October 5, 2012
In the New York wine bar where she’s performing her set, Martha Wainwright introduces, in her driest tones, her song Radio Star by saying: “It’s obviously not about me.” We return to her lack of fame the next day when we meet at the homey, hippyish brownstone in Brooklyn where she lives with her husband, the musician Brad Albetta, and their almost three-year-old son Arcangelo. Wainwright’s brother Rufus amasses headlines and passionate fans; Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer in 2010, and father Loudon are firmly placed in the folk-rock pantheon.
Wainwright sings impressively — she can do folk-rock, romantic ballads, even a melodiously meticulous take on Édith Piaf — but she hasn’t, as a friend says as we listen to her, “made it like Rufus”.
The witty, slightly ethereal Wainwright is feeling tender — “Too much wine, I might indeed be a wine bottle” — after the gig. I suddenly notice a springy crop of hair under her arm. “Sometimes I shave, sometimes I don’t. It’s not a statement,” she laughs, “but I don’t keep myself clean-shaven, especially after marriage. And,” she adds with the same laconic tone she uses on stage , “unlike some women who want their bodies to look like when they were 11, I don’t need to see my vagina either.”
I expect to hear a musical version of that argument soon.
Meanwhile, there is much life on display in her living room in the many pictures of the Wainwright family, including Rufus with his daughter Viva, whom he had with Lorca Cohen, Leonard’s daughter. The Wainwrights keep it in the family: they sing songs (not always nice ones) about one another: McGarrigle wrote Go Leave after Loudon left her for another woman; Rufus Dinner at Eight about a tense dinner with Loudon (“I’m gonna break you down/ And see what you’re worth”). Wainwright once wrote one about Loudon called Bloody Mother F***ing Asshole. “It upset him, but it’s one of my best,” she says. Today, though, she emphasises how “wonderful” he is as a grandfather.
Wainwright’s third studio album, Come Home to Mama, while not dedicated to McGarrigle, is about “loss, anger, death and ageing in general” and includes the last song McGarrigle wrote, Proserpina, based on the myth of Persephone. About a mother wanting her daughter to come home, it has an extra emotional edge because Wainwright made it home to Montreal to see her mother just before McGarrigle died.
Now 36, Wainwright “never thought about death”, but the birth of Arcangelo and McGarrigle’s death made her aware “that everything speeds up. That and being a woman in the music industry,” she adds, where there’s “so much ageism”. Her style of music innoculates her against the madder beauty-related demands on female celebrities: “It’s about rawness and exposure, wearing my heart on my sleeve, confessional, ugly. I’m really self-obsessed. My work has allowed me to be so self-involved and navel-gazing it gets exhausting.” Motherhood has been a “really great experience”, forcing her to “care about someone else more than yourself”.
And her lesser fame, compared to Rufus? “He worked a lot harder to be where he is than I did. He deserves every lick of success. He’s also visually striking. I wish I was better known, but it’s sort of my fault because I do things that don’t sound commercial. I don’t behave in a manner that will necessarily be sellable. It’s fine to be on the B-list, a perfectly nice place to be. I have a lot of freedom.”
Wainwright takes “a lot of cues” from Rufus: “I wasn’t a good singer in many ways; he taught me.” But he wrote a song, Martha, about you not being in touch with him enough. “Such a beautiful song,” Wainwright says . “I am a bit of a bad sister. Rufus is really good at being available. I pushed people away. I pushed my mother away, which is my biggest regret.”
They didn’t have a “bad relationship”, Wainwright clarifies. McGarrigle would offer advice about singing and her daughter wouldn’t listen. She wishes she had followed her mother’s advice and finished university (“studied Greek mythology or liberal arts”), but she moved to New York to become a musician. “Everyone around me was a singer,”Wainwright says. “I wanted to be a singer, but the only one. I tried to separate myself from family members and everyone else. I was mean to my mother as only children can be. She’d call me and I wouldn’t pick up. I didn’t want her to tell me what to do, but when I didn’t know what to do she was the only one who could tell me and now that’s gone.”
The shock of immediate, “sheer, grotesque” grief now passed, Wainwright is adjusting to being a “motherless mother”. She shows me a picture of a very ill McGarrigle holding Arcangelo, who was born two and a half months prematurely, in London.
“You feel a failure when you have a premature child because you’re not giving him a good start,” she says. “I had to be positive. I said to Brad: ‘We need to get behind this, bring this baby into a place of joy and light.’ My mother was dying and my baby was sick but I could not fall apart. That was not an option.”
McGarrigle died two months after Arcangelo’s birth, “so she wouldn’t have met him had he not been born early. Look, they’re both hooked up to tubes.” Wainwright begins to cry, talking about how happy McGarrigle was to hold her grandson. “I’m fine, I cry a lot,” she says.
She last saw her mother — surrounded by family, friends and music—at the family home in Montreal, but had to fly back immediately to Arcangelo in London. McGarrigle died while her daughter was in the air.
Wainwright intends to move back to Montreal, to ensure her son has a French-language education and because “I need to find a way to reconcile Kate’s death, just sit in her house and think on it. I want to be with my family.”
Marriage to Albetta has been “the smartest thing I have ever done”. They met at a party in 2002 and married in 2007: “He was very beautiful. I chased him and told him I loved him before it was consummated [Albetta was in another relationship at the time]. Before Brad it was all about me, falling in love very hard. Now there’s an ‘us’. Brad is the love of my life; everything else has fallen by the wayside.”
Albetta helped Wainwright to produce her debut album in 2005 and they have have been playing together. “It was nice having Brad behind me playing bass. He’s been on the road with Rufus the past few months.”
Both their parents divorced, hers when she was 3: “He told me if we married it couldn’t fail.” Arcangelo is very “charismatic and odd, mischievous and sassy” and Wainwright would like more children, “although it’s more dangerous for me because of having a premature child”.
After her mother’s death Wainwright felt “death’s presence as strong as life and, because cancer is genetic, it makes me worry about my own potential time on this earth. So I’m speeding up”. Radio stations, get ready.