The song cycle of life

Martha Wainwright’s ‘Come to Mama’ was inspired by her mother’s death and her son’s birth, writes Tina O’Sullivan

The song cycle of life

Singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright is proud to come from a folk music dynasty: her father is Loudon Wainwright III, her mother was the late Kate McGarrigle and her brother is singer songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

Come to Mama is her latest album, which she tours nationwide in February. Wainwright is no stranger to Ireland, having previously headlined Cork X Southwest and supported Anthony and the Johnsons at the 2007 Live at the Marquee.

Martha Wainwright’s raw, powerful voice is unmistakable. Never one to shy away from gritty subjects in her songwriting, her take on the emotional states of ‘real women’ has become her trademark. Her controversial Bloody Motherfucking Asshole, from 2004, endures as an anthem for women scorned by love, and remains her best-known work.

“I’m glad I wrote it,” says Wainwright, “in the sense that it’s good to be known for something, I guess. I love that song. People like the abandon of it and I am a strong believer in the freedom to say things. I also like pushing the envelope and front-lining in music and seeing what you can get away with. Sort of saying things that are a bit uncomfortable or funny or disturbing. I get that from my dad I think, he has a tendency to do that.”

Laying herself bare to her fans doesn’t phase Wainwright as a songwriter. Her 2008 album, her second, was I Know You’re Married But I Have Feelings Too, which gives a voice to ‘the other woman’, a character rarely painted in a sympathetic light.

“For me it’s always been a bit normal,” says Wainwright, “because my parents wrote autobiographical songs and I’ve always done that. I find it interesting that people find it shocking, when other artists insist on revealing every aspect of their life in social media. I feel like my songs are already revealing enough — I don’t know what more I could possibly reveal on Twitter.

“Writing songs is a way for me of understanding and making sense of difficulties. It’s also a way to connect with other people because all of these songs which are seemingly autobiographical are actually universal in subject. I think my job is to express in a musical or interesting or poetic way what a lot of people are feeling or going through themselves. I feel like there is a role to play.”

Wainwright’s songs are often angry. Her new record, Come to Mama, is informed by her mother’s passing in 2009. In the same year, Wainwright became a mother herself, and the album charts this journey.

“There’s anger in the new record certainly. I think my husband [producer Brad Albetta] probably ended up being a bit of a punching bag on this last record because he was the one there to take a lot of the blame. It’s an emotional and difficult thing to go through, a parent passing and becoming a parent at the same time. It certainly has some of the anger and it definitely has some of the aggressive lyrics of the first record.”

Wainwright collaborated with family friend and producer Yuka C Honda to produce the new album. Honda rose to fame as one part of 1990s duo Cibo Mattoa; she is also a multi-instrumentalist and composer. Performances from Honda, Nels Cline (Wilco), Sean Lennon, Jim White (The Dirty Three), Brad Albetta and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) also feature on the ten song set.

“I’ve known Yuka for 15 years,” says Wainwright. “I’ve known her through Sean Lennon, who’s sort of like extended family. Yuka and Sean have always been fans of mine and Sean has been close to Rufus and me for a long time. As a young person, when I was growing up, Cibo Mattoa was a pretty big deal. I was always amazed with what Yuka has done. So working with her was incredible. I also have a deep want to work with a female producer and there are very few of them, so it worked out really well.”

Wainwright’s new role as a mother has yet to slow her down. Her son Arcangelo has already toured with the band. Motherhood will have to fit in with the music, which Wainwright does not consider a big deal. Her own childhood was spent watching her parents continue with their careers and she has collaborated with several members of her family throughout her career. Her breakthrough song in 1998, ‘Year of the Dragon’, was one she contributed to her mother Kate and aunt Anna’s album ‘The McGarrigle Hour’. She often takes the stage with her brother Rufus, for whom she sang back-up earlier in her career:

“I was able to write this record and make it when Arcangelo was still a baby. It changes as children get older, they change and their needs change and what’s expected of them. But right now its been such a joy because he’s young enough that we can still bring him with us for most of the tour.”

Wainwright can see the difficulties women have to keep a career growing once they have a family: “My dream had always been to do both and not stop working, because I can’t afford to stop working and I don’t want to. I think it’s been made very difficult for women because we live in a man’s world and it’s very hard for women to be able to do both, which of course they can do. It will be a struggle, but it will be a battle.”

Martha Wainwright plays Cork Opera House Friday February 1.

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