Returning to the UK off the back of a hugely successful tour in December, Martha Wainwright headlines the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow tonight as part of this year’s Celtic Connections festival (she also plays four dates in Ireland). This is not only good news for our Scottish friends, who missed out before Christmas, but it also gives us a great excuse to finally share this interview from late last year.
We’ve been holding a flame for Martha’s music since we first saw her live in 2003 at an event rather cringingly titled ‘Alt Country Belles‘, where she opened for Mary Gauthier and Oh Susanna with a short but powerful set, and later made that unforgettable self-titled debut. So Martha’s latest album, Come Home To Mama, had us excited before we even heard the first note, especially when it emerged that Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto, Plastic Ono Band) had signed on to produce the record.
It has been a tumultuous few years for Martha – her young son Arcangelo came into the world rather earlier than anticipated, and her mother Kate McGarrigle passed away after a long fight with a rare form of cancer – and, in the true, unflinching tradition of the Wainwright lineage, it’s all laid bare in the album’s ten songs. First single ‘Proserpina’, the final song written by Kate before she died, lends the record its perfect title, and a female energy runs right through the middle: in its fury, its searching for meaning, and in its honest accounts of married life and motherhood. Melanie Marshall gave her a call.
How did you and Yuka first meet? Have you been friends for a long time?
I met her through Sean [Lennon] probably about ten years ago, maybe even more. I don’t remember exactly when. We’ve known each other for a long time; it’s all very connected in the New York kind of music family. Yuka has always been very supportive of my music. And, of course in the ‘90s as a teenager I was a fan of her band Cibo Matto. They were quite popular in Montréal so I knew who she was, and I really looked up to her in many ways. When I was looking for producers for this album there were some things always grating on me – a feeling that I wanted to work with a woman, someone who was also an artist. I don’t know whether it was because of the death of my mother, in that perhaps I wanted to be taken care of in a way, or just that I wanted a female energy on this record. I’m not sure, but it was my husband Brad’s idea to call her up and ask her to do it. She was really, really excited, so that’s how it happened.
Looking at the liner notes for I Know You’re Married…, you worked with five different producers, four mixers and ten engineers. That’s a lot of personnel. Making this album must have felt so different.
Each album has been very much a different experience. The first one was with Brad, and it was really the two of us forging our personal relationship as well as a working relationship, and it took a long while to make. The second one was with a lot of different producers, as you mentioned, and had its difficulties for that reason. This one was, for me, a kinder and gentler experience that I’ve ever had in the studio. I would walk in and Yuka would offer me tea and a sandwich or something to eat and compliment me on my scarf or something. There was something very gentle about it that I really appreciated, because I had had a difficult year after losing my mother. I really appreciated being taken care of in many ways. And Yuka did so much of the work in that I would come in and sing and play the guitar, and then I would leave and go the movies or something like that. It was kind of exciting whenever I came back into the studio as she would have put in a lot of effort and time and come up with things that I never would have thought of. I really leaned on her and her musical brilliance on this record.
The electronic elements that you and Yuka worked into this album really do complement the songs rather than intrude on them. Did you spend a lot of time getting that balance right?
I knew that I wanted to make a record that was more keyboard based, with some elements of electronica and some programming, because I wanted to stay away from what often tends to happen with singer-songwriters, where it turns into a sort of Americana sound or something. When you add instrumentation onto the voice and acoustic guitar, things can kind of get more country or something – it just happens – so I wanted to try and avoid that, which was one the main reasons for asking Yuka to produce. At first we started out doing things that were a little bit more electronic sounding, but Yuka quickly recognised that the essence of these songs was really the voice and the guitar. It’s how they’re written; it’s what I’ve always done. It’s my sound, basically. So I think she realised that we had to keep that sound in there, that it had to be prevalent, and that what we needed to do was to complement it with some programming and stranger sounds. We were careful to not lose the voice and guitar as the focal point.
Speaking of your voice, ‘Radio Star’ and ‘I Want To Make An Arrest’ really stand out in particular as songs that are more vocally demanding than we’ve tended to hear from you in the past – on record, at least.
