Even within her own family, Martha Wainwright was a puzzle. The singer casually recounts a story about how much she vexed her older brother, a story that might be seen as going well beyond standard sibling abuse if it weren’t for the absence of judgment in the way she shares it.
“My brother once described me,” says Wainwright, “and he was honest, he said, ‘I don’t understand you, Martha. Sometimes you can be so beautiful and sometimes you can be so ugly.’ And he meant it literally. And I think I know what he’s talking about. So I'm sort of embracing that.”
Wainwright’s unwounded shrug of acceptance — she even chuckles toward the end — most likely comes from an appreciation of unvarnished honesty. Since her introduction to the record-buying public via an EP with an unprintable title that network television censorship would render “Bloody Monday Friday Eggroll,” Wainwright (who plays the Sinclair on Thursday) has made a career of sidestepping niceties with a disarming warts-and-all emotional candor.
The one subject that used to make her bristle was her family, an unavoidable topic for a new artist whose parents are left-of-center folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and whose aforementioned brother is Rufus Wainwright. Now, three albums in, she welcomes it. And not a moment too soon, as her family provided the two driving inspirations for the new “Come Home To Mama”: the birth of her son and her mother’s death from cancer, two months apart.
“I think there’s a lot of joy on this record,” Wainwright says. “There’s some anger and some sadness, but I don’t find it morbid or anything. I was very affected by my mother’s death, obviously, but also I had a newborn child at the time, and I did not want to cry over the baby all the time or spend time in my bed and not be able to get out of it or drink heavily. Any of these are things that I would have normally done, but I wanted to have some strength around the child and be responsible as a new parent.”
Ironically, the song that seems to have motivated her to press forward is the most emotionally ravaging, both lyrically and in the circumstances surrounding it. “Proserpina” was the last song McGarrigle ever wrote, and as performed by Wainwright, it’s a simple, wrenching lament sung by both a mother to a lost child and a child to a lost mother, from someone who just became a new mother herself. It’s thorny and painful, and Wainwright didn’t flinch.
“I recorded it because I didn’t want anybody else to record it, because I felt that it was mine and that it was written for me,” she says. “I really wanted to take it as my own. I also think I wanted to do it because it was so early on after her death and I thought that if I sang well enough and I closed my eyes and I sang it like her, then perhaps she would return once I opened my eyes.”
‘I thought that if I sang well enough and I closed my eyes and I sang it like her, then perhaps she would return once I opened my eyes.’
“I like being brought back to the emotional quick,” she adds. “And it’s a way for me to keep my mother alive.”
Confronting such difficult realities head-on is perfectly in fitting with the approach Wainwright has long taken. “I’ve always taken my cues from people who were somewhat marginal, unfortunately for me,” she says. “I like stuff that is somewhat subversive. I think possibly because everyone around me was making music and I wanted to get attention, oftentimes I had to go a little bit further in the singing style, and then sometimes further lyrically.”
Eager for a woman to produce “Mama,” Wainwright eventually turned to Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, a friend of 15 years. Despite passing over her husband/longtime producer Brad Albetta (“I think we both would have killed each other”), Wainwright still refers to the collaboration as “keeping it in the family.” Honda jumped at the chance.
“I’d always loved her songs and I love her as a singer so much that there was no way I would turn it down,” says Honda, who credits Wainwright’s emotional rawness for the ease of making the album. “I really was able to connect to what was coming out from her. I relate to her in everything she sang about, except the part that I don’t have a child. But I had also lost my mother to cancer, and I really felt a lot of things that she was singing about. Very close to home.”
Wainwright knows that revealing so much of herself is risky. But if the filter hasn’t gone up at this point in her career, with the particular events that inspired “Mama,” she’s unlikely to ever hold back.
“Generally, my songs are inspired by my own life, which can be kind of embarrassing, in a way,” she says. “But mostly I’m private in other ways. I have it reversed. I write autobiographical songs that are revealing and then I forget to tweet.”Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter: @space