Martha Wainwright Makes a Home

By
Photography Matthu Placek

Published October 16, 2012

ABOVE: MARTHA WAINWRIGHT (TWICE).

Martha Wainwright—sister of Rufus; daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle—is used to being introduced with her famous family in tow. The Wainwrights are, as Loudon insists, just like your family (if your family happened to be outrageously talented)—they bicker on stage, pen songs about each other, collaborate often and remain fiercely true to themselves.

This candor is particularly evident in Martha. Unapologetically up-front and sometimes aggressively honest, she titled her second record I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings Too (2008) and reportedly wrote the song “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole” about her father. Her music is, for all intents and purposes, an open book. In this vein, Come Home to Mama, her fourth studio album, fits right in. Written following the death of her mother, the record blends highly personal singing and songwriting for emotionally evocative listening.

While Wainwright’s confessional manner and distinctive vocals remain the same, there seems to be something different with this latest record. “I am angry,” she assured me when we sat down to talk recently in her Brooklyn home, “but I have less to be confrontational about.” Martha seems, on this record and during this interview, very much at home—literally and figuratively.

ERIN BRADY: Can you tell us a little about the title? Why Come Home to Mama?

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT: “Come home to Mama” is the chorus or main phrase in “Proserpina,” which is, I think, the most emotional song on the record. Every time I was in the studio listening at the end of the recording process and the mixing process —although everyone’s instinct is to put the poppier type of song first—that one just kept coming up as the strongest thing.

BRADY: It definitely stands out.

WAINWRIGHT: So, I just kept hearing “Come home to Mama” as this phrase that kept on hitting me in the head over and over, and I wanted to call the record that. I talked to my manager about it, and he said, “You know, we don’t really want to put too much emphasis on a song that isn’t yours.” Then my manager saw this film that my brother and I had produced about my mom. It’s a tribute concert that we had at Town Hall with all these singers, and it’s really beautifully shot. I showed him the film and he was like, “Oh, we should definitely call it Come Home to Mama.”

That song is really the cornerstone of the record, which is—most of it—based on the loss of my mother. So many songs are sort of about her, or if they’re not about her, they’re sort of angry or sad and there’s a lot of turmoil in there. Why not put the emphasis on the most powerful thing?

BRADY: It’s interesting that you mentioned a film while talking about “Proserpina” and “I’m Sorry.” Those two songs in particular had a really cinematic feel to them. There were lots of strings and crescendos.

WAINWRIGHT: I’m glad that you said that about those songs. I’ve had a lot of bad luck getting songs into films in the past, because my songs are really specific, or they’re not repetitive, or they say things like “Fuck you” in them…

BRADY: [laughs]

WAINWRIGHT: So that’s not going to work on the WB, you know? People like broader concepts in film, because they don’t want it to disturb what’s going on visually. I think “Proserpina” and “I’m Sorry” have a wider conceptual thing that would allow them to be used as a sonic backdrop.

BRADY: Can you talk a little about the video for “Proserpina?”

WAINWRIGHT: It premiered on a website called Nowness.com. They work a lot with photographer and videographer Matthu Placek. He really loved [the song], so he hounded me about doing a video. It’s all done in one shot. The story of Proserpina—the Latin version of Persephone—is why we have the seasons. So in the video, it’s me controlling the seasons.

BRADY: That sounds nice.

WAINWRIGHT: That is nice.

BRADY: So, “Proserpina” was written by your mother, right?

WAINWRIGHT: It was the last song that she wrote. She wrote it just a few months before she died, and I guess she was reading a lot of mythology in the last couple years of her life.

She was a very clever woman and a great songwriter. She wrote songs that were personal to her—like I do—but then she was able to get away from that and write things broader in subject and more philosophical. That just kind of takes a larger mind.

I think she wrote [the song] for many reasons. I think that she wrote it for Rufus and I in many ways. She wrote it for a concert, which was a family Christmas concert. She used to love Christmas so much, and it would drive us crazy. They [Kate and Anna McGarrigle] made a great Christmas record about fifteen years ago called The McGarrigle Christmas Hour and ever since then we’ve been doing these fucking Christmas shows at Carnegie Hall.

