Generations echo through Martha Wainwright’s voice, which is exactly how she wants it.
Her last name denotes royalty to the right sort of person, the type who recognize her father, Loudon Wainwright III, her mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, and her brother Rufus as geniuses in their own rights. Martha came last to professional recording, but has more than lived up to her family’s reputation for making the personal seem universal: her first album gained notice for a song called “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole” (shortened to “BMFA” on the album), which she openly admitted to being about her father.
But as years pass people change, and Wainwright’s third album of original material, Come Home to Mama, finds Wainwright in a place of deeply personal transition: losing her mother and giving birth to her first son. In proud Wainwright tradition, she’s brought her personal life front and center onto the new record. As we talked on the phone, she was overwhelmingly friendly and helpful, eager to talk about family, her new record, or whatever else happened to come up …
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I just want to give you a heads up. My babysitter’s not here yet, and I’m trying to distract the two-and-half-year old with some video. If I get pulled away, we can do this later. But let’s try.
Totally fine. Come Home to Mama is your first album of original material in five years, and you’ve said that you’ve made this record as a “motherless child and a mother.” Can you tell which songs come from which influence?
Well, I think they’re all steeped primarily in the first change that came with the death of my mother. I would say that’s the more influential subject, particularly with a song like “All Your Clothes”, which is more obviously about the pain from my mother’s death. Another song about that, in a less obvious way, is “I Wanna Make An Arrest”, which is about trying to stop time, turn time back and change what could have been changed. The only obvious song about motherhood, about Arcangelo [her two year-old son] is the last song on the record, “Everything Wrong”. And that would be the beginning of my career as a — [Arcangelo cries], and speaking of life! I can only imagine the fact that, judging from my other family members, and that I’ve always written songs about family members, that that will be a subject that I revisit!
I think the main influence would be more the passing of my mother then the birth of my son.
Especially the song “Proserpina”, which is a cover of your mothers.
“Proserpina” is the centerpiece, I believe, of the whole album. A cover of the last song that my mother ever wrote, she wrote it for the last concert we all did together at Royal Albert Hall, which was a quick bit of fun. She was obsessed with Christmas, and I think she also liked organize these Christmas concerts because it was a way to get all of us together in one room over a few days for the holidays. She wrote it in that context because it’s about the seasons, it’s about wintertime and summertime. Singing the chorus, “Come home to Mama”, always very intense. It was also a difficult time because, right around when my mother died, my son was born prematurely and I was in England and couldn’t be with her. So it was just very loaded, and a very beautiful song. I actually hadn’t thought of putting it on the record, I recorded it two years ago, right after she died. I thought of it when working on this project with Yuka [Honda, of Cibo Matto, producer of Come Home]. A perfect cover for this particular record.
Going into the studio to cover this, it must have been a very different feeling than covering Edith Piaf’s songs.
Yeah. I’ve always covered songs, because I’ve always been a songwriter but also a singer. I started singing with Rufus when I was young and singing other people’s songs is something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and done a lot. A major difference is, with Edith Piaf, I would go in thinking, “How do I make this sound like my own?” She has such a particular sound, whereas a song on Come Home to Mama is more like, how do I conjure up my mother? Maybe when I open my eyes, she might actually reappear, you know? It’s like, we’re not going to change this one, this is not an interpretation. This is not a reinterpretation, it’s pretty much exactly as she wrote it. I sing it the way she sang it, except for the primal screams that I added later.
Musically, this album is also more diverse than your past two albums. You even have a saw in there for one song, I think. Did working with Yuka Honda inspire that?
She’s responsible for the general soundscape of the record. I knew I wanted to work with a woman producer, there are hardly any. But I also wanted to work with Yuka because I wanted to make a more keyboard based album, more representative of my musical sensibility and taste in a way. I’d say the guitar is fundamentally more focused for singer-songwriter music, and when you add limitation to that, it can sound Americana, or alt-country, or something like that, you know what I mean?
And I wanted to steer clear of that, because it’s not always the best representation of the song [Arcangelo cries] — oh boy. I wanted to do something a little more out of the box. And also my husband Brad [Albetta] and I did the first record together, and had been so much that we both knew we didn’t want to make another one together! [laughs] So it worked out well.
One thing I’ve always noticed about your songs, from “BMFA” to the new record, is the emphasis on pronunciation and how you say words. Do you focus on phrasing in the studio?
I’m intrigued that you said that. I don’t know — I focus on words as much as I need them. My songs, even though they are autobiographical, and generally straightforward — well, they’re not straightforward. Although they are about real life, I find that oftentimes they are a bit mystical, or poetic sounding. I’m steeped in the sounds of words. So I kind of like it when there are surreal elements to them. I don’t know if that ties in with your impression of the words, but I know I like to hang off the sounds of words. I like to enunciate, I like to pronounce because Rufus pronounce so much and I never understand what he’s saying! [laughs] I just want it to be clear. Because sometimes it’s not that obvious, is what I’m saying. Sometimes my lyrics, they don’t rhyme perfectly or they aren’t exactly what you’re going to expect, or a bit weird, I don’t know.
Where did the new album’s cover come from?
Ah, that was not intentional! I was doing a photoshoot and weren’t really getting anything. It was fine, it was okay, but I never want my album cover to be singer-songwriter-y, like with a guitar in it. I’m worried about that. I don’t want a cover that’s a Winnebago in the forest, with some sunlight streaming in either, because it’s not new folk, it’s very much me. We were trying to get something, and nothing was really happening, and the guy was making a book of plus-sized nudes. And I didn’t really want to be in this book for plus-size nudes, because I don’t consider myself exactly plus-size, but whatever — he’s like, “Do you want to do some naked pictures?”, and I’m like, “Sure,” thinking I’ll never get the opportunity to do this again. And it was not that fun, but I started getting behind the idea that I needed to have a lot of pictures of myself naked and miserable looking. It was kind of quirky, I tried it. So I was sitting there with my friend doing the art, and I don’t think it would have ever come up if I had asked the label to do the artwork. I would have never sent them these pictures, but because I had them and was with my girlfriend in my living room, and because actually we had been smoking pot and I was like, “What if we take this and put a rainbow around it?” [laughs] So that’s where it comes from. I don’t know if everyone loves it, but I think it’s funny.
What was unpleasant about taking the shots?
Well, I mean, I’m used to being on stage and being exposed and I like that, have no problem with it. I don’t particularly like being naked and exposed, it was hard! It was embarrassing. I felt very naked. That’s an un-retouched photo, so the guy is obviously working a lot with shading, all this lighting, all this kind of stuff. Just a minute, hold on. [off phone, to Arcangelo] Arc, are you destroying my computer? Uh-oh. Stop it! [to PM] Go ahead.
Is he destroying your computer?
Yeah, he is. It’s like I said: as much as I love you, it’s not worth my computer being destroyed. [laughs] Go ahead.
You mentioned New Folk, which I know you’ve mentioned in the past, especially the new “freak-folk” movement, and how it didn’t seem that freaky to you, because you had grown up around folk music.
My timing is always off!
I was wondering if you’re listening to any folk music now, as it seems to moved a bit away from that.
Well, you know, I hate to comment, but I’m looking for a CD from this British guy, if I can find it, maybe you’ll know who I’m talking about. But you were saying it’s going to more straight up folk music?
I think it is.
Yeah, sort of less Joanna Newsom-y. Which, don’t get me wrong, I really like a lot of that stuff. It’s just that, that kind of Appalachian obsession, I know my mother and my aunt were always so into that, maybe Rufus and I tried to be more glitzy in some sort of reaction to our very rolly, cold porridge upbringing.