Nine Songs: Martha Wainwright
With every fresh start comes a hard-won wisdom, and it’s this new outlook that Martha Wainwright is carrying into 2021 with her latest album, Love Will Be Reborn, which chronicles the aftermath of an acrimonious divorce and finding hope among the ruins.
Wainwright famously comes from a family with no filter, at least when it comes to working through their feelings in song. From her earliest recording, 1997’s self-released Ground Floor, through to her latest creation Love Will Be Reborn, Wainwright has been more or less an open book. She’s a vivid storyteller, often through a wry and self-deprecating lens, and her flair for not holding back paid dividends early on with songs like the heavyweight “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”, infamously written about her father, Loudon Wainwright III. Though Wainwright has had her moments of wondering at what cost has come her tendency to perhaps overshare, she is who she is. She is who we all are: flawed, and still figuring things out.
Wainwright does not believe in reincarnation but she has learned the hard way how to rise from the ashes of a former life. In the five years since her last album, Goodnight City, Wainwright’s marriage to Brad Albetta - father of her two boys and producer of three of her first four records - crumbled into acrimony and protracted legal and custody battles that left her reeling.
Speaking from the home in Montréal she inherited after losing her mother Kate McGarrigle to cancer in 2010, and where she had lived with Albetta before the divorce, Wainwright is candid about the struggles that informed the writing and recording of Love Will Be Reborn. Several times throughout our conversation she reflects on the intense feelings of loss and loneliness that followed the split, as evident in songs like the title track, “Justice”, and the emotionally purging “Body and Soul”.
Wainwright has never shied away from documenting and sometimes inflating the frictions in her marriage - see songs like “Some People” and “Everything Wrong” from 2012’s Come Home to Mama, and several from Goodnight City - and Love Will Be Reborn puts that relationship under the microscope more than ever. But despite her evident pain, she’s not totally unsparing. She has the children to consider, and her fear of how the divorce might affect them - as her parents’ divorce affected her and brother Rufus - is writ large in the wrenching “Report Card”.
Love Will Be Reborn is not just a record about the wreckage of a relationship. At its heart, it’s an album about re-centering one’s self in middle age. It’s about realising that there is still a lot to live for, at the same time as coming to terms with the fact that the end is creeping inexorably closer. “My father, who’s 74 now, thinks about death obsessively and he writes about it a lot in his songs. I’m not at that level yet - I just turned 45 a little while ago - but some of the songs I’ve written for this new record are about death and getting older. Not in a doom and gloom way, but almost being excited about it - or at least not so afraid of it. Like, I’m not hoping that it comes. I’m just sort of snuggling up to it.”
Where other artists Nine Songs choices typically take on the perspective of a lifetime of listening, Wainwright explains that her selections are “largely just ones that came to me when I had to write them down. These are songs that have been really powerful for me recently.”
Intentionally or not, death and getting older are prominent themes in Wainwright’s Nine Songs selections, which range from classics entrenched in the Wainwright–McGarrigle repertoire to a misheard Jane Siberry masterpiece and a forgotten Roy Orbison single that - surprise! - was written by Bono and The Edge from U2. “I’m really not much of a musicologist,” Wainwright admits. “I’m not so interested in the biography behind the music, which I guess is kind of terrible. I should do more research!”
“The first time I was introduced to the song was when my mother and aunt Anna sang it at my grandmother’s funeral, with their sister Jane playing the organ. I would have just turned 16 years old at the time, and my grandmother was very important to me. Of course, it’s a beautiful love song too, but it really seemed to fit that occasion. The concept of the song and the lyrics are remarkably powerful, more than some of the songs from the same sort of era, which could be a little bit overly romantic or simplistic in some ways. “What’ll I Do” has an added layer.
“Some years later we decided to record it for The McGarrigle Hour, which, to me, is a really interesting record about family. The version of “What’ll I Do?” on that record is actually the only recording that’s ever been done on which my mother, my brother, my father and I sing together. It’s the only one of the four of us, and for that reason it’s heavy. And then of course the subject matter on top makes it even heavier, if you think about it from the perspective of a torn-up marriage. I really love how we sang it. For me, it feels very haunting. There’s something about how the way the four of us harmonised and sort of melded together to become the same person in the song.
“In some ways this song has helped me to accept death, and to accept how my family was as a dysfunctional unit. There’s a lot of love and layers to it.”
