Interview: Martha Wainwright on motherhood, grief and healing

Singer songwriter plays Celtic Connections as part of 2013 European tour

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Interview: Martha Wainwright on motherhood, grief and healing

On her way to the next venue, Martha Wainwright is juggling the logistics of touring and motherhood. In many ways it should be the perfect solution to that age-old musicians’ complaint about the boredom of being on the road between gigs. In reality, entertaining, educating and attending to the needs of a boisterous three-year-old – even with her husband and erstwhile producer Brad Albetta on hand to share the parenting – is the kind of challenge that sends many female musicians on long-term hiatus. Not Wainwright.

‘It’s a challenge, that’s for sure,’ she says with only the briefest hint of weariness in her voice. ‘I want to have my career, it’s important to me because it’s who I am and I want my son to know me as that person. But it would also be neat to be part of a pioneering move to change the way things are. It’s a man’s world and the music business reflects that. But I don’t think women have to be constrained by motherhood. It’s important not to screw up your child’s life, but it’s also important to lead by example.’

Besides, music is the family business for Wainwright. Her mother, the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle, was a working, single parent who, after her divorce from Martha’s father Loudon Wainwright III, raised Martha and her brother Rufus to ultimately pursue successful careers of their own.

Much has already been said about the circumstances from which Wainwright’s new album, Come Home To Mama, emerged. At its core is a tender and revealing portrait of the relationship between a mother and her child. It was largely written in the wake of McGarrigle’s death from cancer, and the birth of Wainwright’s first child, Arcangelo, who as a premature baby spent the first few months of his life in an incubator in London’s University College Hospital. An emotionally turbulent time translated to record with no shortage of honesty, it’s arguably her best work to date, with moments where the pain and grief are almost uncomfortably palpable. This has long been a facet of Wainwright’s music, but this time it was more about using writing as a way of healing than as an outlet for relationship frustrations and thwarted desires.

‘There was a lot of hurt and anger that went into the record,’ she says, ‘but at the other end there is a lot of joy and pleasure, particularly in getting to play the songs to other people. I’m a very free person because of what I do, I think it’s incredibly useful to get this stuff [emotions] out in the way that I can. There is the reality of grief and the acceptance of how much I miss my mother, but also the opportunity to carry on her work. It’s a way to still feel connected to her.’

That connection is most keenly observed in the track ‘Proserpina’, written by McGarrigle shortly before her death in 2010. Based on the Roman myth of a goddess whose mother’s love pulls her back from the Underworld, for a short time at least, it’s an exceptionally moving song, even more so in Wainwright’s still-grieving hands. It’s likely to cast its emotive spell on even the driest eyes when she performs it at her forthcoming Celtic Connections show. ‘It was an easy decision to include it in the record because I wanted to do a song of hers and I’m not sure any other would have fit as well as it does,’ she says. ‘I don’t really see it as sad anymore, I see it as an incredible gift left by our mother.’

Martha Wainwright, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Tue 29 Jan, part of Celtic Connections.

Martha Wainwright - "Proserpina"

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