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A Mother's Love: An Interview with Martha Wainwright
John Freeman , October 19th, 2012 07:11

Martha Wainwright talks to John Freeman about the birth of her son and the death of her mother, Kate McGarrigle, and how the two events inspired her astonishing new album, Come Home To Mama

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Photograph courtesy of Matthu Placek

In November 2009, Martha Wainwright gave birth to her first child in London. After a difficult and life-threatening labour, her son spent the first few weeks of life in an incubator. At the same time, 3,000 miles away in Montreal, Wainwright's mother, the acclaimed folk singer Kate McGarrigle, battled against the sarcoma which ravaged her body. Kate died in January 2010.

It is against this intense emotional backdrop - becoming a mother and losing her mother in quick succession - that Wainwright's astonishing album, Come Home To Mama, was created. The new songs are a roller coaster of grief, anger, pain and joy. Produced by Yuka C. Honda (as opposed the usual choice of Martha's husband, Brad Albetta) and featuring Wilco's Nels Cline on guitar, Come Home To Mama also adds Thomas Bartlett's synths and a sprinkling of looped beats to Wainwright's extraordinary vocal range and rabidly honest words.

Wainwright has a history of producing 'heart-on-the-sleeve' lyrics (her 2005 debut album contained the track 'Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole', for which her father, Loudon Wainwright III, was the source of inspiration) but few have been as personal or devastatingly beautiful as a new song 'All Your Clothes', on which she imagines a conversation with her dying mother. And it would take a cold heart not to be moved by 'Proserpina', Wainwright's dramatic interpretation of the last song Kate McGarrigle ever wrote.

In these circumstances, the concept of interviewing Wainwright becomes a surreal experience. I speak to her mid-morning her time (she's at home in New York) and within a couple of minutes of small-talk with a complete stranger Martha is revealing how the pain of losing her mother had gone from being “violent and scary” to “a sadness and acceptance.” We talk about the dangers of childbirth (like Wainwright, my wife nearly died during the birth of our daughter), how her son has become “a glimmer of light” and her need to maintain her mother's legacy. Almost three years after Kate McGarrigle's death, the maternal bond between mother and daughter remains - dimmed but unbroken.

Much has happened since your last album of original songs. When did you begin to think about this record?

Martha Wainwright: I thought a lot about making a new record because it had been a long time since the last record of my own songs. I wanted to make an album of new songs as well as not waiting too long after having a baby. It can often happen that motherhood can really stop a lot of women in their tracks and I wanted to try and keep working through that as much as I could.

Did you have an initial idea for how you might want the album to sound?

MW: I thought that the record would be perhaps more introspective – voice and guitar-based – as people seem to like it when I do that thing that was on my first record. I assumed that my mother's death and some of the intense things that had happened would make those the kind of songs I would write. But, when I went to write the songs, they ended up quite angry and sad, but also kind of aggressive and some of them were upbeat. So, I then realised this wasn't just a voice-and-guitar record. I wanted to find a way to do it with odder sounds which were a little more representative of the apocalyptic feelings and fears that exist in the songs.

I was so sorry to hear about your mother's death. You had become a mother – in very difficult circumstances – only a few weeks earlier. I cannot imagine how difficult that period must have been.

MW: The primary driver was the sense of loss but I also had sense of the wonderful gift that I had been given – and that thing was able to get me through. Maybe the record is not a sad, introspective, morbid record because Arcangelo was born and there is a glimmer of light everywhere now. But, I didn't feel I could make a record about the beauty of the joy of motherhood because it wasn't the main event. What happened was my mother died and Arcangelo was born under very difficult circumstances. The fear and the intensity and the will to live is what came through [on the album]. But, the primary theme of the album is the loss of my mother. It is about everything being altered and having to become a different person than I was before - which was to be an adult and to be functioning, and the responsibility that comes with that. I had fear of those responsibilities and not having my mother around to give me advice or to help with the baby.

I'm sorry to be asking you such personal questions.

MW: That's alright – I am happy to talk about my mother all the time.

It's been two years since she died. I don't know how to phrase this any better, but, how are you bearing up?

MW: The shock of the actual death is gone, in terms of the power of death and the finite strength of morbidity. All of that has gone and now it has moved up to another realm of hauntedness that is not as violent or as scary. So, now it is just a sadness but also a resolve to accept and to try and listen to what Kate might have wanted me to do – to do as best as I can and to take care of her legacy in some way.

Is that how you see this album, as maintaining her legacy?

MW: Yes, and to also not disappoint her – my mother was perhaps a little worried about me before she died, because I was all over the place. Also, there were new responsibilities that came with having a young family. I wanted her to feel confident that I was going to be okay and to try harder in my endeavours for myself, but also for her.

The first release from the album was 'Proserpina', a song written by your mother. When did she write the song and why did you decide to record it?

MW: 'Proserpina' was the last song she wrote. She wrote it in the last few months of her life for a Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which was to be her last concert. My mother loved these Christmas concerts. She would torture my brother [Rufus] and me with them. She would call us up in May and start to scheme about Christmas shows and we would be annoyed because we would have other things we needed to deal with, but it was really her way of getting everyone together at that time of year.

