“I FEEL like a wombat, sort of round and soft and nocturnal,” she remarked from her home in New York.
“I was once lost overnight in Wombat National Forest with the band. We were trying to guide our way out by the stars, but of course the stars are opposite to the sky that we know in the Northern Hemisphere, so we were trying to add that problem on it …”
Martha’s touring Australia in June with her new album, Come Home to Mama.
Dedicated to her mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, it features the song Proserpina, written and performed by Kate just before her death in 2010, at the Royal Albert Hall, with Martha and her famous sibling, acclaimed singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright.
This fittingly closed a dialogue in song and performance that has been ongoing since Kate and the sibling’s father, errant singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (about whom Martha wrote her first hit single, You Bloody F**ing A**hole), brought their kids up on a rich diet of Cajun food and folk music in Montreal.
Kate’s death was particularly poignant for Martha, as her daughter was born in the same year.
“Proserpina was the last song that she wrote. Proserpina is Latin for the Greek character Persephone, and her story concerns the idea of rebirth, so here Mom was performing with one foot in this world and one foot in the next, and it being a mother-daughter story, this was very powerful for me,” she said.
“She probably shouldn’t have done the concert. She was yellow and her stomach was sticking out and her organs were failing, but she really wanted to do the show.
“And later, I wanted to sing it as a way of becoming more like my mother and connecting with her.”
That song and her mother’s death gave Martha the impetus to write an entire album.
“I really had to keep it together for my young child,” she said.
“I had a lot of anger and sadness about my Mom dying and I started to fall apart, so when I did go to write songs somewhere in a little room by myself, that was an opportunity to wrestle with some more extreme emotions.
“It was a little like being a young songwriter all over again and just not really thinking of anybody else, allowing myself to write freely, and, of course, I always like being a bit subversive and I have a tendency to be a bit attention-seeking, so if I had an opportunity I would probably go with it.”
Martha has made her reputation on being a fearlessly confessional songwriter, her ode to her father being a notorious example.
“I don’t know if anyone can run out of stuff to confess, but I think I’ve taken it to the end of what you can probably get away with.
“It doesn’t always get you a publishing deal, people covering your songs and making money, but when I was younger and starving you had to be different, because not only was everybody a singer-songwriter, everybody wanted to stand out from all the others, so whether it’s swearing or being aggressive for a female, it’s something I’ve always done.
“I think when things are extreme and intense maybe it helps to make sense, in the sense that life imitates art.
“Writing a song when things are seemingly at their most difficult helps deal with some of the more extreme occurrences in life, marriage and relationships, death.”
“Or maybe I’m just more like a Tasmanian devil than a wombat.”