a lot of really intense singing on this last record. A lot of yelling.
When you started recording, did it feel as though a lot of time had passed, since so much had changed for you?
For me it wasn’t that long because I made the record of Piaf songs in between, but having a baby and also going through all of that. My mother dying. I wasn’t really ready to start recording right after she died. Every time I’d pick up the guitar I’d fall apart. So it took a while to write the songs and be well enough to do that.
You tried so hard when you were younger not to become another Wainwright-McGarrigle musician by taking up acting and whatnot, so why did you end up going back to music?
Because it was just easier. It was what was around me, and it was the most clear and obvious path once I stopped fighting it. It’s been enjoyable.
How would you describe your childhood?
Joyful, hectic, warm, loving and honest.
Do you remember what songs your mother would sing to you when you were little?
She sang lullabies. I’m trying to think of the songs she’d sing, I have it in my head. I can’t remember it anymore! Sorry!
But do you sing similar songs to your son, Arcangelo, and feel that same musical bond that your mother must have felt with you?
Of course! I sing a lot of the same lullabies and also love making them up. Sometimes he tells me to stop because he knows that means it’s time to go to bed. So when I start singing to him he goes, “No, no, no, no!” He doesn’t want to fall asleep.
Do you think that he’s going to follow in his family’s footsteps?
His dad’s a musician too, so I guess statistically showing that might happen.
Why do you think that your mom chose to write “Proserpina” at the time that she did? Did you find it eerily appropriate that it was her last song?
She wrote it for a Christmas show, it was the last performance that she ever did. She was reading a lot of Greek mythology and I think that she wanted an excuse to write about it. “Proserpina” is the story of Persephone, which is why we have the season, so I guess she saw that as an opportunity to write something that’s much bigger and much more intense in many ways. It’s a song about birth, death and re-birth, the life spring, and obviously knowing her own state and where she was heading. I think it was her last expression of herself as an artist and also she was sort of halfway on her way to becoming a goddess, which she was always meant to be.
Are you getting excited about this tour?
I’m very excited because it’s been about two years since I’ve toured. So I’m very excited. It’s going to be tough because Arc’s almost three, but it’s a fun age.
Is there anything that you’re doing right now outside of music, like a hobby or something else that you enjoy doing?
Well, there’s not really much outside of music. Back in Montreal I’m faced with all of my mother’s old wool, she was a great knitter. So I’m picking up my needles and I’m going to work on some leg warmers, which is sort of my signature look.