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Onstage in New West: Martha Wainwright on motherhood, divorce and life in a famous family

Folk artist's Love Will Be Reborn tour is onstage at Massey Theatre Nov. 16
Martha Wainwright
Martha Wainwright is bringing her Love Will Be Reborn tour to New Westminster's Massey Theatre Nov. 16.

“The house is becoming a mess again.”

Her voice is warm and genuine, carrying the tone of cheerful resignation shared by working mothers the world over. With that one light-hearted confession, Martha Wainwright reveals herself to be not so much an internationally recognized singer-songwriter as, well, a human being: a working mom grappling with the day-to-day complications of life as best she can, in a world where very little ever goes as planned.

Wainwright is on the phone from Ursa, her café and music venue in Montreal. Her piano player has just left after rehearsal, and she’s taking some time out to talk about her upcoming West Coast tour before heading out to a show in Quebec City.

The folk artist will be in New Westminster for a show at Massey Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 16.

The Love Will Be Reborn tour is introducing audiences to Wainwright’s latest album, her first in five years.

Produced by Canadian Pierre Marchand, the album gives free rein to Wainwright’s raw and heartfelt vocals – her voice equal parts sweetness and rasp, fluidity with an ever-present edge. Though it didn’t begin as a pandemic album, perhaps it was inevitable that Love Will Be Reborn, recorded in the basement-turned-studio at Ursa, carries echoes of what the world has gone through over the past 20 months.

“It’s really mirrored some of the things we have to face now, as a society. How do we keep going? What is the way out and forward and better?” Wainwright muses. “Life is hard, but it is something you have to get through.”

At its heart, Love Will Be Reborn is a deeply personal work for Wainwright.

It is, she says, her “middle-aged” record: the album that explores the realities of being 45.

“There’s still joy. There’s still laughter and fun and edge,” Wainwright says. “But there’s still the really painful things: emotions to manage; fear; the fact of the end and death and how to go forward; the passage of time … and once again hoping that love and friendship and positive feelings for people wins out.”

'Autobiographical' songs grew out of divorce

As has always been the case for Wainwright, the album is a mirror of her own life.

“My songs are often very autobiographical. My songwriting style is one that is inspired by what I’ve gone through as a human being,” she says.

Most notably, in recent years, was a divorce from her producer husband, Brad Albetta. Though traumatic, she says, even a difficult divorce is something you’ve got to get over – and, for her, that “getting over” process meant songwriting.

“Music, and expressing, and singing, and being able to talk about stuff, is a way to get through it,” she says. “Love will prevail; that is hopefully the main objective.”

She doesn’t shy away from the down sides – like not seeing her two children and how difficult that was, expressed in the poignant track Report Card.

But, ultimately, her focus is on how to navigate a way forward when things don’t go as planned.

“We have so many wants and expectations and the way we want things to go, and often times that doesn’t work out. It’s difficult, or it’s shocking, to not be able to have what you want. But then other things reveal themselves, and you learn how to cling to those things, those positive things,” she says.

Motherhood in an 'unconventional' job

Take the reality of sharing custody of her children (her elder son is ready to start high school next year, her younger now seven) – which is already hard enough.

“Add on to that a sort of an unconventional work schedule, and having to tour and things like that, and it becomes even more complicated,” she admits.

If it’s one of her weeks with the kids and she’s working that week? She tries to bring them along with her, when it makes sense.

“I don’t want to leave them at home with a babysitter, so it’s ‘Come with me; see what I do,’” she says.

She wants them to know, she says, that she’ll always come back. And she wants them to know that the late nights and extended travel are, in fact, her work.

“That’s my job,” she says simply.

Even in the best of times, that job can bring more than its share of complications – like being around for the ordinary “mom” things like parent-teacher conferences and school events.

“It’s hard because you want to, and sometimes you are available to do that, and other times you’re not,” she says. “That kind of inconsistency, it makes it harder to be accepted.”

That struggle isn’t new, Wainwright points out. She sees it as an extension of the history of women in music. Female performers have always been at a disadvantage, she says: There’s fewer of them in the industry, they get paid less generally, and sexism is pervasive.

“It’s also really hard to be a mother and an artist and a singer and a traveller, because people don’t like it,” she says. “They don’t understand it. It’s uncomfortable.”

Wainwright family history follows her

None of that, of course, is new to Wainwright, who grew up as the child of folk music royalty: her dad is American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III; her mom, Canadian folk star Kate McGarrigle.

She lived with her mom growing up, so her dad, she says, was more the “famous parent” to her than the day-to-day parent. He lived apart from them and worked a lot, she says – but, inevitably, he influenced her path in life.

“When I saw him, it was often in the context of music,” she says. “In many ways he was a mentor to me, whether I wanted him to be or not.”

Wainwright sees echoes of her own childhood in the responses of her seven-year-old.

“He really pushes away music, and especially my music. He hates it, doesn’t want to sing. He likes rap music, and he’s kind of really turned away from all of the family stuff,” she says. “But at the same time, every time I play, he sort of creeps up onto the stage.”

It’s not unlike how she was all those years ago.

“All these people around me are doing this thing. Ack” – she sighs, in Martha-as-tweenager style – “Annoying. But I circled around and around until it caught me.”

It also caught her older brother – yes, that would be Rufus Wainwright, and yes, the decades of sibling rivalry continue to spill over into their adult relationship.

“It was definitely a sibling rivalry when we were young,” she says. “Now what there is is a sort of angry, resentful, mutual respect: ‘It’s annoying that you’re good, but I’ll give it to you.’”

As with so much else in life, she can laugh about it, even while sighing about the complications of family and relationships and parenting and just plain life.

“You want to make other people happy and your children’s lives perfect and your house perfect and whatever, but at the same time, you say, ‘The most important thing is that I’m happy, that I’m OK or I’m not going to be able to do any of this. I’m going to burn out. I’m going to crack,’” she says.

Thus the mess that’s building up in her house again as she gears up for a return to her own emerging-from-the-pandemic life on the road.

West Coast tour starts Nov. 11

Wainwright hits the West Coast for a Nov. 11 show in Hollywood and then works her way up the coast via Portland to shows in B.C., then Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

She’s backed by the Toronto-based musicians who also played on the album, Thom Gill, Phil Melanson and Josh Cole, and she’s enthusiastic about the act that’s opening for them, Toronto indie-pop band Bernice.

“It’s going to be amazing,” she says with an infectious laugh. “It’s a really fun show.”

The music will cover “some lows and some highs,” she says. But, ultimately, there’s a vibe of hope.

“There’s a lift-off,” she promises.

Rather, in the end, like life.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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