“I know Daniela Gesundheit from Snowblink through other friends and I’m very fond of her. She also makes her own music, and I’ve had her come play at my music venue in Montréal. I just love her voice, and as a band Snowblink seem to be really free in their expression and come up with such interesting sounds.
“For me, this song speaks more than anything to the time in my life when I first heard it. I had just met somebody new and was really caught up in this exciting, very romantic relationship that was very surprising to me. I was 42 and I didn’t think that it could happen to me again. So I was really open to the energy of the song. It made me feel very free, and Daniela’s singing style is quite sexy. It makes you feel something.
“I would dance to this song a lot in those days, in my house or in my car. I’d turn the volume up really loud and it made me feel like I was somebody else, you know? It allowed me to escape from what had been a more bleak reality.”
“Even though Joni’s canon is so famous, I didn’t know too many of her songs growing up. As Rufus has talked about before, we didn’t really listen to or talk about Joni Mitchell in our house when we were kids. It was not something that excited my mother to have to do, you know? And of course, being a tall-ish, sometimes blonde, singer/songwriter who plays the acoustic guitar myself, I did not want to be pegged as some sort of Joni Mitchell disciple at the beginning of my music career.
“My first roommate in New York was a huge Joni Mitchell fan, especially of her later-period jazz records. Up until that point I hadn’t really listened to her music that much, only the hits, so my understanding of Joni had been quite superficial. He listened to her excessively, so while on one level I loved the songs, on another level I rejected it all over again. But I was beginning to understand the intensity and the gravitas of her music.
“It’s only been recently, after Rufus covered “Both Sides Now” and “All I Want” for his record Northern Stars - his tribute to great Canadian songwriters - that I really started to listen and allow my ears to be open when they were closed to her before. Maybe out of envy or something, and not really wanting to deal with that. Of course, now I’m totally blown away by so many aspects of her songwriting. Her singing, her personality in her music and how heavy it is, how unafraid it is, and how devastating her lyrics could be.
“I remember being at the side of the stage at one of the shows where Northern Stars was recorded, listening to Rufus sing “Both Sides Now” and entangling myself in the curtains in tears. I was still very much in the clutches of the divorce and I was just so devastated by this song. The before and after concept was describing exactly how I felt, which was basically destroyed, so for me the song really took on this sort of midlife crisis mantle.
“The version that Joni recorded with an orchestra, 30 years after the original, is absolutely my favourite version. It’s crazy to think how a song can mean so much over such a huge period of time.”
“This song came back to me recently in a dream, after having forgotten about it for a long time. Sometimes when you listen back to a song you haven’t heard in years you end up disappointed when it’s not as good as you remember it. This was the opposite. This was better than I remembered it. I was struck again by his voice, which is almost like it’s from another world.
“I read recently that when he would practise in the studio with the band, he would kind of mumble through the songs, but when the red light went on for recording he would switch on that incredible, soaring voice. I can just imagine that shift really inspiring the whole band to just soar with him. You really get that feeling listening to Roy.
“It’s so cool that you say that U2 wrote it because it’s such a pop song. In some sense, it doesn’t at all sound like a country song. Now you mention it, it does sound very much like The Edge with that big wall of sound craziness that’s still so great. You really get the sense that the studio band are really top-notch. There’s a quality to their playing that comes from the country music side, so that even though they’re not doing their usual thing it’s still amazing. I love the total musicality of that.”
“I borrowed a friend’s car recently to pick up some wood and stuff for some construction I’ve been doing with my partner. It’s a banged up old car that kind of stinks of cigarette smoke and has a broken CD player, and it just so happened that the CD that was stuck in the drive was Bob Dylan’s album Planet Waves that he recorded with The Band. “Forever Young” is one song that really came to mean a lot to me.
“It’s actually a beautiful story. I would pick up my son at his dad’s house to drive him to school in the mornings and we would blare this record all the way with the windows down. The route across town goes over this mountain that’s right in the middle of Montréal, and it was so beautiful to make that journey with him next to me. He’s eleven and he would normally take the bus to school, but because of Covid we ended up having all this extra time together. You know, it wasn’t my custody week and I was just so grateful to see him.
“Dylan wrote this song for his own son, but so much of it I can really relate to with mine. I remember looking at him while we were in the car listening to “Forever Young” and having this intense feeling of wanting him to be free and happy and to never be hurt in life. The funny thing is that after I dropped him off at school I would drive back over the same mountain and listen to the song alone, and in those instances I felt it was about me. I wanted Bob to tell me to stay forever young. He was a really cool companion on those drives.”
