Call the authorities—there’s been a murder at the Wainwright residence. While I’m on the phone with Martha Wainwright discussing her forthcoming album, Come Home To Mama (which comes out today), her two year-old son Arcangelo gets ahold of his mother’s cup of tea and proceeds to pour it onto a fly that had landed onto a table. But over the past few years, Wainwright has had to deal with much more stressing issues than cleaning up evidence of housefly homicides. In January of 2010, just two months after giving birth to her firstborn, Wainwright lost her mother/frequent collaborator Kate McGarrigle to cancer. Wainwright has perfectly captured the joy and pain of this tumultuous time with Come Home To Mama, perhaps her most emotionally naked album to date. Produced by Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto and featuring Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar, Come Home To Mama features a haunting rendition of “Proserpina,” the last song her mother wrote before her death as well as several stark numbers about grief and motherhood. We spoke to Wainwright about the album, the perils of trying to avoid crying onstage … and if her mother had passed down any McGarrigle/Wainwright family cold remedies worth sharing with Paste readers.
Paste : “Proserpina” is easily one of the most emotionally potent songs you’ve ever recorded. Do you ever get choked up when you perform it?
Martha Wainwright : Oh yes. Definitely. But I have ways to combat that. I think we were so—I say “we” because I always think of my experience with my mother as one shared with my brother [Rufus] as well—we were so pushed to the emotional limit when we did a series of tribute concerts to Kate. We did three of them and one of them was only four months after she died and in those concerts we sang a lot of her songs as well as “Proserpina.” So as to not to be crying at the beginning of the concert or throughout the whole two-and-a-half to three-hour show, you had to learn how to keep yourself together. We’d usually lose it at the end; “Proserpina” is usually how it happened. Every night is different. On certain nights you’re feeling very emotional, very connected to the material. Other times, it’s not magic and you have to try to create magic anyway with music and do the best you can. Sometimes it can really take over and sometimes you’re protected from falling apart, but also I think a lot of the strength I’ve gained to be able to be a mother and do this record was gained, in a way, from my mother passing away. I don’t think she would want to see me fall apart constantly and be completely disturbed. I want to try and be functional and better and stronger than I was because she was always so concerned for me when she was alive anyway [laughs]. And she was an extremely strong and incredibly able person and I’m hoping I’ve been able to take on some of her traits. Luckily, [“Proserpina”] is also a plaintive song anyway, so you’re allowed to be a little bit upset.
Paste : Tell me about the song “Four Black Sheep.” Who exactly are the four sheep you’re singing about? I think it’s about you, Rufus, your mom and your aunt Anna [McGarrigle]. Am I way off?
Wainwright: Actually, I think that could work well because at one point in the song, I say “Mom and Dad are on their way/They know these roads/They too were born black sheep.” And one of those people is Anna and her husband Dane [Lanken], and it’s this idea that if you’re a black sheep, you came from other black sheep. The song was actually written specifically about a place. I had been elected by the province of Québec to write a song representing the province in a national Canadian song contest and I happily took on this challenge thinking I could write about Montreal or something. But I hadn’t read the fine print and it turned out they named the place you had to write about. It was a venue called the Black Sheep Inn. I had done the venue once, it was a very interesting place, but I played there at a very rock ‘n’ roll time in my life. I was traveling with a pretty crazy group where there was a lot of drinking and depression going on and we were basically these four misfits. We played this concert and then we drove home and it was snowing and while we did make it home, in the song we never make it. We crash and burn because something needed to happen. So that song was an exercise in songwriting. I really enjoyed writing it though.
Paste : You recorded Come Home To Mama at Sean Lennon’s house. What was that like?
Wainwright: Yeah, I recorded the record there because that’s where [producer] Yuka [Honda] lives. They’ve lived together for many years. She produced his first album and then they dated and even after they stopped dating, they still live together and are still best friends. It’s a household just filled with artistic projects.
Paste : I have this image of you and Sean staying up until midnight drinking cups of tea, having heart-to-hearts about what it’s like to lose a parent.
Wainwright: That didn’t happen specifically, but one of the most touching moments for me was when I recorded the song “Everything Wrong,” which was the first song I wrote about being a mother. He heard that song—I wasn’t there at the time—but he heard it and he was very moved by the concept of the song and he really thought it encapsulated something that he wished all mothers could say to their kids, namely that mothers are imperfect beings. That really touched a nerve with him.
Paste : You’re running a Kickstarter campaign to fund an upcoming tour. How’s that going?
Wainwright: I don’t know. I’m almost afraid to look. It’s actually a pledge, which is not exactly Kickstarter. But I think it’s a tricky thing. I don’t think everyone appreciates such an approach. We ask for a smaller, specific amount of money to allow us to tour the U.S., which we don’t often do. I haven’t had that successful of a career in the States. I’ve had more success in Europe; I think a lot of artists could say that. So beyond just doing L.A., New York and San Francisco, I really want to try to visit some of the smaller cities and to be able to represent the record with some instrumentation. I mean, I can play these songs solo but I think it’d be a lot of fun to go out with some musicians and be able to take it to some towns where I think people would like me to come, but I often don’t get a chance to because it costs too much money. So that’s the idea [behind the fundraising campaign]—to reach more Americans in interesting, great cities.
Paste : I loved your Edith Piaf album [Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris: Martha Wainwright’s Piaf Record] but I’m noticing a Wainwright family trend. You recorded an album devoted to Edith and Rufus recorded an album devoted to Judy Garland. Why do you think you’re all so attracted to the works of artists who led such notably tragic lives?
Wainwright: [laughs] Don’t forget my dad [Loudon Wainwright III]; he did a Charlie Poole album. We’re kind of old-timey. You know what I think it is? About 5-10 years ago, there was this new folk revivial and I think people were looking back into that scary Appalachian sound and we grew up with that music so it was normal to us. So I think for us, my brother and I go back further into musical history a few generations before that because I think we already lived in a world that was already steeped in the music of the past, so we always go back further and further.
Paste : How is your son doing? Is he deep in the throes of the terrible twos?
Wainwright: He’s doing great. As we speak, he’s taking my tea—I probably shouldn’t let him drink it, but I’m going to—and…he’s pouring over a fly. Right on schedule. [to her son] I’ll take that, thank you. [brief pause] Yeah, he’s great. We’re having a great time. He’s pretty easygoing, which is good because we’re about to torture him with a lot of planes and trains. But actually he enjoys them, and that’s good because we’re going to be on the road a lot.
Paste : I have a really bad cold right now. Is there a Wainwright family cold remedy you’d care to share?
Wainwright: I think my mother would say to drink some whiskey. But you know what? I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. I’m afraid not even the Wainwrights can beat the common cold.