Published Oct 29, 2012Martha Wainwright admits she's something of a sadist. Tell her you spent a lot of time crying while listening to her fantastic new record, Come Home to Mama, and the 36-year-old singer-songwriter purrs, "Good," pauses for a beat, and then laughs loudly.
It's messy business, writing an album like this. You probably have to be something of an emotional sadist to flay yourself open and let the feelings tumble out over ten tracks that traverse all the stages of grief ― the ones the books and shrinks tell you about, and the ones they don't.
In January 2010, Wainwright's mother, famed folk singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle (of the McGarrigle Sisters, mother to Rufus and ex-wife of Loudon Wainwright III), died of cancer. In fact, she died on the same date Wainwright was due to deliver her son, Arcangelo. But, in a strange twist of fate, Arc, as Wainwright calls him, arrived two-and-a-half months premature.
"When he came early on in London, she flew over to see him," Wainwright recalls. "She was very sick; yellow and very fucked up. She would wear a mask, and they thought she was trying to protect the baby from her, but she was really trying to protect herself from the germs she could pick up in the hospital. It was really hard to watch, but it was also really amazing because they were both so debilitated and at the opposite ends of their lives."
Come Home to Mama's two standout songs pay perfect tribute to this tragic beauty: the brief intersection of McGarrigle's and Arc's lives. "Proserpina" is Wainwright's gorgeously spare cover of one of the last songs her mother ever wrote and "Everything Wrong" is Wainwright's apology to Arc for "future and further fuck-ups." It's this relationship with her son, the one she calls the most important in her life now, that gives the one between Wainwright and her mother new context.
"I feel guilty already about how I treated her when she was alive," Wainwright laughs softly. "I feel like I'm going pay for it when Arc decides to use my head as a target for balls. I guess it will be payback time for all the times I was mean to her. Obviously it makes me miss her more."
Wainwright says she always knew that making a record would be a natural way for her to process the tragedy, but after the funeral, every time she tried to pick up the guitar, it would end with her crying in a ball on the floor. Eventually enough time passed and she began to write for a few hours every day.
"I could sort of be the person I used to be; like when I was in my 20s, where I totally let it all out," Wainwright says. "I allowed myself to go all the way with it. For me it was a way to process a lot of stuff and to then have something to put on the record. [When dealing with grief] we don't dance or light some animals on fire, or people. We have to be so careful. We're not allowed to sacrifice people! So, basically I've done that with words."