The first sounds we hear coming over the line are the shrieks of rambunctious children splashing about in a bathtub, nearly drowning out the somewhat surprised voice of Martha Wainwright. “Oh my goodness. Hold on a second…. Get back in the bath, little children…”
We’ve reached her at home in Montréal in the midst of trying to get her two young sons, ages two and six (“but almost three and seven”) bathed and off to bed. It appears she’s forgotten about our scheduled 7:00 p.m. phone interview, and she’s scrambling to pass instructions to whoever is assisting her: “This one’s teeth are brushed… Um, how long is our interview, sir?” It’s clearly not an opportune time to chat, and so she offers to call back in an hour or so, after the kids are tucked away in bed.
It’s always been a family affair for Martha Wainwright, with all the chaos and connectivity that family brings. Music is the family business. She is, of course, the daughter of the late Canadian folk legend Kate McGarrigle and American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who messily divorced the year she was born. After initially singing backup in the shadow of her older brother, Rufus Wainwright, she began to step out into her own spotlight in the late ‘90s with a number of well-received EPs. Her critically and commercially successful self-titled, full-length debut in 2005, and subsequent releases, have established her as a talented songwriter and a beguiling performer in her own right.
“It kind of feels like a new time; the beginning of something new.”
Her latest offering, Goodnight City, came out in November of 2016. It’s her sixth album and first solo release since 2012’s Come Home to Mama. Half of the tracks are Wainwright’s own compositions, while the other half were written for her by friends including Beth Orton, Glen Hansard, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, her brother Rufus and writer/poet Michael Ondaatje. It also features contributions from her aunt Anna McGarrigle and cousin Lily Lanken.
The album opens with a trio of songs that are among Wainwright’s most captivating to date, led by the provocative first single “Around The Bend” (“I used to do a lot of blow / Now I only do the show”), followed by “Francis,” about her youngest son, Francis Valentine, and “Traveller,” a moving tribute to a friend who died of cancer at age 40.
After releasing Come Home to Mama and giving birth to son No. 2, Wainwright spent the ensuing couple of years “involved in intense domestic life.” When she was ready to make another record, she wasn’t sure she’d have enough songs, so she hit upon the idea of asking friends and family to contribute songs for her to record. While that was underway, Wainwright found the inspiration to write more of her own songs. “I lack discipline in my songwriting,” she explains, having now called back after putting the kids to bed, “so it’s often something that has to come over me.
“I realized this was going to be a record of two things,” she says, “because I didn’t want to abandon my own songs, but then it also allowed me to take the best of the offered songs and choose the ones that somehow really connected to my life in some way.”
That duality is also reflected in the cover photo she chose for Goodbye City, where we see two separate overlaid images of Wainwright, giving the impression that she’s facing in two opposite directions simultaneously.
“Yeah, looking at the past and the future,” she confirms. “The concept of saying goodbye to something is there, along with the title, but then also, it not being completely over.”
One of the things she’s tried to leave behind is the grief over her mother’s passing from cancer in 2010 at the age of 63. That kind of wound can be slow to heal, if it ever truly does. But healing does happen.
“For the first time, the memory of my mother and her death, I’ve come to accept more,” she says. “I’m not as traumatized by that or as hurt by that any more, and it kind of feels like a new time; the beginning of something new.”
Having turned 40 earlier this year, Wainwright has also been writing a memoir, Stories I Might Regret Telling You, which is close to completion.
“What I’m learning from having written it is that I think a page has been turned – no pun intended,” she says. “And with this new record too, and coming out from the shadows of my parents and my brother, and shaking off some of the insecurities that I have. I feel like that’s been one of the themes of the last 20 years, which I think I’m ready to shed.”
With her two young children now nestled in bed, drifting into dreamsongs of their own, Martha Wainwright is allowing herself a farewell glance to the past while she faces a new tomorrow.
“This record is more hopeful than a lot of my other records,” she says. “I think I’m a more realized artist in a way, maybe since turning 40, or being in this new stage or new chapter. I feel like it’s a better time for me.”