Surrounded by exposed brick and wine barrels in the bustling atmosphere of City Winery, there is a clear view of the stage from every table. In an equal parts male and female crowd, full of late 30s to mid 50s couples who are slightly randy and clearly enjoying the house made wine, singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright takes the stage with her guitar, a drummer and her husband on bass.
She opens with “This Life” from her eponymous 2005 CD and, between quips with her husband and quick swigs of whiskey, performs fan favorites, new songs, and French covers that are vocally reminiscent of Edith Piaf.
Her impressive abilities are most showcased on the song “Some People,” but it is on “Proserpina,” a song penned by her late mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, that she throws her head back in a tears-inducing primal wail.
Wainwright became a mother and lost her own mother within a short period of time. What came of this contrast of loss and new beginnings is Come Home to Mama. The album is full of raw, confessional songs written by Wainwright, with matter-of-fact, yet textured, lyrics.
Though she is the daughter of Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, and sister of critically-acclaimed singer Rufus Wainwright, Martha has her own distinct sound borne of a strong, solid musical roots.
The L Stop talked with Wainwright before her packed performance.
Angelique: I just want to let you know, Come Home to Mama is pretty amazing! There’s a lot more genre hopping here than on your previous albums—do you think, in part, this has to do with your collaboration with producer Yuka Honda (member of the band, Cibo Matto)?
Martha: Definitely. These songs that I’d written on the guitar could really go another place stylistically. Because of the subject matter, because of the chorus, because of the emotion and the anger behind them, I sort of envisioned a more keyboard-based production. I knew that Yuka—who I’ve known for many years and have been a fan of hers—would have that kind of sensibility and the ability to take the music someplace completely different.
A: For sure, I’ve been a fan of Cibo Matto since the late 90s. So, the title of your album comes from a line in “Proserpina,” which is simply a beautiful track and is such a moving tribute to your mother’s legacy. Can you please share the backstory with our readers?
It’s something that’s clearly written from the point of view of someone who is halfway into the next life. You can hear that intensity in the clarity of the lyrics and subject matter; it’s a concise and perfect way of describing the emotion. It’s the story of Persephone, which is one of death and rebirth. There’s a lot of poignancy in this case with my mother writing it, and also for me singing it, because it is a mother-daughter story. It rings true on many levels and, certainly, I wanted to record it because I didn’t want anyone else to! I wanted to jump in there and own it in some way as a tribute to Kate.
A: Music is obviously in your blood, what is your first song that you ever remember singing?
M: My mother and her sister Ann, being a folk duo, forced us to sing as children. We were like the Von Trapps: instead of going to camp we had to go to folk festivals…which was fun. We early on started with a lot of American folk music, like Stephen Foster, who wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Gentle Annie” and all of these beautiful songs in the late 1800s, that’s what we were first introduced to as kids. My brother Rufus and I kept this kind of love affair with music from the past. We’re not really “new folkies” because we were brought up with banjos and accordions, so we kind of reject them a little bit in our own production of music, but you can hear that we were brought up with old music in our choices, our temperament and styles.
A: You’ve contributed to the works of a lot of musicians and the likes of Nels Cline (Wilco) and Sean Lennon contributed to Come Home to Mama. Other than family, who are your musical inspirations?
M: As a songwriter, Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” had an effect on me in terms of the idea of a song being really poetic and descriptive in a kind of creepy way. And then also hearing other female singers and how they rattle up a “male profession;” singers like Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithfull, singers who have a lot of power onstage and intensity, anger…like Patti Smith. I’m always looking towards women who have aggression and are seemingly masculine, though that’s not really what it is, it‘s kind of in contrast. And I’m inspired by other great singers, whether it’s Kate Bush or Dolly Parton, who you wish you could sound like in a way. You sing along and your voice becomes what it’s going to be, first by imitation, then its own revelation.
A: That’s an interesting way to put it. So, your brother Rufus is gay, you’re straight but have been pretty open about sexual experimentation in your teens—would you call yourself an LGBT ally?
M: Oh, absolutely! Yeah, of course. An ally but, also for me, just a connection with this concept of not putting people into strict and forceful sexual classifications where you’re supposed to be a certain way. The concept that everyone is gay in our heart of hearts.
A: That’s fantastic.
M: If we allow ourselves the freedoms of love and affection, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had much more of an open society. That would be great.
A: If you weren’t singing, what would you be doing?
M: It’s hard to answer that question. I never know if I sing because everyone in my family around me was doing it or if it’s intrinsically inside me and I’d be doing it even if my parents were accountants. Maybe I’d be doing accounting, who knows? I do like economics and I like math a lot, so I’d like to think of myself as someone who would do something like that.
A: Well, since you are singing, what can concert-goers expect from this tour?
M: We’re a tight rock trio, so it has the intensity of the album but, interspersed in that, there are some quieter moments where I take the stage by myself, and also parts where I tip my hat to some older songs, some jazz standards and moments at the piano. It varies…it’s kind of a roller coaster ride!
Angelique worked in advertising for six years, but quit once they stole her soul. She has been the Marketing & PR Director for Reeling, Chicago’s LGBT International Film Festival, for the last three years. She can currently be seen going out too much and ignoring the stack of books on her floor that she really wants to find the time to read.