Wow! That is an incredible way to instigate a family reunion.

MW: [Laughs] Isn't it? Also, my mother did like Christmas music and traditional songs and our shows were known to be quite different in the sense that they would have anti-Christmas songs and rock songs. It wasn't all 'Jingle Bells'. But, she was getting worse and worse and her illness was really speeding up during the Fall of 2009 and although perhaps she maybe shouldn't have done the show and certainly wasn't fit to perform, she flew over anyway to do it. Partially, because I was there with Arcangelo, but also because she wanted deeply to do it and she wanted people to hear this song she'd been working on.

She must have had summoned on huge inner strength to travel to the UK for that show?

MW: Yes, I think that she saw a way of passage into death through this music. Perhaps it was helpful to her to be able to connect with the next stage of her illness in a remarkable place with her children, family and friends who also participated at that concert. It also acts as a final statement of who she was as an artist.

Can you tell me a little more about what 'Proserpina' means to you?

MW: The song, of course, is a story about Persephone and the passage of Spring and the seasons, so my mother was able to fit it into the concert. It is also a song for me – and for Rufus because I cannot be selfish about it – that has a mother-daughter context which resonated very deeply with me. My mother, who believed in God, also believed in Mother Earth as much. I was in England and wasn't able to be with her as she was dying because I was needing to be with Arcangelo as he grew larger in an incubator. So, the intensity of her singing the “come home to mama” lyrics kept on presenting different ways of what she could have been feeling. The beautiful conciseness of the song is clearly written by someone who has one foot in the door, or one foot out of the door, depending on your take.

When did you record your version?

MW: Well, I did not plan to put it on the record. Right around the time Arcangelo was born and we were in the hospital in London, Christy Turlington had produced and directed a film called No Woman No Cry which looked at women's health during labour throughout the world, to try and prevent babies and mothers from dying. It's a story about all the things that can go wrong. It was so interesting that she would call me up while I was in this situation, so right after my mother's funeral, I recorded that song for that film but we never ended up using it. I put the song on a shelf but when I was recording the record with Yuka, we needed a cover and I knew I wanted to do something of my mother's but I needed something that would fit with the album. We listened back to it and once Yuka heard it she felt it, of course, should be on the album. We added the primal screams and a few other things that related to the album and as we were mixing the album it became evident that 'Proserpina' was the cornerstone the record hinged on.

Of all the songs on Come Home To Mama, 'All Your Clothes' seems the most incredibly personal set of lyrics, in which you are holding an imagined dialogue with Kate. How difficult was it for you to perform these songs?

MW: It's interesting, as when I recorded 'Proserpina' it was only a few days after she died and I sang it as she had sung it. It isn't the sort of song you want to reinterpret. It was at the stage where I thought if I close my eyes and sing this song - I will open my eyes and Kate will reappear. That can sometimes be a sad wish that can inspire writing songs. On 'All Your Clothes' I'm trying to have a conversation with my mother who is not here and I'm trying to conjure her up.

Isn't that an incredibly painful thing to do?

MW: It's a lot of different things, but it is certainly a way to keep the person around you, like a wake, and trying to hold on for as long as you can – be it their ability to talk to you or a physical things like their clothes. I always seem to write such personal songs; that's always been my go-to thing, to write about what I'm experiencing. So, when I was finally able to pick up a guitar after about five or six months after the funeral, that becomes the way to begin to talk about the subject. But I was looking for a way to write about this subject matter that had interesting imagery and was pertinent.

You mentioned Yuka Honda earlier - what impact did she have on the album and why the move away from [husband and producer] Brad [Albetta]?

MW: I wrote the songs and I demoed them and that was all I could do. In many ways, I was spent what with the new baby and everything. Yuka is responsible for pretty much everything else in terms of the soundscapes she provided, the meticulous attention she gave to each song and me wanting the album to have a sound that was different. I had never felt this before, but I really wanted to work with a female and there are not many females producers. I really trusted her to take over and make these songs come to life. She did an incredible job.

Your son is nearly three years-old; how has being a mother changed you as an artist?

MW: It makes me want to do better and it makes me want to succeed and I also have a new person listening. I listened meticulously to my parents' music and I know what it gave me and the insight it gave me into them and the richness it brought to my life. So, I have a new audience who I care about more than anyone else [laughs] and I want Arcangelo to think I'm good at what I do.

And what is his verdict on Come Home To Mama?

MW: Well, poor Arcangelo has probably heard this record more than anyone. Brad was gone during the mixing – he was on the road with Rufus a lot – and so I was in the house alone with Arcangelo. At night time he'd have to listen to the whole record and I'd ask him and talk to him because I had no one else. He seems to especially like 'I Wanna Make An Arrest' best, because it is upbeat, which makes me very happy.

Come Home To Mama is released on October 15th via V2. Martha's tour of the UK kicks off at Shepherd's Bush Empire on December 2