Interview: Martha Wainwright on birth, marriage, death and her new album

LUNCH in London with Martha Wainwright. By this I mean I’m having lunch and Wainwright – little sister of Rufus, daughter of Loudon Wainwright and the late Kate McGarrigle – is talking. And wow, can she talk.

There is literally nothing you can’t ask her, and most of the time you don’t even need to ask. Before the wine has been poured, an innocent ­question about why Wainwright chose a female electronic producer, Yuka Honda, for her mesmerising third album, Come Home To Mama, leads to a 15-minute stream of consciousness that is by turns hilarious, heightened and heart-wrenching. A signature Martha Wainwright cocktail of emotions then, or as her brother would put it, “typically Marthetic”.

“Brad and I have worked together,” she drawls with a wave of the hand, referring to Brad Albetta, her husband, bassist, producer of her first two records, and father of their son Arcangelo. “We have a house together. We have a child together. We’ve been through my mother’s death together. It was just too much.” Wainwright lifts a forkful of tabbouleh to her mouth, pauses halfway there, and keeps talking.

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“I really wanted to work with an artist and I really wanted to work with a ­woman,” she says, the fork returning ­untouched to the plate. “And it’s been the easiest and most loving work time I’ve experienced. I would arrive at Yuka’s house and she would make me tea, tell me I looked nice. She took care of me. It was exactly what I needed.”

A pause for a sip of wine. Time for me to slip in a question? No, she’s off again. “And some of the songs are about the difficulty of marriage. It would have been too close. He knew what he got himself into when he married me. But about a month ago he had to play the songs on stage and I think it was hard. He seemed very affected by it, by the fact the audience would know I was referring to him. We had to talk about it. And you know, it’s all because I love him. It’s because I care and I’m scared and sad for us. But this is the only way it’s going to work. I’ve spent the first part of my life in the shadow of my family. I’m not going to live in the shadow of my husband.”

Mind you, if anyone can coach Albetta through the oddness of seeing one’s dirty washing aired with a ditty it’s Wainwright. She has grown up in a family that has always worked through things in song, or as her aunt put it, “the stage feels like their living room”. Except it’s usually less cosy than that. Wainwright famously blasted on to the scene with a brilliantly antagonistic song about her father, who divorced her mother just ­after she was born, called Bloody Mother F***ing Asshole.

“I’ve always had a tendency to push the envelope as far as it can go without hurting someone’s feelings,” she admits. “Except of course in the case of Bloody Mother F***ing Asshole. But that was for the sake of art and I think well worth it.”

She grew up in Montreal, where the rivalry with her brother Rufus started early. “I was a sweet, ­smiley, easy child,” she tells me with a wicked grin. “Rufus was a terror. But then we became exhibitionists and it was a real mess.” Eventually Wainwright became her brother’s backing singer. ­“Rufus had a more dangerous time ­because of his precociousness and energy,” she muses. “But it was fun. There was a lot of insanity and drugs. His first two records were an incredible whirlwind for me. He got signed and we went to LA. Next thing we were in the hot tub of Crosby, Stills and Nash surrounded by piles of cocaine.”

Yet the need to go her own way continued to plague her. “It started to eat away at me, at us, until I had to extricate myself. It got to the point where he would get very annoyed with me on stage because I would try and draw all the attention to myself. And now we’re back together again, doing tribute shows for my mother, and having babies at the same time [Rufus has a child with Leonard Cohen’s daughter]. It’s a complete return. We’ll probably end up making a record together. That’s what our mother would have wanted.”

She pauses and the smile returns. “But we’ll have to wait until the playing field is a little more even.” Surely they’re even now? “It’s getting there,” she says coyly. “I’m more comfortable now. And you have to accept certain things. Rufus is never going to do back-up. He will never open for me.” She sighs theatrically.

Wainwright is very bold and tall, more cowboy than cowgirl. (People often talk about her balls and she says she is mannish, which she isn’t.) She is wearing a Martha Wainwright t-shirt (in an ironic way obviously), skinny jeans, and a glam-rock sequin jacket. She looks quite the pop star, but appears to think she hasn’t made it yet. “This is my make-or-break record,” she says. “I want to kick things to the next level.” Ballsy talk, indeed. Yet she’s more established than she thinks, an artist who has duetted with Snow ­Patrol, toured the world singing Edith Piaf songs, and performed with the Royal Ballet. Critics are describing her more and more as “the voice” of the Wainwright dynasty and it’s true. Come Home To Mama, her most ambitious album yet, reveals a singer at the peak of her powers. She has a shape-shifting voice, hard and gravelly one moment, quivering and pure the next. On Proserpina, the last song written by her mother before she died, it climbs the scales to an operatic primal scream.

“Proserpina was the last time Kate threw herself into a song,” she says. “It’s a farewell to herself, and a farewell to my brother and me. Her gift to us.” How does she feel when she sings it? “Like I can conjure her spirit up, that maybe she will come back to life,” she says. “I close my eyes and feel like when I open them she will be in the room.” She raises an eyebrow and undercuts her sadness mercilessly. “I’ve learnt to hide my tears on stage,” she observes. “They make people uncomfortable.

Come Home To Mama, a line repeated like a mantra in Proserpina, follows an enormous period of change. The loss of a mother and the birth of a child are expressed in both stripped-back, grief-stricken laments, and offbeat pop songs shot through with electronic beats. As is always the case with Wainwright, the music can’t be separated from the life.

She tells me about the extraordinary chain of events. Arcangelo was born eight weeks premature in November, 2009. McGarrigle, though very ill and undergoing radiation treatment, flew to London. It’s a sad and strange irony that if he hadn’t been born so early, she would never have met him. “There have always been great parallels between my ­mother’s life and mine,” Wainwright says. “Just around the corner from where I had Arcangelo she lost her first child 38 years earlier in a nuns’ hospital. It was very traumatic and violent, the baby lived for just 24 hours. It was something she talked about late at night. I think my baby made her feel redeemed of her loss.”

Two weeks later, the family – shell-shocked but still singing – performed their Christmas show at the Royal Albert Hall. “We knew it would be Kate’s final performance,” she says. “It was a very big deal. My mother loved those shows, making us do these complicated five-part harmonies that drove us all crazy. It probably took a few months off her life to make that trip and do that concert.”

She died a month later in January, 2010. Wainwright was nursing her son who was still in an incubator so she froze breast milk and flew out to Montreal to say goodbye. As she became a mother, she lost a mother. And in doing so, she became the mother she lost. “I wasn’t able to fall apart or crawl into a drink,” she says. “I had to take care of this tiny baby. The way I was able to do that was by taking on my mother’s traits. She was my guide through life. And sometimes she was very frustrated with me. I didn’t always heed her advice. I was very hardheaded. Sometimes you should just listen to your mother.”

For six months Wainwright was unable to pick up a guitar. “I would just fall in a puddle,” she says. “My job was to breastfeed, deal with my mother’s estate and try to face the grief, the shock and the madness.” Finally, when she felt ready she hired a babysitter to come to their Brooklyn brownstone, and she escaped upstairs with her guitar. “I would smoke a cigarette out the window, write songs, and be the person I used to be.” And what came out? Wainwright lets out an intense sigh and reaches for her fork. “I thought it would be very dark and introspective,” she admits. “But then out came these weird, angry, upbeat pop songs.” She laughs. “You just have to go with it. And you know, drama always seems to follow me.” Then finally, she picks up her fork and starts to eat. «

• Come Home To Mama is released on 15 October on V2,