I do sing out more on this record, which is the way I’ve sung live for my whole career. Usually when I record it’s a more introverted voice that comes out – it’s just one of the things that happens when I work in a studio – so for this record I really wanted to recreate the energy that comes out of live performance. It’s fun to sing songs like that, as long as you’re in good voice. I mean, I guess you can keep on dropping key and find a way to do it; there’s always a way to sing a song! But when on the road touring you have to be really careful not to blow out your voice. You know, because some of the songs are right on the edge of where I would go into my high range and I have to yell. It’s fun, but I have to be careful. I’ve always done a certain amount of opera singing, so I’ve been forced to do various types of vocal acrobatics and I’m prepared to go all the way when I need to. Also, to be honest, a lot of what you hear on this record was because of working with Yuka in that I felt so comfortable with her that I allowed myself to do things in the studio that maybe I wouldn’t normally do if I felt more shy or constrained.
It sounds like it was a really nice process.
It was. It was really fun, which I’m not so used to in the sense that there has always been a certain amount of arguments and tears in the studio. You know, as a couple, Brad and I are always together so things can get really intense in the studio when we’re working. So it was really great to be very much free of that, and I think it’s exactly how I needed to be treated at that moment. Honestly, I don’t think I would have been able to handle anything else. Between still reeling from my mother’s death, and having the baby, I don’t think I could have subjected myself to another emotional rollercoaster in the studio. The songs are already really aggressive and sad, emotional and pissed off, so I don’t think I could have afforded to have that be the working relationship too. So it worked out perfectly for me.
There are a couple of songs on the album written from the perspective of a woman overcoming problems in her marriage, and knowing how honest you generally are in your songwriting people will no doubt assume you are singing about your relationship with Brad. Has it been hard for you to find a balance between being a mother and a wife and an artist?
As hard as for anybody else, even if I do sometimes say that other people have it easier [laughs]. Brad has always been behind me whatever I wanted to write, sing or talk about. With the first record, and even the second record to an extent, I was writing songs about other men – previous loves and things like that – so he’s sort of used to that level of honesty. I mean, to the extent that an artist will say whatever she thinks or feels. That being said, although he had heard some of the songs before, when I was writing, I don’t think he really played the record that much before we started doing shows for it. Then during one of the first shows we did together – he was playing bass with me on stage –I think he realised just at that moment that he was a little bit sad and a little bit freaked out about some of the lyrics. So I recognised that I had to talk to him and make sure that we’re alright, and that this is alright. I know that he doesn’t want to put any constraints on me, but it’s also very important for me to cherish and nurture the relationship. I think because we’re both children of divorce we’ve always wanted to stay married, but staying married is a challenge for a lot of people – to just stay in a relationship is difficult. So I think that’s what I am singing about. I’m sort of saying, “Yes, this is tough,” and it’s something I need to be able to do in my songs because I think if I were to feel as though I had to edit myself in my songs…well, you know.
Yes. Your songs really speak to me personally in many ways. I’m a child of divorce too. Like you, I also work with my husband and we have a young son, and it is difficult in some ways to figure out how to stay married with a new baby.
Wow, yes, especially when women are working or supporting the family – it’s the financial constraints dynamic. It’s also difficult in the music industry, which is just not that conducive to having a kid. I’m with Arcangelo all the time, of course, because I’m his mother. I can’t just leave him at home, but it takes a lot of patience. I’m asking a lot from my family to follow me on this road but I think that they’re willing.
With Arcangelo keeping you on your toes in the last couple of years do you feel like you’ve been forced to focus or write in ways that you maybe hadn’t done before?
Luckily I’ve never been that prolific, and luckily I’ve never been that obsessive about writing. Now I never thought I would have said that because I’ve always been sort of sad and angry that I wasn’t the sort of artistic soul who wakes up and heads straight to my instrument and writes a song. I’ve always sort of gone to the fridge and made a sandwich [laughs]. Those were my instincts. But that’s actually quite helpful to me now because I have to spend a lot of time with my family still, and a lot of things are required of me in a day to day way, so I don’t feel like I’m completely neglecting my music and my art because it was always something that I was able to go to when I needed to go to it; to just close the door and put the time in.
What happened right after my mum died and we came home with Arcangelo, whenever I would try and pick up the guitar I would end up in a puddle on the floor because it was just too intense. After several months I knew I needed to get started with writing, because I always wanted to make another record relatively quickly. I didn’t want to be off the scene for too long after having a child. There is always a danger that a pregnancy might stop you from doing a lot of stuff, so I knew that I needed to keep working. I hired a babysitter to come in for three or four hours a day, just so I could go upstairs and make that separation. It was really enjoyable actually. I could just become who I was before, you know. I would light a cigarette and it would be like I was twenty-five again, sitting on the couch with the guitar being myself. And then I would go downstairs, make dinner, and that was that; like, “Now we’re doing home time.”
