MARTHA WAINWRIGHT with ARORA at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), Thursday (November 8). 7pm. $25. RT, SS, TM.
In conversation, as in song, Martha Wainwright has a tendency toward bluntness.
"I feel like I've been a bad mother this week," is the first thing the Montreal-raised singer-songwriter says during an interview in Toronto last month. "That's going to happen over the next couple of weeks because I have to neglect my maternal responsibilities. Luckily I have my aunt and my cousin, who are taking care of my son so it always stays within the family."
Wainwright, 36, was in Toronto briefly for whirlwind press tour in support of her third studio LP Come Home To Mama, an album borne from a tumultuous period in her life three years ago that encompassed the premature birth of her son, Arcangelo, and the death of her mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, after a battle with sarcoma.
Recorded in Sean Lennon's New York City home studio with producer Yuka C. Honda (best known for her work with the ‘90s leftfield hip-hop/pop duo Cibo Matto), the album marks Wainwright's first collection of original songs since 2008's I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too. It's full of searing honesty and self-deprecating wit, vacillating between moments of foreboding, frustration, ecstasy and bliss in a fell swoop of her wildly expressive voice. Its centrepiece is Proserpina, a striking and elegiac cover of the last song her mother wrote.
Ahead of Wainwright's gig at The Great Hall on Thursday, she spoke to NOW about why Proserpina is the best song on Come Home To Mama, dodging the pitfalls of alt-folk with groovy sci-fi synths and maintaining her sense of humour in the face of tragedy.
Why was Yuka Honda the most appropriate person to produce this collection of songs?
It was actually Brad [Albetta]'s idea, who is my husband and produced my records in the past. We've done a lot together so we didn't need to make another record together [laughs]. I felt that the songs had a pop element but there was also a darkness, and a lot of interest in apocalyptic subject matter, obviously in the death of my mother as well, and a lot of anger. I really wanted to work with another artist who is not just a producer, and I wanted to work with a woman.
I also wanted to steer away from what can oftentimes happen with folk musicians like myself. At the core of the music is acoustic guitar and adding instrumentation can bring it into an Americana or Canadiana or an alt-folk world, which is not necessarily where I felt these songs would best live. It needed something kind of futuristic and kind of scary, but also steeped in the past. I also knew she was going to be incredibly meticulous. I knew that she was going to put a lot of work and time into it and come up with a lot of really groovy sounds.
What did you do sonically to play up that apocalyptic theme in the songwriting?
Yuka was very inspired by Blade Runner and Vangelis' soundtrack to that. Every song she treated quite differently. Something like "I Want to Make An Arrest," which although it's about my mother's death - in that I'm saying "I want to make an arrest and stop time and this test and pick up the phone and you're still at home"- it's about a desperate want to stop time and to change things. The David Byrne, bouncy production juxtaposes that and it's very groovy. She's very good at groovy stuff too because her music has element of jazz. It's not straight up electronica.
You mentioned you had a lot of anger. Where was that anger coming from?
I guess just really holding it together. When my son was born, it was under difficult circumstances and my mother died at the same time. It was really rough and really sad and arduous but I did not want to fall apart for him, for myself and for my husband too. My mother was a very strong person and I tried to adapt more of her tendencies. Once the baby was healthy and things had settled down after the funeral, I went upstairs and picked up my guitar and I was very sad and very angry and very upset. It's a selfish thing to do and I felt it was better to do it in this way than to subject my infant child to me being in bed all day.
How do you feel about that time in your life now that the record is done?
There is a lot of joy in this record too and I think the joy is coming from the excitement about the future. Yuka was really good at not making it maudlin. Of course there are songs that are about death, like "All Your Clothes," and she allowed the sense of humour to live and the joy to live. People are always surprised that I smile a lot. I'm a really happy person and they always think that's kind of weird because my songs seem really sad. But I feel better once I've written them and I feel like that's a productive thing - like how finishing an article feels really good I'd imagine. I felt really free of a lot of things.
When I interviewed your brother Rufus [Wainwright] earlier this year he said he wouldn't be surprised if your mother somehow swooped down and upstaged him just as his big pop album was coming out. Can you relate to that feeling?
What I've done is I've welcomed the upstaging. She has and I'm really glad for it. The song Proserpina is the last gift that she gave me and my brother and the world, but it's a gift that continues to give. It's because of that song and the rendition of that song that people are really drawn into some of the other concepts on this record. It's a better song than the other ones for the most part. Once again she's helping me, as always.
Why do you say that it's better?
I say it's better because it's concise. It's obviously written from the point of view of someone who has one foot in the world that they're about to head into. In that song, she was on her way to being the goddess that she was always intended to be and always was. It was a true fruition. She became that because she was so graceful in her death and because it was so intense. It's almost like she rose, in a really crazy way.
How did it feel to watch her perform it?
She performed it only once and it probably shaved months off of her life. She wrote it for the last concert that we ever did together, which was a fucking Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall. She was dead set on doing it and when she got on the plane, my god was she sick. She couldn't do the rehearsal. She was lying on a bed before going on stage with health care professionals around her but she got up. She was on the stage for two-and-a-half hours and she was perfection. She sang the song - that's what she wanted to do. She wanted to do it. And then she got on the plane, she went home, got into bed and that was it. [She died] a month and a half later. It was a slow decline. We all knew that [song] was amazing and that's why I wanted to record it quickly because I didn't want anybody else to!