Music Interviews
3:51 pm
Mon November 26, 2012

Martha Wainwright On New Motherhood, And A Mother Lost

Originally published on Sun November 25, 2012 5:29 pm

You can't tell the story of Martha Wainwright without talking about family. Her father is Loudon Wainwright III, her mother, Kate McGarrigle — both legends of the 1970's folk scene. Along with her brother, Rufus, she followed her parents into the music world.

In November 2009, Martha Wainwright started a family of her own with the birth of her son. Two months later, she would lose family: Her mother died of cancer at age 63. Wainwright's new album, Come Home to Mama, is largely inspired by those two life-altering events. She discusses it here with NPR's Jacki Lyden.


Interview Highlights

On growing up slowly

"I think my mother was always worried about me when she was alive. Being the second child and playing music — which was something that everybody in my family did — I think I lacked any real self-confidence about what I was doing. I was kind of a misfit, and when my mother died, I had to become an adult, something that I never thought I would ever be."

On covering her mother's last song, "Proserpina"

"Before I started making this record, I recorded this song because I wanted to claim it as my own. A few people had heard it when she performed it at the Royal Albert Hall, and I just felt that, really, it was a gift to me. When I recorded it, just soon after she died, it was really in a state of disbelief where I thought that if I sang it like her, if I closed my eyes and sang it well enough, that maybe when I opened them she would reappear."

On embracing adulthood

"It's very interesting to have gone from essentially a pot-smoking hippie, living in a one-room [apartment] in Williamsburg and writing songs, to someone who now is concerned with women's health. ... It's just crazy; I don't know what happened. I should have probably started earlier — maybe not having children, but just getting responsible."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MATAPEDIA")

KATE MCGARRIGLE: (Singing) My name's Martha. Who are you?

LYDEN: That's the voice of the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle. She died in 2010, and the Martha she's referring to in that song is Martha Wainwright, her daughter with fellow folk icon Loudon Wainwright III. Now, it's Martha who's telling the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Martha Wainwright's new album is called "Come Home to Mama," and it's mostly inspired by the loss of her mother, Kate, and the birth of her first child - events that happened within two months of each other. On this track, "All Your Clothes," Martha Wainwright sings directly to Kate McGarrigle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL YOUR CLOTHES")

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Where have you been these days? I thought I saw you underneath the vines.

I think my mother was always worried about me when she was alive. Being the second child and playing music - which was something that everybody in my family did - I think I lacked any real self-confidence about what I was doing. I was kind of a misfit. And when my mother died, you know, I had to become an adult.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL YOUR CLOTHES")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I see they've cut your hair and grown between your eyes.

But it feels good. It feels better, you know? My mother was someone who lived her life very fully. Every moment was very magical. And I think that finally, you know, I could say that her passing has sort of woken me up to this world, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL YOUR CLOTHES")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Can we pretend we're talking? I'll answer for you if you don't mind. The baby's doing fine. My marriage is failing but I keep trying all the time.

LYDEN: Do you still talk to your mother?

WAINWRIGHT: Not as much as I did at the beginning, certainly. But I try and listen more now. I inherited my mother's house in Montreal when she died, and I asked my Aunt Anna to find someone to clean it. And she found a cleaning lady in Montreal, and she told me via email that the cleaning lady said that my mother was very angry because we weren't listening to her. So she was a psychic or a medium or something and...

LYDEN: Oh, a psychic cleaning lady.

WAINWRIGHT: A psychic cleaning lady.

LYDEN: Think about it.

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT: And she said - on another note, she's a very good cleaner, though. But Kate is very upset that we have not been listening to her. So I took that as a sign, just to sort of try and not be so dogged in my opinions and try and think about what she would've done or how she would've reacted to things and treated people because she was very good. And I've enjoyed absorbing some of her personality since she's gone.

LYDEN: Speaking of that, let's listen to this song, "Proserpina," because this is about a mother and daughter separated and the last song your mother ever wrote. And it's just really, really beautiful. Let's just have a listen for a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROSERPINA")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I shall punish the Earth. I shall turn down the heat. I shall take away every morsel to eat. I shall turn every field into stone where I'll walk crying alone, crying for Proserpina.

Before I started making this record, I recorded this song because I wanted to claim it as my own. A few people had heard it when she performed it at the Royal Albert Hall, and I just felt that, really, it was a gift to me. And when I recorded it, just soon after she died, it was really in a state where - a state of disbelief where I thought that if I sang it like her, if I closed my eyes and if I sang it well enough, that maybe when I opened them that she would reappear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROSERPINA")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Proserpina, Proserpina, come home to momma. Come home to momma. Proserpina...

LYDEN: This is the song on "Come Home to Mama" that you really sound the most like her. I could actually close my eyes and hear her, too, just as you did.

WAINWRIGHT: Mm. Yeah.

LYDEN: I'm speaking with singer and songwriter Martha Wainwright. Her new album is about the loss of her mother, Kate McGarrigle. It's called "Come Home to Mama." You know, there's a song here that I think is written to your son called "Everything Wrong."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING WRONG")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I don't want you to feel alone. But you probably will when you're older. I will try to stay alive to see as much through your eyes but one day you know I will go.

LYDEN: Your mom and son did meet, briefly, at least.

WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

LYDEN: She got to hold him.

WAINWRIGHT: She got to hold him. There's a couple of photographs. She got to hold him because he was born very early. And the plan was to go home and be with my mother and tend to her - because she was very ill already at this point - and to have the child there with her and to have everyone together, and that, maybe, you know, maybe also this child would save her life.

You know, you have these feelings of well, maybe the baby - if the baby comes that she'll be happy and things will turn around.

LYDEN: Right. Right.

WAINWRIGHT: I didn't feel well. I told Brad: Let's go to the hospital. And we had the baby within a few hours of - with an emergency C-section. He was under three pounds when he was born. And I called my mother right as we were about to go into the operating room, and I told her what was up. And she was on a plane within 24 hours, very unwell. But they got to meet. And from that point on, she got into bed and that was it. And she died on January 18th, which was his due date.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness. Oh, that is a remarkable story. You know, it is the weekend after Thanksgiving. And given everything that we've just talked about here, what are you giving thanks for this time?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, I'm giving thanks for my new family. It's very interesting to have gone from essentially a pot-smoking hippie, living in a one-room in Williamsburg writing songs, to someone now who now is concerned with women's health because of having a preemie. And my age at this point, because I'm 36, and, you know, it's just crazy. I don't know what happened. What happened? Where did it go?

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT: Maybe I should - I - yeah, I mean, it really was - I should have probably started earlier - just not having - maybe having children but just getting responsible. But it's all coming in now and...

LYDEN: If your mom could hear that note of anxiety and see you embrace the anxiety so many people face and so many women face, I bet you she'd have some encouraging things to say to you.

WAINWRIGHT: Oh, good. Well, thank you.

LYDEN: I'm sure.

WAINWRIGHT: Well, and that's what I'm trying to listen for all the time.

LYDEN: And, you know, the psychic cleaning lady told you.

WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

LYDEN: You have to listen. That's Martha Wainwright. Her latest album is called "Come Home to Mama." And you can watch her performing here at NPR as part of our Tiny Desk Concert series. Go to nprmusic.org. Martha, really, it's been so grand meeting you. Thanks for sharing your story.

WAINWRIGHT: Thank you. It's been great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.