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Apocalypses, Motherhood and Candor : Best Fit meets Martha Wainwright

Apocalypses, Motherhood and Candor : Best Fit meets Martha Wainwright

05 October 2012, 11:55

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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”.

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Aside from ‘Proserpina’, are there any other unreleased songs of her mother’s which Wainwright would consider recording? “My mother wrote two musicals”, she says. “They’re not your typical kind of musicals. That being said, my mother was in love with stories and songwriting and she liked a challenge. One of the two musicals is about a con artist, a Canadian woman. The song from that which I did end up recording is ‘I Am A Diamond‘. That’s a fucking hell of a song. The bonus track on Come Home to Mama is Rufus and I performing it live at the Kate Tribute Concert in New York but I’ve also been doing it in my shows for about three years. The other thing I really wanna do is… my mother wrote this weird musical and the book for it which is, like, 400 pages long. So we need an editor and a book writer. It’s about Jack Kerouac. Not so much about his travels or his alcoholism but more about his relationship with his French-Canadian mother. And his obsession with his mother and his return constantly to her. In that set of twelve songs that she wrote, there’s a song that she did record which is called ‘Jacques Et Gilles’. There’s another one called ‘All The Way to San-Francisco’ and it’s one of the greatest songs ever written so I wanna do that. I want to see that piece produced in some way. Even if it’s just work-shopped in a weird black box theatre, in a more interesting way”.

When you listen to Come Home to Mama you can’t help feeling that a lot of its lyrics are very autobiographical, but then you think to yourself, no, surely Wainwright can’t be prepared to share so much intimate detail with strangers. Or can she? “I think a lot of the songs are pretty biographical and then there’s about two or three that are science-fictional or mystical, with post-apocalyptic imagery that has been on my mind. ‘Radio Star’, for example, is about a post-apocalyptic world, a spaceship or a star taking over the world… But the rest of the stuff is pretty biographical in the genre of my writing that has always been there”. I point out that various lyrics go as far as indicating serious marital turbulence, particularly on tracks like ‘I Am Sorry’, ‘All Your Clothes’ and ‘Everything Wrong’. Does Wainwright not mind the passive intrusion this enables into her private life? “That would be a question for my husband, I think”, she laughs.

“This is sort of what I do,” she continues. “And I think he’s always known that about me and hopefully that is something that’s attracted him to me and not repulsed him. But I think what’s amazing about Brad is that he seems to have a lot of respect and deep understanding of art and the power of art and the meaningfulness and usefulness of it. At least that’s what I tell myself. You know, I’ve always pushed the envelope in terms of how far I can go with a lyric because in a three minute song you might as well try to say something. You don’t wanna beat about the bush. Anything that can provoke thought, or a thought process within the listener, anything that I can make sense of in my own life. I think poetry can be very helpful with that. That’s why language can help us and can create understanding between people. That being said, it’s a tough nut to swallow for Brad sometimes and I think it means that I have to cherish and take care of our relationship and reconfirm my love for him because otherwise I think it will make him leave, you know?”

There’s a song on the new album called ‘Leave Behind’ on which Wainwright sings: “There’s a danger coming our way”. I ask her what sort of danger she is prophesying here. “Well this is kind of my obsession, my apocalyptic fear”, she explains. “This was actually one of the first songs that we started recording for this project and it also very much set the tone for the rest of the album. The sounds that Yuka used were inspired by Blade Runner and that kind of feeling. The danger… well there’s a potential that we’re already there but in the past, apocalypses could have been seen as religious apocalypses or war but now I think of it more as an environmental or ecological apocalypse. Even with the seemingly better lives that we now lead with technology, communication and the ability to travel, there still is an underlying possibility that it will all be destroyed any second, at any point. By ourselves. It’s right at the brink, if it’s not already here”.

Wainwright and I then move on to discuss a recent BBC article concerning the dearth of female music producers. I try to glean from her whether she knew from the outset that she wanted to work with another woman on this album, as opposed to her husband, who had produced her previous works. “Ah!”, she exclaims. “Well, I’ve always kinda wanted to work with a woman producer but the main one, the big producer who also writes for people like Pink, she would never work with me”. Does she mean Linda Perry? “Yes”, she confirms. “I’m not famous enough! And I’ve tried to work with her. Every time I come to make a record I send her some songs because there’s always a part of me that’s really wanted to work with a woman producer. But I’ve often thought, well, that’s not gonna happen because there are no women producers out there. And then I met with a bunch of other producers for this record because Brad and I knew we didn’t want to work together because we’d kill each-other . But it just kept eating at me: I want to work with a woman producer. I didn’t want to be the only chick in the room and be ‘the woman’ all the time. I also wanted to work with another artist, not just a producer but an artist as well. And it was Brad who thought of Yuka. It was his idea. And goddammit, he does know the best thing for me and has my best interests at heart all the time. It ended up being a very good decision for me not only for the end result but also for the process, which was unbelievably gentle, kind and wonderful”.

As Wainwright’s PR pops her head into the room with a look of ‘are we done here, yet?’, I just about have time to ask Wainwright a couple more questions from my long list and, first, we touch on her newly-launched Pledge Music campaign for a tour in the US next year. She explains: “The motivation behind the campaign is mainly to get the opportunity to tour in the United States either by myself or even with some musicians, because I don’t have a very big following there. It’s a huge market and it’s been neglected over the years but I know that there are people out there, fans in smaller cities, who would like me to come and I want to be able to start a relationship with them and build more on it in the United States. And in order to be able to get out there I need some help”. I ask her what her favourite song to play live is and, after a pause for thought, she decides it must be her late mother’s song, ‘Tell My Sister‘. “I like singing it”, she says, “because I get to come out from behind the guitar and belt a song out and, you know, dig into it. It’s such a fun song to sing. It’s a beautiful song”.

Finally, I mention Wainwright’s song, ‘Far Away’, the opener on her debut album. On it she sings: “I have no children / I have no husband”. Now that she has both of those, I wonder how the change in status has impacted on her as an artist. “Completely”, she says decidedly. “If I didn’t have a child and a husband I would probably be depressed . Well, maybe not! Maybe I’d be totally free and happy but that’s not the path that I have chosen, you know, I always wanted to have a kid and I think that Brad and I being children of divorced parents, we’ve always wanted to make an effort to stay together in the marriage and make it work no matter how difficult that can sometimes be. Being a mother but at the same time motherless, I think, has been the biggest change for me. It has forced me into adulthood, which is somewhere I never pictured myself being for a long time. There’s much less room for failure. I have a much bigger responsibility now. So I can’t fail because I have no other skills!”

Come Home to Mama is out on 15 October on V2. Martha Wainwright plays O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 02 December. Tickets are available here.

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