“The album of the same name is still one of my favourite records. I didn’t know Warren Zevon for his more well-known albums. I knew the song “Werewolves Of London”, but I didn’t make the connection to him when I stumbled across Life’ll Kill Ya. I was probably in my mid-twenties when it came out, at a guess. I don’t know how I got my hands on it, but I was completely blown away by his abilities as a songwriter, and by his whole attitude.
“Even though this album kind of foreshadowed his illness, many of the songs relate to grappling with death and finding a way to accept it. I don’t know exactly what was going on with him at the time, but I found it so courageous. The production is in some ways very dated to the time that the record came out but it’s perfect, and it’s part of why I love it so much. I felt there was no one else like him in that moment.
“The lyrics to “Life’ll Kill Ya” are just incredible, and the bassline is so cool. The melody is so clever, so beautiful. It’s a really powerful song.”
“I listened to Jane Siberry way more than Joni when I was younger. She was more my vibe when I was in my late teens, early twenties. When The Walking came out in 1987, I must have been 10 or 11 years old. I remember we had the cassette tape and I listened to it a lot. Much of the recording on The Walking is so courageous, and the way Jane uses her voice is so beautiful. I’ve had the opportunity to work with her a couple of times and she’s a really kooky lady. Quite mystical. Religious. She’s very thoughtful, and you can hear that in her music.
“This song in particular, I remember I would sing it to myself all the time because I loved the melody. Whenever I was outside, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge or whatever, I’d sing it. But I had the lyrics completely wrong! I thought she was singing “I go down to the laundromat” instead of “the lobby”. The next line is “They say take off that foolish hat” so I had to somehow made up this rhyme that I thought it was really fun - this image of a woman going out to wash her clothes in ridiculous headgear.
“About a year ago I was cleaning up in the back of the house here in Montréal - we have these huge storage spaces full of so much crazy archival weirdness, and a lot of crap. And while I was cleaning up a little, trying to make room for some more crap, I found that old cassette of The Walking. I got out the tape player I have for my son and listened back to it and I was just amazed by how beautiful it is. Hearing the record now, in my forties, was a totally different experience because it’s actually so sad and intense.
“To me “The Lobby” is a song about a woman who is an artist, maybe sort of manic depressive, and hugely misunderstood and made fun of. You really get the sense that this woman is fucking mad, and feels really isolated and angry, and I totally didn’t pick up on that at the time.”
“I think it’s fair to include this one, since it’s really been in my brain recently. There’s something about this song from my new record that I find quite mysterious. It doesn’t sound like a lot of my other music, and I’ve been kind of mystified by it since I wrote it. Maybe it’s because I fully recognise myself in this song, and that’s not always the case.
“I wrote this song last summer, when I was staying out by a lake and spending a lot of time out on the water by myself. One day I was out in a canoe and I just couldn’t get control of it. It’s so stupid, but I didn’t know that in a canoe you want to ride right into the wind, as opposed to being in a boat, when you want to be alongside it so that the wind is in the sails.
"So I couldn’t figure out how to move with the wind, and it was pushing and pushing me in the wrong direction, towards a beaver dam. It was a very Canadian moment. Then finally my very strong, beautiful new boyfriend saw me from a dock, miles away, where he was fishing with my kids, and he got into a little kayak to come and pull me out. I felt so ridiculous, you know. Like, I wasn’t in danger. I was just stuck.
“Later it occurred to me that we have all been sort of stuck over the past year or so, with the pandemic. And I had been stuck in this crappy situation with my ex-husband of trying to figure out schedules and custody of the kids, which was just devastating. And when I was writing this song it just came out of me that being able to play music is really a lifesaver. Like, maybe it’s the thing that stops me from killing myself. Maybe Rock and Roll is actually saving my life.”
“This song of my brother’s is sort of inspired by a song from the Stephen Sondheim musical, Company [famously performed by Broadway icon Elaine Stritch]. Musicals are not something that resonate with me per se, but my son likes them and together we got into Sondheim’s Into the Woods a little bit, which is kind of amazing but it’s not really my cup of tea.
“There are different ways to interpret the lyrics to this song. For me, it makes me think about women who maybe have nothing of substance going on in their lives and it makes them miserable. But that’s just my interpretation. I also chose this song because I really love the production on it. I love what Rufus does with his voice here, and how he allows the song structure to be kind of difficult. It’s not an easy song to listen to, in a way, and I like songs like that.”