You’ve said in the past that you felt a bit intimidated by the prospect of singing your mother’s songs. Was there some trepidation with tackling ‘Proserpina’, or was there something that compelled you to take the song and make it your own?
Well, I knew that I was going to have to do something. I wanted to do something, and I didn’t necessarily want to just put on ‘Tell My Sister’, which is a song I had been performing a lot in the tribute shows that Rufus and I have been doing. It didn’t really make sense, phonically, with the rest of the record. I had actually tracked ‘Proserpina’ just a few months after Kate died, for another project where it was never used. I remembered it when I was in the studio with Yuka a year and a half later; like, “Oh wait a minute. There’s this thing I did.” So I called up the engineer and asked them to send me the track, and we both sat down and listened to it.
I think both of us, and Yuka in particular, quickly realised that it had to be on the record. I mean, it’s a very beautiful song, and a very important song from my perspective. It spoke to us, sort of reappeared in another form. I don’t know whose workings those were, but I’m glad for it. So what we did then was to add some touches that made sense with the album – the ad lib singing and stuff like that. And then soon after doing that and incorporating it into the record it really started to seem more and more like the cornerstone of the album, which makes sense because, you know, Kate is referred to so much on this record. Some of the songs are about her, about her laugh. So ‘Proserpina’ became this wonderful final gift that she left me. This incredible song.
Do you have any plans to make any future recordings, maybe some of the stuff that you’ve done from some of the tribute concerts?
I think our family will be doing stuff around my mother and her music for a long time because there’s so much of it. Rufus and I have been working with the producer Joe Boyd, who’s kind of a famous guy in the folk world and produced Kate and Anna’s first two albums, on a live album from the tribute concerts with all the different guest singers. People like Norah Jones, Antony, Joan Wasser, Neil Tennant, and Richard, Linda and Teddy Thompson, and of course Anna McGarrigle. We’ve compiled about thirty songs from the concerts, so that will be a nice tribute to Kate and will come out on Nonesuch. Also, two years ago Rufus and I started making some recordings of Kate’s songs, just the two of us, so that might come out one day too. I don’t know, because there are lots of ways to approach these tributes because her songs were so great, because she was so great; we just want to get it right. We’re also hoping to maybe get a theatrical release of a documentary [‘Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You’] about Kate made by a woman named Lian Lunson, which includes many of the performances from the tribute shows as well as documentary elements.
Obviously you knew Kate was well loved during her lifetime, but since she has died has it taken you by surprise to see how much warmth and affection people have for her?
The thing about Kate and Anna is that although they weren’t super famous, whoever knew them really loved them because they were so different, really brilliant. Anna’s obviously still is, but my mother’s personality was so enigmatic. Is that the word I’m looking for? I mean, it was sort of from another era. They were like characters in a novel, a Brontë sister novel or something. They were very special, very beautiful, in the way that they were together. And the way that they played all their own instruments and sang everything made them very special as musicians. And there’s also the fact that they did things the way they wanted to. You know, bringing up their kids, living in Canada, and not making a record for eight years. It was very mystical, in some ways.
You’ve now become a spokesperson for the Sarcoma Foundation, could you describe a little bit about what that role entails for you?
Rufus and I wanted to lend our names and faces, if they were helpful, to raising money in the fight to find the cure for cancer, and specifically sarcoma. Because sarcoma is an orphan cancer there’s very little research that goes into finding a cure and treatments. Now we have the Kate McGarrigle Sarcoma Research Fund, which is also geared towards finding a cure for sarcoma, but also raising money for anything to do with helping out people with sarcoma. It’s usually a young person’s cancer, and many people can’t work, can’t pay their rent or can’t get to where they need to go. Or if they’re particularly uncomfortable in hospital, there might be some things we can supply to make their lives a little bit easier.
It’s really coming to the forefront that sometimes the research that’s done for one type of cancer can end up being a good treatment for another form of cancer, so we also need to keep it open as well and be open-minded about how to use the money. Kate always sort of fancied herself as a little bit of a scientist, so that was the side of the research fund that was interesting to her. And on our Board of Directors we have the two doctors who treated her, so they help us to make sure that the money goes directly to people who are researching. It’s very interesting for us. I mean, here in the United States in particular it’s really private money that fuels a lot of what happens. Fundraising is a big part of it, so we are happy to do anything that we can do to help. My mother, in her own lifetime, also raised money for the Sarcoma Foundation so we don’t want to forget that legacy of hers. It’s a disease and an illness with a shocking and disturbing end, for us and for her. We’re not over it. I’m her daughter.
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