We speak to the singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright about her new album, Come Home to Mama, which is largely a reflection on her family's loss following the death of her mother.
Martha Wainwright on a new era of music making
Your husband Brad Albetta has usually overseen your records, but Come Home to Mama was produced by the Japanese multi-instrumentalist Yuka Honda. Why change?
It was Brad's idea, actually. After making records together, having a child together and losing my mother together, I don't think we were ready to do anything else together without killing each other. Also, some of these songs have references to our marriage that are difficult, and I felt this record needed the feminine touch.
How was it working with Yuka?
It was perfect. I needed to be taken care of and nurtured and she truly did this. Every day it was [quietly and warmly]: "Don't worry - I'll handle it. Can I make you lunch? You look beautiful and you sing so well today." I mean, my husband looks after me very well, but there are always some tears before bedtime.
The album was recorded at Sean Lennon's home studio in New York. What was it like?
There might be some Beatles amps or something, but it's actually just the parlour floor of his living room. It's like an art factory there; you go in and someone's painting or learning to play the bouzouki. The other thing I noticed is that everybody there is quite nocturnal. They don't get up until 1 or 2pm.
Your father and brother both released albums earlier this year. Do the three of you compare notes?
Dad tends to come up with the best lyrics anyway, so what are you going to do? I don't want to feel overwhelmed by his and Rufus's stuff, so I just try to scheme quietly in a corner.
Your new song All Your Clothes takes the form of an imagined conversation with your late mother.
It took about five months after Kate died before I could express myself without falling apart and that was the first song I wrote when I picked up the guitar again. The title felt like the right metaphor … your loved one's clothes still have their hair on them, their smell, their shape. Kate, Rufus and I were the same size, and often she would wear our clothes as a way of keeping us with her. It was so sweet that she wanted to put herself into them.
That song also mentions Dr John playing piano through your mother's fingers.
Well, my mum played great stride and she was really proud that there there was a bit of New Orleans in there. One day I was sitting in the kitchen and Dr John came on the radio. I saw Kate's hands and she came right through him to me. It felt like a gift.
Elsewhere, you cover your mother's song Proserpina, which takes its name from the Roman deity of life, death and rebirth. It was also the last song your mother ever wrote.
Right. To me, that's the most important song on the record, because it's Kate's last artistic gift to Rufus and me, and to the world. My mother believed in God, but she also believed in Mother Earth and she's singing "Come home to mama" as she's nearing her own death. If you go on YouTube, you can hear her sing it at the Royal Albert Hall, where she was laid out on a couch prior to going on stage and afterwards practically wheeled out on a gurney. But for the 90 minutes of the concert, and that song in particular, she drummed up every ounce of energy she had left.
Your mother passed away from cancer in January 2010, just two months after your son Arcangelo was born prematurely. How did you cope?
Basically, I was forced into adulthood and responsibility. I was nurturing Arc and mourning Kate, but there was no option to crawl into bed and drink my way through this. At night I would sometimes excuse myself and go upstairs to fall apart and scream, but then I'd pull myself together because I didn't want to be crying in front of the baby.
Has your mother's passing changed your relationship with Rufus?
Completely. All that competitive resentment and dubiousness has gone. We need each other more than ever and we've each taken on the role that our mother used to fulfil for us. He gives me career advice and when he visits, I do his laundry and cook his dinner.