BRADY: [laughs]

WAINWRIGHT: She would always call us up in May and be like, “What are we going to do?” We’d be like, “I don’t know!” It was her focus. She loved Christmas.

BRADY: Besides the annual concerts, did she do anything else that was special for Christmas?

WAINWRIGHT: She’s from Quebec, so, cross-country skiing, knitting, baking, turkeys. She used to call and be like, “We’re up to our cunts in snow!” She loved it. The whole Christmas thing was really sweet to her and wonderful. Anyway, she wrote this song because she wanted to have something for the Christmas concert at The Royal Albert Hall, which was going to be our biggest one ever, and she was so sick. I think she really rose the occasion. It was a Christmas song because it was about the seasons. That’s how it tied into it.

BRADY: How was it recording this album? Was it difficult to make? It sounds a bit different from your previous work.

WAINWRIGHT: It was the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio.

BRADY: Really?

WAINWRIGHT: I think working with Yuka [Honda] was just very pleasant. It was actually Brad’s idea. Brad recorded most of my other records. They were—maybe because we’re married or for whatever reason—tears and ups and downs, you know? And not only with him. I’d had that with other producers. I was starting to meet producers for this record and they were all sort of—and it’s terrible to say—these guys with bowling shirts and groovy glasses. I was like, “I don’t know if I can just be the chick in the room.”

BRADY: So it was your husband’s idea?

WAINWRIGHT: I was like, “I really want to work with a) another artist, a musician and b) I really want to work with a woman.” I was kind of embarrassed to say it. I didn’t want that to be a rule. So I spoke to Brad about it and he said, “What about Yuka Honda?” I’ve known her for years and she’s been a fan of mine for years. I sent her the demos and she agreed right away.

I think she understood really quickly that these songs are about my voice and my guitar playing and what it is that I do and that I’ve always done. She was able to keep that, but then bring to it something that I would never have thought of.

BRADY: How was it working with Yuka?

WAINWRIGHT: I’d go over there and she’d make me tea and make me food and tell me that she liked my dress…

BRADY: [laughs]

WAINWRIGHT: You know, and then we’d work for a while and she’d be like, “That’s a beautiful vocal.” Then, we’d stop and be like, “Oh, I love that hair conditioner,” or whatever. It was the most ridiculous thing I’d experienced!

BRADY: I’m sure it was nice to step away, though.

WAINWRIGHT: It was really nice! We’d be like, “Oh, that’s pretty,” or we’d roll our eyes about our husbands. Her husband is a great guitar player, so they know all about working together.

BRADY: Just giving my boyfriend a haircut that we both like is a struggle. I can’t imagine trying to make a record.

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. It’s tough, but it’s good to kind of get into this thing of listening and understanding and patience and then we get something good out of it. For me, this record-making process was a lot easier than it had ever been, and a lot more pleasant. It was also really pleasant because she works a lot by herself. I would come in, I would play for a couple of hours, I would give her something, and then she would say, “Okay, you can go now.” Of course, I would have gotten a babysitter for that day, so I would say “Okay,” and go to the movies and go to dinner by myself. 

BRADY: [laughs]

WAINWRIGHT: It was nice.

BRADY: So, Yuka likes to work alone, but what about you? What is your writing process like?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, I’m not very prolific. I’m not good at sitting down as an artist and saying “Okay, I need to put in my four hours today.” What happened was that my mom had died and right before my mom, I’d had a baby, and he was in the hospital for a few months because he was born at 30 weeks, so he was less than three pounds when he was born.

BRADY: Wow.

WAINWRIGHT: There was a lot going on, so I wasn’t really writing songs for a while. Every time I tried to pick up a guitar after my mother died, I’d play one chord and be like [feigns sobbing hysterically]. I was like, “Well, that’s not going to work.” It took a little while to not break down. Also, with a new baby who had some little problems at the beginning, you’re just completely focused on that.

