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
“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…”