Martha Wainwright on the concert for her mother that turned into a wake
As the concert for her mother that turned into a wake that turned into a film gets its Irish premiere, Canadian folk-rock marvel Martha Wainwright tells Tara Brady about her mum Kate McGarrigle, her brother Rufus – and performing through a veil of tears
Friedrich Nietzsche tells us that: “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.” Uh-huh.
Just try telling that to Martha Wainwright and her extended family as they write barbed songs about one another, squabble on stage and retain a fierce familial loyalty. As purveyors of the finest musical family-therapy for more than four decades, they’re rarely to be found cowering behind an avatar.
“We haven’t really delved into the world of the pop persona at all,” says Canadian folk-rock marvel Martha Wainwright. “All of us have a tendency to draw on our own lives. To find our inner voice, we look inwardly.”
That makes sense.
The Wainwright family simply don’t do polite fiction. Long before we had heard Rufus Wainwright’s distinctive baroque timbre, he had been introduced to the wider world, via one of his dad’s humorous ditties, as an infant “Tit Man”. Rufus, as an adult performer, contextualises each tenderly worded track with tales from the LGBT front line. You can reputedly hear tears hitting guitar strings when Kate McGarrigle, the late family matriarch, describes her husband Loudon Wainwright III running off with conceptual artist Penny Arcade in the song Go Leave.
Martha, the most fuck-you member of the clan, is more candid still. Rufus’s rangy-legged younger sister called her second album I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings Too and wrote the track Bloody Motherfucking Asshole in response to her father’s patronising description of her in I’d Rather Be Lonely: “Every time I see you cry you’re just a clone of every woman I’ve known”.
Do those confessional tendencies, paradoxically, have roots in folk music? Do the Wainwrights, like that musical form, belong to everybody?
“Well I think that makes a lot of sense,” says Martha, in the same slow, low drawl that characterises her most personal songs. “My mother and her sister were always around the piano in the living room. It wasn’t for show. It was a form of personal joy. It was a natural extension of daily life.
“We’d play music together and tell stories. That was a tradition for us and one that is alive and strong in Ireland. We’d sing about people’s trials and tribulations. By the time the family signed to Warner Brothers, it was different. They were then making music for consumption. They were very experimental with their music. It was rooted in the past, but they were still very innovative and personal. And that was the start of a family profession. We’ve been stumbling along in our own way ever since.”
Unsurprisingly, the second child of the Wainwright dynasty can’t remember a time before music. In 1997, aged 23, she independently released the cassette Ground Floor. In 1998, her song Year of the Dragon popped up The McGarrigle Hour, an album released by (mum) Kate and (aunt) Anna McGarrigle. Why did we have to wait until 2005 for that first official solo album, I wonder?
“I did do a lot of shows,” recalls Martha. “I did EPs. A few of those in my early 20s. The truth of the matter was that I was a bit of a renegade. I was scattered. I was rebellious. I was singing back up for my brother and my aunt. Nobody wanted to sign me because I was the second of the kids. I don’t know how much people believed in me or how much I believed in myself.”
Much of Martha’s early career was defined by birth order, as the little sister who provided backing vocals. She has subsequently provided additional harmonies for everybody from Hole to Snow Patrol. Surely this singular minded creature feels stifled in that capacity? Is there room for creativity when recording for others?
“For me, there has always been room for creativity,” she laughs. “I have such a distinctive singing voice you have to make room. I have done a lot of back-up, but I don’t have the sound of a back-up singer. My brother is responsible for that. He wrote parts for me that were duet-like. They were complicated and had their own style and distinction. I was always comfortable with that. That was my natural tendency. We always realised that sometimes we like to blend in with one another and sometimes we don’t. The stronger impulse was eventually to elbow my way forward and make a space for myself.”
Having enjoyed a wildly successful solo career for eight years, Martha Wainwright’s fourth studio album, Come Home to Mama is her emotionally rawest work yet. Written just after the premature birth of her son Arcangelo and the loss of her mother, Kate, to cancer, it’s far more sorrowful and considered than the racy, Angry Young Woman scattershot found on her self-titled debut.
“People say you are born twice: once when you’re actually born and then born again when your parents die,” says Martha. “A huge weight is suddenly taken on. They are decisions you would normally be guided through. I changed. I became more responsible. I don’t know if this will work. I don’t know if that will work. But that is all I can do.”
Almost inevitably, the Wainwright dynasty wanted to mark Kate’s passing in song and live performance. Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle, a new documentary feature from film-maker Lian Lunson (director of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man and Willie Nelson: Down Home), brings together Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Anna McGarrigle, Jane McGarrigle, Emmylou Harris, Teddy Thompson, Norah Jones, Sloan Wainwright and Joel Zifki for a very open and very affecting wake.
“Our first instinct was, once a few weeks passed, to celebrate her,” says Martha. “We felt that is we sang her music it was a way of keeping her alive. So we got to that. But I, of course, was in no state to organise a concert. We were ready to do it but didn’t know how to set about it. So we went to Joe Boyd who had produced Kate and Anna’s first two records. So that connection was there. But the details are…”
A bit of a blur?
“Exactly. Yes. The concert was in May shortly after she died at the Festival Hall. It was incredibly well received. It got five-star reviews. But it was as haze of otherworldliness. It was almost a wake. And once we reintroduced ourselves to our songs – those songs are astonishing – we felt we have to keep going with this. We’ll go to New York.”
She’s calm and collected now, though the Wainwright collective we see in the film, are constantly battling to keep back tears and sing around lumps in their throats. We can see that cathartic value of the exercise. But it does look bruising.
“Oh yeah. We were crying constantly. But I would rather feel those emotions and feel close to her than shut it down. We shared a willingness to reconnect. Against that, obviously you hold back as much as you can. We are not just jumping on stage and trying to show emotion. It’s the opposite of acting. It is something we had to go through. At the end of the three concerts we put up a tombstone. And there is this square named after her in Montreal. That helped us to accept living without her. We will keep doing concerts. But now it is more celebratory.”
Martha Wainwright once noted that her father hated being asked about his family and says that: “We’re not fucking special. We’re like everybody else!” Rufus, conversely, says: “We’re not like anybody else. We’re amazing!” Who does she side with, I wonder?
“I don’t know. I like what Rufus says. But what my father says demonstrates the difference in their songwriting. I am maybe somewhere in the middle. My father talks about daily things and the relationships between a family. He is describing his own life and thus describing other people’s. I thought these songs were just about my life and our life. Then I’d see people crying and I knew they were about more. Rufus doesn’t really do that. He creates a more spectacular world. They are different in that way.”
Would she be happy for Arcangelo to follow them all into the family guild?
“It’s funny. I always thought that I didn’t want my children to be musicians. It’s a difficult life. If you are not successful it’s very hard. And if you are successful it’s a charmed and sometimes difficult life. But we did this concert recently called Kate’s Kids. And I was backstage and I was tuning up. And I look up and all the family were there. It was so cool. It was like being part of a circus. And then I thought, ‘if he doesn’t do this, it will be the end’. And that would be so sad.”