I knew that I needed—I knew that I wanted to make an album because it had been a while since my last record of my own songs. So after a few months, I got some help, I found a babysitter, and I spoke to Brad and said, “I just need to go upstairs every day and try, just try to get this started.” I had a couple songs that I’d written the year or so before that and then I started to write songs like “All Your Clothes,” which is about my mother. Things just started coming out, and I was able to do it relatively quickly.

BRADY: A lot of people liken your songs to diary entries, is there any truth to that? Do you feel like you process things through music?

WAINWRIGHT: When I listen to them, they don’t seem like that to me. When I listen to them, they seem like pieces of music or art, like a painting that you look at. The reality is that, yes, when I wrote the songs upstairs or wherever, I was writing very specifically about my life or a specific subject matter that’s very personal. I’ve never shied away from that. The vocals and the performance that come after the record, I don’t think of that as confessional, but the core of the music is completely. It makes sense that people would see that as being the main thing. I guess not everyone is able to speak so candidly.

BRADY: This record was really up-front, really honest, but also sounds less confrontational than your previous albums. How did you feel about it in comparison to your other work?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. I’m not an angry—well, I am angry. But, you know, it’s different because—I don’t know if it’s my age. I guess I have less to be confrontational about. I think I wrote really honestly and it only sunk in later. For instance, with Brad, when he finally had to play the songs, he was hurt at certain points. I said, “Well, yes, you’ve heard these before,” but it hadn’t really sunk in on some of the lines. He said, “I would never want to stop you from writing what you want to write.” Behind every line, there’s a silver lining because I’m trying to get to a better place. You can hurt people, you know?

BRADY: Has having a family of your own affected how you view Rufus and your mom and your dad?

WAINWRIGHT: Brad and I are both from divorced parents, so I think we’ve always wanted to try and stay together through difficult times, so it’s a very different kind of relationship. I don’t know—I’ve been watching a lot of this Republican Convention.

BRADY: I can’t watch it.

WAINWRIGHT: All this obsession with family! I mean, I understand that family is important and I come from a family that’s really close, but I’m like, “Really?”

BRADY: Yeah, yeah.

WAINWRIGHT: That’s not an issue. That’s people’s lives! So, I don’t like to be too puffed up about the importance of family. It’s going to be tough and it changes as time goes by. I don’t know. I just don’t think it should be made an issue.

BRADY: I had to ask the token family question. I mean, people are fascinated by your family.

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, yeah. I know. It drives my dad crazy. He’s like “We’re not fucking special. We’re like everybody else!” Of course, Rufus’ thing is like, “We’re not like anybody else. We’re amazing!”

BRADY: [laughs]

WAINWRIGHT: “People are always talking about our fucking family.” So, [my dad] goes on and on and so I told him, “Well, you’re the one who’s been writing songs about your family for 35 years and you keep singing them! You are demanding that people ask you these questions.”

BRADY: This is true.

WAINWRIGHT: I guess he just wishes that art were just judged as art. I mean, that’s just not the way it works, though.

BRADY: Does that bother you? That you can’t really control what people read into your music?

WAINWRIGHT: I don’t think you can really control it. Everything has changed now. Before, with me, the family thing was difficult because it was about the fact that my parents and my brother were songwriters and that’s why I was a songwriter—it also had to do with my brother being more successful and I was less successful—it was always just these stages of things.

It was exhausting sometimes, but the truth is it’s true. I’m completely influenced by my parents’ music—especially my mother’s music—and completely influenced by Rufus’ music, because he’s been my mentor whether I’ve wanted him to be or not. I watched him do it and I followed in his footsteps. Rufus and I used to fight it, but when our mother died, we kind of just came together. Any show we can do together—tribute shows, Christmas shows—it’s just, like, holding on for dear life.

BRADY: I’m sure that’s great, and at times difficult.

WAINWRIGHT: It’s better to embrace it than it is to fight it, because then you’re just fighting something that you’re not going to win. We’re like a band of gypsies, and it makes sense. 

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT’S COME HOME TO MAMA IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.