Music interview: Martha Wainwright on family, song writing and new album

Martha Wainwright
Martha Wainwright
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Ahead of her appearance in Leeds tonight, Martha Wainwright spoke to Duncan Seaman about her latest album.

If Martha Wainwright’s sixth album Goodnight City has a certain homely quality it may have something to do with the fact that the singer has reconnected with her roots.

Three years ago she decided to leave behind New York City, where she’d spent the last 15 years, and move with her husband Brad Albetta and two young sons back to Montreal, the Canadian city where she was born and raised.

The feeling of “return to home” helped shape her latest record, says the 40-year-old singer who appears at Leeds City Varieties tonight. “We made it in Montreal which was important for me to do because the kids were in school and day care, we didn’t want to have to move around too much. With the comfort of that we did it in the studio of a guy called Pierre Marchand who had produced my mother [Kate McGarrigle’s album] Heartbeats Accelerating and [brother] Rufus’s Poses, he was someone that I’d know since I was 14 years old so there was just a lot of familial feelings.”

She suggests the “main theme” on Goodnight City is parenthood. “It’s sort of a farewell to my youth and the insanity or the wildness and a new stage where it’s perhaps more confident and a little more stable in a way and more careful with a need to be responsible and protective of these two people we brought into the world. It’s more forward-facing and forward-gazing than navel-gazing maybe.

“Also what I’m hearing on the record in some of the songs is love – almost painful love for the children – but then sort of a struggle to make sure that I’m not forgotten in a way, that there’s the individual artist in there too.

Martha Wainwright

Martha Wainwright

“I’m never conscious of this when I’m writing these songs but I still want people to remember I’m in here, that Martha Wainwright the artist, the songwriter, the singer is still present and she’ll be coming to a town near you,” she chuckles.

Several of the songs on Goodnight City were written in collaboration with the likes of Beth Orton, Glen Hansard, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards and the poet Michael Ondaatje. Wainwright feels it gave her more licence to cut loose vocally. “Certainly with other people’s music it allows you put aside maybe some of your affectations that can come with your own songs and to sing in a way that fits the song and suits the lyrics.”

The variety of musical styles on the record seem to embody Wainwright’s desire to be open and playful. “I think I wanted to not worry about it,” she says. “I’ve always been told that I need to fit more into a category if I wanted to become more successful. Journalists and record company people sort of wish that there was something a bit more definitive about my music – ‘OK, that’s going to be straight-up Americana, that’s pop or that’s real folk or nu folk’ – and because I’ve always pushed into other things that can annoy people. With this record I just don’t really care what people think because I’ve always enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music. I’ve sung so many people’s songs. I’ve always been an interpreter of songs as well as a songwriter.”

Coming from a family steeped in music – her late mother Kate McGarrigle was one half of a famous duo with her aunt Anna, her father Loudon Wainwright III is a folk singer, her brother Rufus a singer-songwriter – Martha Wainwright has long been aware of their legacy – to such an extent she once said she felt like she’d been in the music business herself for 60 years.

Now that I’ve created almost 20 years of playing my own shows and making records and getting better and ups and downs it’s just a part of the whole thing, the legacy of all of the musicians in my family.

Martha Wainwright

“I think at an early stage it was definitely weighty because I felt I was probably carrying around the baggage a lot of my parents’ career but then none of my own,” she admits. “Now that I’ve created almost 20 years of playing my own shows and making records and getting better and ups and downs it’s just a part of the whole thing, the legacy of all of the musicians in my family – my parents, my brother, my cousins, my sisters, it extends outward. Now I just feel more a part of the giant ship that’s hopefully going to stay afloat, we’re all just trying to row it together and prop each other up and that’s what I’m seeing with time is how much we really need each other to stay alive in this business.”

In 2015 Wainwright released an album of lullabies with her half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche. She says of the record, called Songs in the Dark: “We really had no idea what we would sound like singing together. This idea of the lullabies was something that was kicking around for a long time and I thought it would be more interesting sounding to have two voices and two guitars. We sat down and sung for a couple of minutes and I think we both realised that this could work for us, that it was easy, it felt good, it was fun, we didn’t have to think too much about it, we could communicate.”

Martha Wainwright plays at Leeds City Varieties tonight.