The music of Martha Wainwright does something to you. I am preparing for an interview later in the week so I put on her latest release Come Home to Mama. I am cleaning the kitchen when I notice that one particular track has me in tears. Her raw and searing vocal on Proserpina is chilling. Later when I read the album notes I realise why. This is the last song written by Wainwright’s late mother Kate McGarrigle, who died of sarcoma, a rare form of cancer in 2010. In another interview Martha described singing the song as ‘climbing back inside my mother’s skin’, as the song metaphorically tells the story of the pain of separation of a mother from her daughter.
‘Proserpina is the latin for Persephone,’ says Wainwright. ‘It’s why we have the seasons. It is the story of death and rebirth – half of the year Proserpina is with her mother, and then the other half she’s with her father, and when she is taken from her mother (her mother makes the world cold) because she misses her daughter so much – it’s like the story of divorce, or death; I think my mother probably clued in on that.’
For Martha, Proserpina was the final connection, a song of loss that tells the painful story of letting go.
‘My mother didn’t write that many songs at the end of her career. It was interesting she was writing that song, and that she knew, and she was conscious of what she was doing, and having one foot in the world and one foot in the next, she knew she was dying. The reason she wrote the song was that there was one final concert she was set on doing – the family Xmas show at the Royal Albert Hall. She used to drive my brother and me fucking crazy with it. We were focusing on our own albums, and it was a way to get everyone together around the holidays, and to show her morbid love for somewhat religious morbid music, so she thought to write this song Proserpina, because she had been reading a lot of mythology, maybe because of her reality, and because of it being the story of why we have the seasons she could consider it a holiday song. She was sick when she wrote it and of course I felt she wrote it for me. She was alone at the time of writing the song and I was pregnant and she wanted me to come home to mother nature herself. It’s what made it so doubly difficult for me to sing at the very end of her life. I was unable to be with her when she died because I had my own son who was born prematurely and we were stuck in a country and I could not get back to be with her. It was such an incredible song and in many ways it expresses many things I tried to say but hadn’t been able to.’
Martha, her brother Rufus, and Kate’s sister Anna have just finished a series of tribute concerts in London, Toronto and New York called Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle, along with a documentary feature film shot by ex-pat actress turned award-winning filmmaker Lian Lunson.
Wainwright admits that her latest album, and a good deal of her work since her mother’s passing, has dealt with the deep emotions of loss and grief.
‘The last record deals a lot with her, and the song I chose to be the pinnacle song is one that she wrote, and we have been doing the tribute concerts over and over; it’s sort of like we are keeping her alive.’ Losing a parent is life-defining, believes Wainwright. ‘Half of your life is with them and the other half is defined by the fact that they aren’t there. I turn to Montreal where I have inherited her home, I can’t close the door on it; I am trying to go through the wool that she didn’t finish knitting, the music she didn’t finish. We are left wondering what are we going to do with her legacy – she was such a powerful, creative woman and with that canon of music, you would never want that to go silent. I want to embrace the parts of me that are like her. In some ways she was a more likeable person than me…’ jokes Wainwright, who feels that the last years with her mother afforded her at the very least an opportunity to connect.
‘I am sorry that it took this for me to do it; I thought I would have had more time. I should have been nicer to my mother when she was alive. There were three years from her diagnosis until her death. Long enough to struggle, but also long enough to enjoy life.’
Come Home to Mama also features some searing songs of relationship, where Wainwright tells the story of a couple seven years on, stories of betrayal, or loneliness, or emotional disconnection. This couldn’t have been easy for a husband to hear; particularly when it came time, he was going to be playing on them. But they are, very clearly, love songs. But love songs about the hard stuff of staying together and making it work.
‘My husband was a little bit shocked,’ says Wainwright, ‘but I didn’t realise because I write from such an open point of view; if something is subversive it’s my vision to go with it; I like to immerse myself and go all the way. If a line is powerful then I am not afraid to sing it. Brad had heard me sing these songs before he said anything. When he heard them on the record and then played them in the live show we were able to talk about it.
‘And yes, they are love songs, it’s let’s stay together, it is not a breakup album; but it was also important to be able to express myself openly and that’s the problem of being in a relationship with a writer. If I couldn’t be open in my songwriting then I wouldn’t be able to write! I couldn’t write worrying that if Brad wasn’t going to like it our marriage wouldn’t last; no-one wishes on anyone that they were married to a writer! You are writing it for the reader or the listener anyway.’
For Martha Wainwright, a mother of a three-year-old, a wife and a musician, she has her own mother’s story to draw on when it comes to creating the footsteps of her own career.
‘Kate and Anna didn’t tour that much. They decided to concentrate on bringing up their kids, and they had other people sing their songs so they didn’t have to work so hard. I have a different career. I am not as successful as my mother and I don’t have that luxury, so it’s going to be interesting to see how to do it. For the most part I can take him [my son] with me. In my dream of dreams I would have a tour bus – we would all be together on the road!’
Along with her national schedule, Martha Wainwright plays two very special concerts at the Byron Theatre (Community Centre) on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are at the venue.