- 18 Aug 21
Through her diaristic songwriting, Martha Wainwright has shared her deepest hopes and fears with her audience for more than a decade. Delving into divorce, heartache and renewal, her latest album might be her most wrenching yet. She talks about the dark days and the journey into light which informed it.
There were moments during the past five years when the last thing Martha Wainwright wanted to do was pick up a guitar. Her marriage to producer Brad Albetta had ended in a messy divorce that had then metastasised into an even messier dispute over the custody of their two sons, Arcangelo and Francis. This was not the sort of heartache that translated easily into catchy pop.
“I went through courts and lawyers and the whole nine yards,” says the Canadian songwriter from her home in Montreal. “And I was really marginalised as a singer. You’d have these conservative judges – not every one, but it can happen. And they’d say, ‘so you’re a singer – you work at nighttime? That’s not very conducive to [responsible parenting]’. You can see how these things can go terribly wrong really quick.”
But somehow music did finally come and find her. Her extraordinary new album Love Will Be Reborn is a before-
and-after chronicling of the death of a relationship and a moving follow-up to 2016’s ‘Goodnight City’ (which featured a duet with Glen Hansard). There are songs about the heartache of going on the road and being away from her children (‘Report Card’, ‘Hole In My Heart’). And about finding new love and the healing power of art (the title track, ‘Middle Of The Lake’). It’s a tour de force – a weepie that gets under the skin.
“You don’t expect [these things] to happen when you get married. I didn’t think it would be that bad. I really didn’t,” he says. “It kind of shocked me to the core. A lot of the songs came out of that. I couldn’t write for a while. It was just too icky. I would pick pick up the guitar and cry. It was pointless. But then things would happen and I would write a line and put it down.”
The last time Wainwright was in Ireland was in December 2019. She and her older brother Rufus had brought their Not So Silent Night Christmas celebration to the National Concert Hall. There they were joined by Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien of Villagers, Paul Brady and others.An excellent evening was had (especially by Hannon who got
to sing ‘Last Christmas’). And yet the event has now taken on a poignant hue. Three months later, the world shut down.
Christmas shindigs became a fast disappearing memory. By the middle of 2020, I found myself wondering if I’d even been at the NCH at all, or whether it was just a dream. Rufus now lives in Los Angles, with his husband and their daughter Lorca, (granddaughter of Leonard Cohen). Martha meanwhile is in Canada, putting down roots in the house where her mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle raised her and her sibling. As she reckons with life after divorce there is, she says, a sense of life travelling full circle. Her mother and her father (folkie Loudon Wainwright III) split when she was a child. And now here she is, a single mom. History is going
round and around.
“I’m watching myself make some of the same… well, I don’t want to say “mistakes”. But behaving in a similar way to my mother, for instance. I try to adjust. I’m very concerned about if I’m doing a good job as a parent. If I’m fucking up their kids or if they’re being fucked up by their dad.”
Wainwright has been pouring her life into her music for more than 15 years now. ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’, from her 2005 self-titled debut was about her father and their stormy relationship. And 2008’s I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too chronicled the beginning of her romance with Albetta, with whom she subsequently tied the knot (and has now divorced). If you’re a long-term fan, Hot Press observes, it can feel as if you’ve been peeking over Wainwright’s shoulders as she has suffered through the slings and arrows of everyday life.
“It seems to be a style,” she nods. “I don't play music every day. I don’t see life through the lens of a songwriter. I don’t have ideas as I’m looking at people in a restaurant or walking down the street. I lead my life. I go to the bank and brings my kids to school. And now I run this music venue [Cafe Ursa in downtown Montreal].
“And then, after some weeks or months pass, I become incredibly aggravated. And I realise I haven’t picked up the guitar in a while. What comes out is just a reflection of what’s happened to me. Hopefully in an interesting way. That’s what people can identify with. None of these things that have happened have only happened to me. They’ve happened of many people.”
Along with making a new LP and trying to keep the venue going through lockdown – Ursa is now hosting socially-
distanced gigs – Wainwright has been working on her memoir, Stories I Might Regret Telling You.
She’s agonised over the book – about what to include, what to leave out. Wainwright has no desire to hurt anyone’s feelings or to be be perceived as settling scores. At the same time, who wants to read a sanitised rock’n roll memoir?
“I’m a little worried,” she says. “I’m in the last stages of proofing and editing. I’ve written it and re-written it. Burned it, changed it. At a certain point I’m done. I’ve toned a lot of it down obviously. I’ve tried to think of my kids. At the same time, they’ll probably never read it. Most kids don’t read their
parents’ books, thank God.
“So many pages were let go, so many things I’ve dropped. I’m not writing anything that is life-changing. I don’t have some incredible piece of information to give people. I’m writing about my life. It has to be interesting, funny and revealing. I’ve taken out some of the stories. I can only tell so many about being at Glastonbury and being fucked up. We’ll put a couple in and skip some. This year marks the 15th anniversary of ‘Set the Fire to the Third Bar’, Wainwright’s collaboration with Snow Patrol which made the UK top 20 and the Billboard Top 100.
The track was written with Wainwright explicitly in mind by Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody. He knew what he was doing: it is her singing, salty yet heartfelt, that makes it work Her recollections of recording ‘Set the Fire…’ are still vivid. She and the band met at a studio in Dublin. She was playing at Temple Bar Music Centre that night. They worked on it between soundcheck and performance.
“I remember we were in Whelan's and I brought pints up [to the studio]. I went in and did the song. And then did the show around the corner in Temple Bar. It was a magical moment. It was great to meet those guys and be involved in something I’d never been involved with. And I got be on a song which charted, which has never happened to me before or since. It was made easy by the fact the song was good. That’s the added bonus. You’re not doing this thing where it’s like ‘oh my God this is popular but it’s not my favourite thing’.”
Love Will Be Reborn is released August 20.
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