May 1, 2013 – 6:00pm — Sosefina Fuamoli
One of the highlights on this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival would have to be the show that Martha Wainwright is bringing through. Her new album Come Home To Mama shows the performer divulging more personal emotions and stories than we’ve perhaps seen from her before and it’s these stories she’ll be bringing to life in Adelaide (and further across the country) in June. Wainwright talks to me about the making of the album, her mother’s death and the impact that had on proceedings – turning pain into music.
Thank you so much for your time Martha, how have you been?
I’m good! We had a little break before…this is our little break before Australia; we were on the road last month, so it’s been nice. Of course here [Montreal] it’s Spring, so it’s a really big deal.
I can only imagine! How is it there?
Yeah, I’m in Montreal in Canada, which had one of the longest, toughest and coldest winters in a while…there was snow up to our cunts, as they say. [Laughs] But when the weather gets warm, people practically take off their clothes and start having sex outside and things. It’s weird.
So much imagery…! First off, I have to commend you on Come Home To Mama; I know it sounds like something generic for a journalist to tell an artist, but I don’t think I’ve been as taken by a record as I was with this one in some time.
Oh thank you, thank you.
I know that obviously, this record was a very personal one for you to make; when did you begin to contemplate making this album, and what you wanted to express on it?
Well, I knew that I wanted to make an album soon after my son would be born, just because I knew it had been a while since the last record of my own songs had come out. I didn’t want to wait too long. Of course, the drama that unfolded around that time, with my mother dying quite…well it wasn’t unexpected, but it’s always intense when it happens, and then with Archangelo being born premature and the complications and difficulties…that kind of drama was not expected. Of course, that became the subject of these songs and I think also, it made me even more eager in a way, to make the album that I think my mother wanted me to. She was one of my biggest supporters and I just felt that I wanted to get back out there in some way and I know that it’s easier to do that when you have incense. I just felt that this was really my time, my time to do something and so a lot of the songs came quite quickly by my standards. It did take me a while to make the record because I was taking time, because I like production and I like to try things out and Yuka [Honda], the producer, she takes her time too.
It was a huge thing for me; obviously, because everything had changed and I, in many ways, had become a different person. Even in this day and age, I think making records is becoming a little more difficult as well, just because people aren’t buying them as much and the reasoning behind it isn’t as clear, you know? With labels and the complicated nature of that and the potential for failure, let’s say, is greater. I’m glad that we’re coming to Australia and I’m glad that we can be touring it; I just want to be giving as much attention to it as I can, just because I know that it’s not on Triple J…you know what I mean? I feel like I have a responsibility to promote it and to give it life and let people know about it.
Totally; I suppose, with Come Home To Mama and where it sits in amongst your previous albums of original content, this is a more vocally expressive record. There seems to be more emphasis on the story-telling; was it a conscious aim to be so introspective and personal on this album?
Yeah, it was conscious, although I think it was natural in the sense that it was something that I had heard from a few people over the years…they noticed that when I sing live, I have a very expressive and high-octane singing style. It’s loud and yelling; that energy can sometimes get lost on albums, you know, when you’re in the studio, you’re much more composed and reflective in your style because you’re listening to yourself through headphones and things like that. I knew that a couple of people had mentioned that they thought it would be great to have that energy and that high emotion on a record. I went and talked to Yuka about it and said, ‘Would you be willing to try and record it that way?’ and she agreed to do it that way; I think that, with these songs and the drums and the guitar, all of that stuff supports that yelling which I do naturally! [Laughs] That was another reason for a lot of the instrumentation. Of course, I think lastly, just taking two years singing Piaf, which was a live record, you end up singing like that; she sang on 10 all the time and that very hard form…I just thought it was time to do that, you know? It’s there and it exists.
I have to ask you about “Proserpina”, because it’s such a lovely song and the fact that your mother had written in makes the emotional impact all the more present. How different is your version from your mother’s original?
My mother never recorded it; she wrote it in the last couple months of her life and she sang it once at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s on YouTube. She was very ill and actually, after that concert, she basically flew back to Montreal, got back in to bed and just deteriorated. She really wanted to sing that song and that is why she went to London, I think. I sing it based on what I remember of her singing it, as closely as I could, because I wanted to become her and transfer myself into her and also take as much of her into myself. I actually recorded that song a few months after she died; before making the record, I recorded it and it sort of sat there. I wanted to record it because I didn’t want anybody else to record it; I felt that it was mine. [Laughs]
I didn’t forget about it, but I just put it aside and did a version, which is with the piano. When I was making the record with Yuka, I knew that I wanted a song of Kate’s on the record, but I couldn’t think of any of her well-known songs that would fit. Then I remembered that song and I played it for Yuka and we decided it was great; I hadn’t heard it in a long time and then I added those primal screams and some other things to try and make it match a little with some of the rest of the album. Over time, it just took over as the centrepiece, in many ways, of the album; not so much in its style, because it’s quite different, but more in the idea of death and rebirth, which is the story of Proserpina, which is Persephone, the rite of Spring and the concept of seasons of time and death. I’m trying to express that in my songs, but in a much less graceful way, basically.
I was a classical history major at university so I immediately got the Persephone story from the song; the lyrics and the way the relate not only to that tale, but to any relationship between mother and child is so striking – was this something that immediately jumped out at you as well as calling memories of your own childhood?
Hmm, no, although that kind of transference of music from one generation to the next is a very nice and interesting way of thinking about it… I think for me, obviously, being in a completely emotional…I don’t want to say ‘vacuum’, but like, with no sight line but forward. I felt like she was writing the song with one foot on this earth and another foot in another; that complete life and death cycle and of course, for me, I always did think she wanted me to come home, but at the very end of her life, because I was stuck in England because my son was born prematurely and we had to stay at the hospital for three months…when that happened was when my mother began to die. I couldn’t be with her at the end in the last couple months, so the whole “Come home to mama…” thing was just like, ‘Oh my God’, it was way, way intense. It was great, really, because my mother was so amazingly grateful and gracious at the end of her life; she didn’t become angry or morbid, she was just very beautiful about it and I felt that that song on top of it was a way for it to somehow make sense and be acceptable. I think that is such an incredible thing.
Definitely; I can’t wait to see that piece of music realised onstage. You’re bringing your live show to Adelaide for the Cabaret Festival; it’s been a while since we’ve seen you down this way – how are you anticipating the trip?
Well, it’s going to be a little bit more of a rock show; last time I was there was just over two years ago and we did a Piaf tour and this is going have a lot of drums and bass and keyboard…a local keyboardist we’re picking up in Australia. We’ll play all of the new record, but then there will be some older songs from my previous record. Again, what I sometimes like to do in a show is expel all the musicians and do some stuff by myself, which is how all these songs are written and then of course some jazz and Piaf. All the old standards! With my brother and I, we kind of do that – whether it’s Piaf or something kind of old-timey.
Exciting, I can’t wait. Your show is definitely set to be one of the highlights on the Cabaret Festival calendar. Thanks so much for your time again and we’ll see you soon.
Oh great, thank you!
Martha Wainwright will be performing at Dunstan’s Playhouse on June 20. Visit www.adelaidecabaretfestival.com for more information.