New York-born, Montreal-raised singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright is a powerful, deeply original talent. Blessed with a hugely expressive voice and captivating stage presence, Martha has matured artistically before the world’s eyes and ears.
Daughter of revered folk legends Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and sister of celebrated vocalist and composer Rufus Wainwright, Martha grew up on stages with her family and wrote original songs from the time she was a teen. Recording music that is both intimate and daring, Martha has since established herself as one of the most gutsy guitar-slinging talents.
Very few singer-songwriters explore as much musical terrain as Martha. Her two EPs of 2002 – recorded after a move to New York - hinted at what was to come. In 2005, Martha unleashed a blistering EP titled Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole. It not only turned heads and received positive reviews from the likes of London’s Sunday Times and Rolling Stone magazine, among many others.
A passionate self-titled debut album soon followed, and was met with great critical and commercial acclaim. Martha’s second studio album, 2008’s I Know You’re Married But I Have Feelings Too, found Wainwright moving deftly between subdued acoustics and twisted, colourful pop. She wrote bold anthems, shared introspective moments, and was utterly unique.
Next, Martha transported audiences while paying tribute to Edith Piaf through a series of concerts devoted to songs made famous by the French chanteuse. Fifteen live recordings captured at New York’s Dixon Palace Theatre became 2010’s Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris: Martha Wainwright's Piaf Record.
Now, in her first collection of original music in four years, Martha gives us Come Home to Mama. Deeply emotional and absolutely riveting, it contains Martha’s outpouring of responses to two of life’s utmost extremes: the loss of her mother, Kate, to cancer in January 2010, and the birth of her son, Arcangelo, just two-and-a-half months earlier in London, England.
“His coming into life was at a very emotional time,” shares Martha; “I went into labour while onstage. He was born very premature, but because of his prematurity, he was able to meet my mother. His due date was actually the day that she died.”
Come Home to Mama finds Wainwright singing songs both inspired by and written for her mother and son. While Martha is steadfastly honest, and frequently confessional, in her songwriting, never has she sounded quite so naked or powerful.
“The album fully encapsulates a time and me, in this time,” she says. “To come back to songwriting after stepping away from it for a bit [with the Piaf project], and to write songs about the closest people in my life really brought me back to when I started writing songs at 16.
“Then, as now, I tried to capture, in some way, all of the feelings I was dealing with. So I allowed myself to be as honest as I could be, and tried to listen to my inner voice as I did when I was younger rather than starting with any preconceived notions of the album’s sound or attempting to write something that would be popular in any way. All of that was taken away, and it seemed like a very pure experience.”
Once Martha made the time to sequester herself and write new songs – having a babysitter come by a few days per week certainly helped – she realized that she needed a different approach to the album’s production. She wanted to work with a producer who was also a musician and ideally a woman.
Husband Brad Albetta, who’d produced Martha’s two earlier studio albums, suggested that she work with friend Yuka C. Honda, a multi-instrumentalist studio whiz also known as one half of the band Cibo Matto. Working together in the NYC home studio Honda shares with Sean Lennon, the two tapped into an adventurous set of sounds with which to lay bare Wainwright’s stories.
“One of the reasons I chose Yuka is that I wanted to do more of an electronic album,” says Martha. “Before I started writing these songs, I thought this would be a voice-and-guitar album, going back to my roots. I knew I would certainly write some songs about my mother, and write many personal songs, so thought it would be cool to do it with a very pared down sound. But then I started writing the songs and they all seemed to me to be kind of hard, hard enough to take production. There’s an intensity, and some of them, like “Can You Believe It,” had a tongue-in-cheek poppy component that kind of called for a lot of different elements.
“I really wanted to try and stay away from bass, drums and guitar on top of singer-songwriter, which can end up sounding a bit Americana or a little straighter. I knew I wanted to do something that was more keyboard based, but what happened is that I picked Yuka, we started going in and doing things, and the voice and guitar came to be the main thing as always.
“Yuka said ‘We’re not going to have it be all the songs over programmed drums and have it sound like your electronic album because that’s not what these songs are. Your sound is that sound. The guitar and the voice need to be at the centre.’ She really respected the genre of music that I make, but was able to add a more interesting dimension to it than I would have come up with myself. Also, I’m pleased with just how good we were to each other. We progressed in a gentler – perhaps female – way that was so refreshing and different than anything I had ever done before.”
Just as Wainwright’s hugely expressive voice is simultaneously strong and vulnerable throughout Come Home to Mama, the album’s music conveys a range of emotions through its variety of tempos and instrumentation. Honda, who programmed beats in addition to producing and playing keys, led the charge while her husband, guitarist Nels Cline (of Wilco) added much texture and continuity.
“He plays a lot of the guitars, and is a real master of his instrument,” Martha enthuses. “He gave a lot.”
Also contributing to the album are Brad Albetta (bass), Sean Lennon (bass), Thomas Bartlett (of Doveman, keyboards), and Jim White (of Dirty Three, drums).
Electronics, while not at the album’s forefront, are woven in beautifully, and add a great deal of subtle support to Martha’s storytelling. Their inclusion is a touch more pronounced in songs like “Four Black Sheep,” “Some People,” and the heart-wrenching “All Your Clothes,” on which Martha sings directly to Kate McGarrigle.
“That was the first song that I wrote after she died. It took a long time, but it was nice to have some sort of imagery to hang my feelings on, which in this case was clothing. The first few lines are completely stolen, melodically, from Rufus’ song “Zebulon.” I knew that she loved that song of his.”
Other songs, like the angry, but surprisingly upbeat funk-rock piece “I Wanna Make An Arrest,” and sparse, startlingly beautiful “Proserpina” are also directly connected to Kate.
““Proserpina” is the only cover on the album, and it’s the last song that my mother wrote; obviously she knew that she was in the last stages of her life,” says Martha.
Performed by Kate in a handful of settings, like The McGarrigle-Wainwright Christmas show ‘A Not So Silent Night,’ held in December of 2009 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, “Proserpina” was written with the tradition of McGarrigle family Christmas concerts expressly in mind.
“Kate started writing “Proserpina” in the fall of 2009. It’s about Christmas in the sense that it’s about seasons. It’s the story of Persephone [in Roman mythology, she’s called Proserpina]. When Persephone’s mother, Ceres, tried to get her back from the underworld, she makes the earth cold and kills everything, which is why we have winter. So my mother was able to tie it into a seasonal song in her own weird and strange way. She was reading a lot of mythology in the last couple years of her life. The song is amazing, in and of itself, and the fact that the song is from a mother to a daughter made it all the more relevant for me to sing.”
On the other side of life’s coin, stunning album closer “Everything Wrong” was written to baby Arcangelo, and conveys the intense mix of emotions a new mother can feel.
“That was the last song that I wrote for the album. It took maybe 20 minutes to write, which is never the case for me. I was obviously having a hard day, and it just came out. I wrote it through tears.
“It was very stream-of-consciousness writing, and that’s the way it’s recorded. The recording is of me showing the song to the musicians for the first time, and the tape happened to be rolling. That’s why you hear the count off. It has a sense like we’re all tripping along on this thing, and so I kept it in there like that. It’s imperfect, but reveals itself as it’s going along.”
Just like Martha herself.
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