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NEW WORDS FOR OLD FEELINGS AND MARTHA WAINWRIGHT IS STILL FLUENT


(Photo by Gaelle Leroyer)


BEEN THERE, DONE THAT and said everything? Maybe not.


Martha Wainwright, a singer/songwriter of significant talent and almost literal cut-through – some of her lines must have left scars on the subject of those songs: quite often herself, occasionally a boyfriend or father – and I have been talking in some form or other for about 20 years, and it’s fair to say that every variation of the obvious questions, many of the not so obvious questions and (hopefully) a good number of the never expected those questions have been canvassed.


And Lord knows she has heard all of them far more than anyone should for their own sanity. The worry these days, as she prepares for a tour of Australia in May, is not having the good shit to engage her with.


“I can see how you are not alone and your readers and readers of other publications that are fans of mine probably feel the same way,” says Wainwright from her home in Montreal. “Not that it’s boring and it’s redundant but there’s been a lot of talk over the last 20 years, and then because I’m so open – I talk about my personal life pretty openly – perhaps I’ve been too open and what that’s left us with is a question rather than an answer, of what else is there to say after writing such personal songs and talking about those personal songs and then talking about the musical legacy that I come out of that’s steeped really in the past.”


That’s a fair summation, which also indicates why talking to her is so often hugely interesting: lots of subject matter and loads of willingness to go there on her part.


“But talking to you, and we’ve probably touched on this too, there is my relationship to your country. This is the first time I’ve returned after a very long time, six years or more, so that I think will be very meaningful for me.”


Why though? It’s not like there is a personal or historical connection with us, or even one of those quirks of a career where one territory is massively out of sync with trends elsewhere and in some Hassellhoff manner she is bigger in Australia than in Canada or the USA or Europe. And we’re miles away.



It seems it comes down to a characteristic burst of insecurity: will people remember, still care, still come?


“Nowadays, six years as a longtime,” she says with a degree of what might be acquired wisdom or scepticism. “And the same thing happened to me when I went back to London last week. I was kind of nervous to go back because I’d had a falling out with an old friend and I knew I had the potential to see a lot of people in the industry that I’d known for 20 years or 30 years.”


But that London trip served to counter such doubts that arise when factors personal, in your hands, and practical, out of your control, curtail regular business.


“It was great to see old faces, it was almost like a recognition and a reminder of what it is that I do after now a longer period of not working. Not only because of Covid but because two school-aged children, which keeps me at home more,” Wainwright says. “So it’s a redefining of my career certainly, because in my 20s and 30s and into my 40s it was just a continuum, and now this is almost like a return.


“The record that I will be singing songs from, Love Will Be Reborn, has now been out three years and it feels more like a return to my career after a bit of a dip, truly a middle-aged album whereas the other ones were set in the time of my youth. It’s the beginning of the new era of songwriting and record making as a full-fledged adult. I wouldn’t say more of a broken person at all, but more of a person with experience. Now there is a difference in the way I am.”


When we spoke in 2021 at the time of the release of Love Will Be Reborn there was a question she had had in her own head about whether this was what she needed or wanted to do, or just something she was habituated to do even if it was harmful – to her health, her relationships, her family.


She had opened a café called Ursa, which had music and soup, and something like regular hours, and was there every day for her two children. And, indeed, for the lawyers handling the ongoing fallout from the breakup of her marriage to her former bassplayer, and father of the children, Brad Albetta. The album’s answer appeared to be yes, songwriting and performing was important for her and to her. Not being herself would be the greater harm.


“I needed to stay home for my children’s sake, for legal reasons even, in the context of a difficult divorce. Also for the curiosity,” Wainwright says. “I thought about running a café, stirring the soup pot and getting up in my apron and singing, and this was my opportunity to do that because I had been travelling around the world with my guitar as a songwriter since I was quite young. If I was going to discover a side of me I didn’t know existed, this was the moment.”



So that was successful in its own way, but limited, or a failure?


“It was totally fun and interesting and once the record came out and I started touring I then realised that I need to get back to work and tour and be me – up on stage with the guitar. Because that is the best thing for me, the best thing for my kids, it’s the most efficient way for me to connect.


“And I realised that it was really important not to neglect it, and not to let it fall apart. More and more I feel a responsibility to continue trying and staying in the game.”


Was it about reaffirming that this was an essential part of who she was, or was it even more basic: that she fell in love again with this life, with music?


“Maybe I needed to take a break from it to see what I would miss from it, and if it would miss me. And yes indeed that was the case,” says Wainwright. “I would try and tidy the house and lead a different life where I was a different type of person and I realised I wasn’t very good at it and really the best thing for me was to try and have an interaction with the audience, sing my songs, and then come home and be present for my children.


“To let that go, let my career go, and start some other business, I wouldn’t say failed, because interestingly enough the café that I and my partner opened, people love it and it’s bubbling along. But it’s exhausting and it’s time, in my opinion, to move on and shut it down and find someone hopefully who wants to take it over so it can keep going.”


The prompt, the clue, that not everything could be solved by the cliched honest day’s work, was easy enough to see.


“In booking bands and being at the bar and watching music, mopping the floors or whatever afterwards, pretty quickly I was like, this is not the best use of my time,” she laughs. “I had to get back to work. My kids need me to and I need to.


“And to go back to your question about whether or not I needed to be reintroduced or fall back in love with music, I did fall back in love with it. Escaping my daily difficult life here and then the freedom of going on the road and getting away, that is extremely valuable.”



 

NEXT MONTH: in part two of this interview: Martha Wainwright talk about how rediscovering her past has refreshed her present, and cleared some of those (always hovering) doubts about her future. “You go back and listen to just a three-minute song of four or five people playing in a room, and I’m 22 years old, you go, you know that’s pretty good. My pitch is perfect, or close to it; my voice sounds good; I’m playing the guitar very well.”


 

Martha Wainwright plays:

May 8, Princess Theatre, Brisbane

May 9, Anita’s Theatre, Thirroul

May 10, City Recital Hall, Sydney

May 11, Newcastle City Hall

May 12, Blue Mountains Theatre

May 14, The Gov, Adelaide

May 16, Odeon Theatre, Hobart

May 17, Recital Centre, Melbourne

May 18, Capital Theatre, Bendigo



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