Freedom of the City: Martha Wainright on Irish gigs and casting off her musical shackles
Canadian-American indie folk star Martha Wainwright returns to Belfast and Dublin next week. David Roy spoke to the Montreal-based singer and songwriter about touring her new album Goodnight City, which finds Wainwright exploring new sounds with the help of friends and family
HI MARTHA, are you looking forward to coming back to Ireland? The Belfast gig at the Open House Festival is already sold out.
Oh that's good, I'm glad to hear it. I'm very excited to hit the road. I leave Montreal tonight for London where I'm going to be doing a few days of press. Although I have to leave the kids (Arcangelo, who's seven and two-year-old Francis) behind for almost a month, I'm also pretty excited to get back on that tour bus.
How I felt as a child was, I was always really proud of my mother (Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010) not only because she was my mom but because she was this person who got up on stage and played songs and went on the road. She seemed like kind of a magical being.
My kids and I will miss each other but I think in the end they will be happy that I did it. And I need to do it too – I need to feed them. So there's not really much of a choice in it. It wasn't one or the other for me; it was never going to be one or the other. It was always going to be both. So that's going to be the challenge but also hopefully the gift in the end.
Goodnight City has been getting great reviews, have you been pleased with the reaction?
Yes and actually doing this tour is kind of like putting the record out all over again. It came out in November, we did about a week of shows and then it was the holidays. So now in the new year we're really starting to tour it in earnest for real. And the UK and Ireland is always kind of a true test because that's where my music career started.
It wasn't until my first EP came out in the UK (2005) and I was written about in the press and exposed to an English audience that I started really as a professional musician. Because I couldn't really get arrested in north America – no-one really cared.
So, to me England is kind of the touchstone of me as an artist. And I think it's also where I became an artist in many ways because London was kind of a home away from home, having played there so much and then spread out over the rest of the country and Ireland too. So it is like coming home.
What is it about Martha Wainwright that we 'get' that north America has been so much slower to appreciate?
Oh, you're all crazy (laughs). I think there's a long history of English and Irish artists embracing American artists and songwriters. That was certainly the case with my dad (US singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, about whom she penned the scathing song Bloody Mother F***ing A**hole).
Also music that's lyric based and can be interpreted with one acoustic instrument, I think kind of gets to the core of the troubadour, the storyteller, the songwriter, the traveller. I think it's a deep tradition.
My music is sort of steeped in the past and steeped in tradition in a way. And I think that the British isles has that.
But you must be huge at home in Canada, surely?
Canada is a good market for me and here in Quebec in particular, because I speak in French to the audience. I grew up here and I've always sung in French and I think people appreciate that here, because there's usually a real separation between the two languages with artists.
Have you noticed a sudden influx of terrified Americans moving north in the wake of the US election?
I do have a few friends who are vowing to actually move up here and go back to school at McGill (University, Montreal). And then certainly I have Irish friends who are going back to Ireland a second time – they went back five or 10 years ago for money reasons, then came back to the States because there were no jobs and now they're leaving again because of Trump. But, y'know, we're citizens of the world. It's good to have two passports, that's all I have to say.
Goodnight City finds you broadening your sound by using songs written by your brother Rufus (Franci), Beth Orton (Alexandria), Merrill Garbus from Tune-Yards (Take The Reins) and collaborations with the likes of Glen Hansard (One of Us), author Michael Ondaatje (Piano Music) and your aunt and cousin Anna McGarrigle and Lily Lanken (Look Into My Eyes). What made you decide to bring in so many other 'voices' this time?
The concept was to reach out to people that I know or am connected to in order for them to write with me or for me. It's something that our family has always done with our annual Christmas shows, so that when we all sing together there is already a connectivity that's there.
So the album is more eclectic by virtue of the other songwriters and I asked these specific people to write songs because I wanted them to be heard in the song – like, if you ask Merrill of Tune-Yards to write a song, you want to hear her genius.
They were kind of like doing duets and they allowed me to sing differently than I would my own songs. It took me out of a cage in a way. Obviously, I love the songs that I wrote on the record too, but the others really allowed me to showcase myself as a singer and an interpreter and to be a little more theatrical and less bogged down by autobiography.
Is it really true you've never co-written before?
Yeah, I was too shy. I have such a strange way of going about music. I'm not very virtuosic (sic) on my instrument because I never practice and so it takes me time to write songs and I try a lot of things. Because my songs in the past have been so autobiographical, it's been very hard for me to think of sitting down with somebody and being like, "yeah OK, let's say I'm... walking in the park" and just kind of making it all up on the spot.
But I did that on this record and it was actually easier than I thought! (laughs). I was like: "Why haven't I done this before? Rather than take two months to write a song I can write a verse in an hour, this is great!"
The feeling I get from this record is of a person being freed up a bit of some of the weightier elements of her youth. It's maybe more forward or exalted or something. I've always liked different kinds of music and I think that I've touched on eclecticism on all my records, but I always felt I couldn't go too far because people want you to be defined a certain way, be it journalists or record companies or fans.
Maybe it's because of my age (she turned 40 last May) or something, but with this one I just didn't care. It's definitely freed me from some of those shackles.
:: Martha Wainwright, Tuesday January 17, Vicar Street, Dublin / Thursday January 19, Redeemer Church, Belfast (sold-out).