Martha Wainwright is asking me what lipstick she should put on.
A moment earlier, she walks into our meeting room, where she has left her cosmetics bag, and apologises for having to keep me waiting a little longer, as she is supposed to film a short Q&A session before our interview. She is looking great in an old Martha Wainwright tour t-shirt and a spangly jacket and I suggest that whatever lipstick she goes for, it mustn’t steal the jacket’s thunder. “It’s pretty great, huh?”, she says whilst rummaging for make-up. Then off she trots to do some filming and, in her absence, I try to determine how old she is. I’m pretty sure I remember reading that she’s in her later thirties, yet she looks younger than that.
Although Wainwright started releasing music independently at the age of 21 (with 1997′s Ground Floor cassette), it wasn’t until 2005′s eponymous debut album that she found success and sort-of started breaking free from the ‘Rufus’ Sister’ and ‘Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III’s Daughter’ pigeonhole. With the premature birth of her son, Arcangelo in 2009 and, shortly after, the death of her mother, you could say Wainwright’s recent years have been somewhat crowded with incident. Channeling these experiences into her forthcoming new album, Come Home to Mama, she recently unveiled its first single, the stunning ‘Proserpina’, which was also the last song Kate McGarrigle penned before she passed away.
I ask Wainwright whether recording ‘Proserpina’ was the starting point for the new record and she nods in confirmation. “First of all, I don’t think I would have been able to write that song. It’s perfectly concise and my mother wrote it half-way between here and her own death and it sort of straddles that… she was on her way to being the goddess that she was always meant to be and always was and you can kind of hear that in the inflection of the song”.
The way it tells the story of Hera (Ceres) and her daughter is also beautiful, I offer. “Absolutely”, she says. “I think it was the birth of the record because she always wanted me to continue making records and I knew that I needed to make an album. Even when she was sick and Arc was just born, the plan was to continue in my career and to do as much as I could because often-times with women artists they can’t do that or child-rearing will overtake your art or your music. But it was always my intention to make another record and, although I did not initially intend to put that song on the record when I started it, it ended up being perfect for it”.
Wainwright recorded the song right after her mother’s death on what she refers to as “sort-of-a-whim”. She explains: “Christy Turlington was making a film about women and their health during child labour [the documentary, No Woman, No Cry]. Of course, that very much spoke to me because when she called me to do it I was in the hospital with Arcangelo. I was like – it is very odd that you’re asking me this at this time. Women’s health was never on my agenda before and then all of a sudden I find myself in an intensive care unit here in London. When I was reading all those baby books, I skipped over the low birth chapters thinking that’s not gonna be my problem, you know? Cut to a few months later when they’re talking to me about the possibilities of wheelchairs and death… But, you know, everything is fine now and UCLH [University College London Hospital] was an amazing place to be. In a way, it probably saved me a lot of pain by being away from my mother during her death because the focus was on the child. Rufus had taken over looking after my mother towards the end”.
Whilst ‘Proserpina’ was originally intended for No Woman, No Cry, Turlington ultimately left it off the film. As Wainwright hints earlier, its subsequent inclusion on Come Home to Mama was also not a given. “Halfway through making the album we needed another song because I am not a very prolific writer and I wanted every song on this record to be really strong. I thought that the nine that we had were pretty strong but there was something missing and I knew that I wanted a cover in there because I like to do covers. And I remembered that I had this song in the can. None of the other songs that I do of Kate’s made sense for this but I knew I wanted to do a song of hers. I called up the engineer in Montreal where I’d made the recording and he sent me the track and Yuka Yuka Honda] and I thought “this has to be on the record” so we added the over-dubbed singing and a few other little things to tie it in to the rest of the record”.
I ask whether Kate got to meet Arcangelo. “Yes”, Wainwright says with a soft smile. “And she got to meet him because he was born so early. It was very odd because his due date was January the 18th, which was the day that she died. Very strange. And sad and also very beautiful. You know, 40 years or so before that, my mother had given birth to her first child around the corner from UCLH and the child had died. She gave birth at 6 months. It was in a nursing hospital right near Euston station so very close-by to UCLH. And it was a very violent thing that happened, she’d always talk about it. It was a big deal for her, like a failure, you know, she was young and she was very shocked. She was told she would never have children again because she had a terrible infection. But she went on to have Rufus and I a couple of years later. So when I called her up and I said “you’re not gonna believe what’s just happening”, it felt like fucking history repeating itself. And in London of all places, just around the corner from where it happened to her. So, she got on a plane the next day and was here within 24 hours. She was very sick but she came into the hospital, jaundiced and very yellow. Arc was under this little jaundice light and I was, like, can we get the jaundice light onto my mother? It was intense. But, of course, amazing. There are a few pictures of her holding him. And she was very proud”.