Martha Wainwright, café owner, would likely not strike you as a barista or sandwich maker. And with good reason, what with the cheekbones, hooded-eyes attitude and a voice that cracks in the all the right places when she sings.
Instead, she will tell you that she’s been involved with music for “100 years”. And it’s not entirely wrong, though she is 45 and about to release only her fifth album of music that straddles rock and folk, pop and French classicism.
Wainwright’s recording career began in 1997, with her first of many visits to Australia coming in 2005 as part of a tribute to fellow Canadian, Leonard Cohen, and then in the band for her older brother, the perennially flamboyant Rufus.
But as the daughter of two important folk singers on either side of the Canada/US border – her mother Kate McGarrigle and father Loudon Wainwright III – who mined their lives and the lives of anyone around them for material, not only did she have a lineage going back many more decades but she’d already been the subject of several songs by her parents.
As Wainwright says today, “I am now carrying the baggage of my own musical career, but sometimes I feel like I’m also carrying the baggage of my parents as well.” Which may go some way to explaining a decision by her two years ago, after an ugly split from her bassplayer/producer husband, to step away from recording and playing and open a café and live venue in her current home town of Montreal.
“I never had a ‘job’ job, I never had other types of responsibilities and something that kept me in one place, and I wanted to see if I could,” says Wainwright. “It was the right moment to do it too because there was something about it that was also about protecting what I have for my kids, because I have two kids and I felt I should lay down roots, by building and starting something that maybe they could one day take over if they wanted to, try and create something for them.”
The Montreal space is called Ursa, a name she likes for the way it sounds like some highfalutin but mysterious institute as much as its connection to an earth mother.
“When I was having a fairly hard time about five years ago, I was going through a really bad divorce, and really lots of sadness and pain, I wasn’t able to see my kids as much as normal. They were at their dad’s house and it was really hard for me, and I was very scared and I was very lost and afraid,” Wainwright says. “My friend put a copper bracelet around my wrist – copper’s supposed to help or something - and on it it said ‘mama bear’. It’s a very important animal in many religions and mythologically, [about] wanting to protect, and that’s what it felt like to me, trying to create something of protection and community.”
The community today is about a dozen kids at a summer camp she is running in Ursa (“making them meals and teaching them Simon & Garfunkel songs … bringing my first aid kit around in hopes that none of them will fall and hurt themselves”), but in the long period since her last album in 2016, it did feel as if this might be a replacement community for music.
What was it like to find that music, which she had most recently been making with her ex-husband, wasn’t the consolation and the answer? What was it like to find that that was part of what was causing pain?
“I think I’ve come out of this time realising that it is the thing that’s going to save me. It is the thing that I do. When I am at Ursa, and I work my ass off and I mop the floors and I clean the toilets and I book the shows, my bank account dwindles,” she says with a dark laugh. “So the thing that I need to do, and the thing that makes me able to do anything for my kids or for myself or for anybody else, is music.”
Fortunately, music is still something she does well, far better than many in truth. This new album’s mix of evocative balladry and more adventurous musical experiments is called Love Will Be Reborn, from a song she wrote in her darkest period, in what looks from the outside as some kind of wishful thinking.
“When I wrote the song it was a wish,” she says. “I was very surprised: when I wrote it I wrote it quickly and it flew out of me like a bird, through tears. I would never have backed that it would come true, and then it did come true a year or two after. A year after I wrote it, I met somebody new, which was completely unexpected and surprising and wonderful.
“It’s hard to say it’s what I needed, because nobody wants to say ‘I need somebody else to be able to live’, I don’t think that that’s true, but it felt good to be loved and appreciated. It helps. That was really unexpected and then I could make a place where my children could come and be happy and we could have a fresh start.”
The fresh start is reflected in the more optimistic tracks on the record, however the songs with the most impact initially are those that draw on the hurt of the divorce and the enforced separation from the children. In particular, there is Report Card, which is both beautiful and raw as she sings to and about her children, making promises and wishes in equal measure as she says “I want you to feel like I did”.
“That song and maybe two of the others I wrote over some time because it was hard not to cry a lot. I’d be alone and I’d start singing and it was sad you know, really sad. Especially Report Card because I missed my kids so much and I was just so lonely and filled with sadness,” says Wainwright. “I would play for a while and then I would have to put down a guitar and leave it for a few days. But I needed to be finished, I needed to say it.”
And once it was said?
“I sing that song, I’ve sung it to my kids, who happened to be in the room when I did it, and I smile and laugh when I looked at them and they think it’s funny because they are like ‘oh no, she is talking about my report card’. And of course, right after I sing that line the rest of it is dreadfully depressing and hopefully they don’t really understand any of it. And I don’t think they do: they lose interest pretty quickly.”
There was never any question that she would sing the song, no matter how much it exposed of her to us or to her children.
“To me it was important to talk about that loneliness, to talk about the solitude, what it felt like to be so torn away from your kids. And I want them to know. I didn’t want them to see me crying all the time or completely devastated on the floor, but it doesn’t mean I don’t cry,” she says.
“Of course, as a child a divorce you are confronted with your parents, we all confronted with our parents even if your parents are together, but you want them to not be burdened with this stuff. But it feels a relief to say it, so that’s taking the weight off my shoulders so I can be a little lighter for them.”
Of course, as the next generation of Wainwrights and McGarrigles the children better get used to this public examination of parents’ broader lives. It will be coming for decades, as their mother, who still regularly is asked about her parents, their divorce and their songs, could confirm. Not that she’s worried.
“I like hearing songs that made reference to me. My father did it more than my mother, or did it more specifically, and it felt good in Loudon’s song when he sang Five Years Old, the happy birthday Martha song. It was fun I remember, hearing it when I was a kid. It sounds like the Happy Birthday song.
“Of course, it’s about not being present and it’s an apology, but I’m glad that he wrote a song about me instead of not, which would have been worse. Can you imagine?”
Which is of course something children of café owners never have to do.
Love Will Be Reborn is out on August 20.
A version of this story originally ran in The Sydney Morning Herald.