In the late morning on the last Thursday in October, Martha Wainwright’s publicist patches her through on the phone for a standard 15-minute interview, ostensibly to promote her sure-to-sell out performances at the Yukon Arts Centre Nov. 4, and the Odd Fellows Hall in Dawson on Nov. 5. The line crackles, and the publicist advises that Wainwright is in a bad reception spot, and will call back in five minutes.
It’s a good thing. Having just listened one more time to All Your Clothes, from Wainwright’s latest album, Come Home to Mama, the interviewer needs a moment to settle down the heaving sobs enough to get out a question.
“All your clothes / I thought I could donate them to a theatre,” she sings, addressing her mother, the legendary Canadian musician Kate McGarrigle, who passed away from cancer in 2010. “They’d make up the wardrobe / To a great play a cast of characters, unknown / Who never took for granted, a sight, a sound, the smell of a rose / I hear you got lots of friends / But I’m worried you can’t hear music anymore.”
It’s lump-in-throat heartbreaking, sung as it is in Wainwright’s honey-gilded howl that bears no small resemblance to her mother’s.
But there’s no time right now for heaves or lumps. The satellites transmitting our voices to and from space align, the cellular signals clear, and Wainwright is on the phone.
There’s just 15 minutes to discuss so much. Her first album of original songs in four years, Come Home to Mama, cements an idea that Wainwright’s hardcore fans have known for years, but casual admirers may not know: while she is a gifted interpreter of other songwriters’ work – Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen, her own mother and her dickhead-cum-genius father, Loudon Wainwright III – she is also a stunning poet and songwriter in her own right.
Wainwright had plenty of experiences to mine for Come Home to Mama – the birth of her first son, Arcangelo, in 2009, the near-dissipation of her marriage to her husband and musical collaborator, Brad Albetta, and of course, the death of her mother, who is a ghost dwelling in every note Wainwright sings.
“In the case of (All Your Clothes), that was the first song that I wrote after my mom died, a couple months after when I was finally able to pick up the guitar and not completely crumble into a puddle. But it was certainly one I wrote through tears. It’s very open and honest. I was trying to completely connect with some way of describing the feelings that I had.”
While one might imagine Wainwright falling to pieces every time she performs the song, she has negotiated a peace with the work over time.
“I think it’s more powerful and more interesting if I can think of her when I’m performing it, but at this point, it’s four years later, and it’s not that difficult anymore,” she explains. “The tone becomes a bit more that you’re trying to show the emotion, to demonstrate it, but to still be in control.”
Wainwright’s son, too, gets a searingly honest letter from his mother – Come Home to Mama is a multi-generational affair, and in Everything’s Wrong, she addresses her infant child as his future adult self.
“I do most everything wrong / Even on the day you were born,” she sings, “My husband’s been lyin’ and cheatin’ / I turned my cheek and reason / I change my tune every day / There is one thing I want you to be / That is smarter than me.”
“It’s not a children’s song,” she says, with a hint of wry laughter. “But I’m using him as a subject to talk to, and I’m apologizing for my future mistakes and the mistakes I’ve made in the past, and the fear that I have. It’s almost like a speech.”
“I allowed myself to be more open with some of the issues that I had because I felt I needed to,” says Wainwright, of the record’s numerous references to marital troubles. It’s perhaps remarkable then, that her husband played bass on many tracks on the album.
“I think he was a little pissed off with some of the lyrics,” she admits, “but when you live with a writer, or a songwriter or somebody that lays it all out in what they do, that’s a danger. And for me it’s more important that I can express myself openly and in an interesting way. I want it to be effective. I wouldn’t want to be with someone who would put a muzzle on that.”
“I think it might be hard for him to listen to some of that but you know….” she pauses for a beat. “Time makes things better. And that’s just the nature of artistry.”
It was her husband who suggested she collaborate with Yuka C. Honda, a multi-instrumentalist best known as a member of Japanese-American pop group Cibo Matto. Honda’s contributions give the album a slightly experimental feel that’s quite different from what fans of Wainwright have become accustomed to. The song Some People, for example, lopes along against bendy synths before diving headfirst into Portishead territory. Four Black Sheep, by contrast, sounds like a song broadcast from a radio station on Kate Bush’s home planet. Proserpina, the album’s only cover song (written by Kate McGarrigle) uses Honda’s talents to stunning effect, weaving layers of cello, vocals, and synthetic beats to an aching crescendo.
But it’s no use bringing up these comparisons to Wainwright, who, growing up with a famous brother, mother, father, aunt, and countless shirttail relations who are bona fide musical legends, will undoubtedly always feel the little-discussed unease that comes with being so close to genius.
“I get frustrated,” she has said in the past, “when people always ask how I describe my music. First of all I tell them that’s their job. And then that also one day I hope to have things referred to as Martha Wainwright-esque.”
Wainwright will arrive in the Yukon five-and-a-half months pregnant, with her second child with her husband, proving their marriage has withstood the scathing lyrics directed at him. She’s played Whitehorse years before, but never Dawson.
Another quote Wainwright has repeated loudly and frequently to the press is that she hates talking about music. And so it feels like she’s partly relieved when the 15 minutes of allotted interview time are up.
In some ways, it seems like an act of mercy to let her off the phone. To unhook our connection to satellites linking our voices way out there in space. To hang up, put All Your Clothes back on the stereo, and feel the lump in the throat begin to grow again. To hear a song only she could have written. It is, without question, beautiful poignant, and, let the record show, positively Martha Wainwright-esque.
Elaine Corden is a Yukon freelance writer.