The past three years have been fraught with incident for Martha Wainwright. In November 2009, she gave birth to a son, Archangelo, after a life-threatening labour. Shortly after, her mother, the revered folk singer Kate McGarrigle passed away. These events are felt intimately on new album, Come Home to Mama.
With grief and joy in rapid succession forming a backdrop to the record's conception, Come Home To Mama is understandably arresting in its emotional intensity. First single, the stunning 'Proserpina', is particularly loaded; it was the last song written by McGarrigle before she died. Midway through Wainwright's dramatic interpretation, a choir takes centre stage to declare: 'Proserpina, Proserpina, go home to your mother, go home to Hera...', at which point a quiet wail escapes from Wainwright. It's joyous, and devastating.
As an instrument, Wainwright's voice is incredibly varied, moving from whispering introspection to powerfully sonorous. On the prominence of 'Proserpina' itself, Wainwright explains: "I didn't know it would feature on the record until half-way through but it became obvious when I listened to it that it would be very much a centrepiece and cornerstone of the record. Concepts of death and rebirth are executed in a very concise and simple way and my mother wrote it half-way between here and her own death so it is written from the perspective of a woman one foot in to where she is going – to become a goddess she always intended to be."
Whilst so much of the record is forthright, Wainwright also excels at subtext. Come Home to Mama is full of imagined conversations with her mother ('All Your Clothes') and sardonic sexual revelation ('Can You Believe It'). After a seven year hiatus, how did Wainwright approach her return to music? "Well, it's a record that I've been chomping at the bit to make for a long time. I wanted to return with another album, spent time writing and refining the songs so that they were good enough to be on the album. And I've been working with a new producer, Yuka Honda who I have known and admired for a long time. I wanted to work with a female producer to bring something musically to the production that I might not think of. Yuka brought an artistic soundscape to it."
Honda certainly brings fresh perspective to the songs, but this is very much a Wainwright sound still. Despite frequently focusing on loss, Come Home to Mama is not a record consumed by sadness.
Truly joyful moments are there to be discovered.
Despite well documented past fallouts with her family, it is evident how deep family bonds run and how central they remain to her music. Martha elaborates on the importance of family in forging her own musical identity: "In many ways it made it easier because individualism and creativity were encouraged and I had a lot of time to practice. That being said, the way I write music is in part trying to get attention because everyone was singing all of the time! I guess I was trying to carve out my own corner in the stage of life."
Wainwright feels most powerful in this record in moments of restraint, which is a somewhat marked departure from her oscillation in previous records between provocation and melodic embellishment. Family frisson may be a standard source of inspiration but Wainwright has earned the right to claim it. "Becoming a mother and then losing my mother I have taken on a lot of her traits" she says, in a languid voice. "A style developed that was certainly influenced by my parents, which connects with people and is open and honest."
Wainwright began her musical career as a backing singer to brother, Rufus in her early twenties and initially, was too intimidated by his achievements to go it alone. Although Martha was recording independently at twenty one with Ground Floor , she finally achieved acclaim in 2005 with her eponymous debut. Martha explains how her identity has evolved since then: "Early on, when my role was of a sister, of coming up from behind, people probably did and still do identify me as part of a folk family. However, over time my identity has become larger by virtue of making more records. That's the story of changing but that's a role I have always being comfortable in. At first I was worried of being 'daughter of, sister of', but I've really stuck with it, never fought it, so there must be something right about it."
Come Home to Mama feels like a shedding of former skin as Wainwright lays bare her heart and soul: in the record and supporting artwork. Martha gazes defiantly from her album cover at the viewer, naked and possesses such a strong sense of self that it is hard to imagine her in a sexualised, compromised position. On the subject of sexuality, Martha says: "Well I put myself naked on my cover but I don't consider it a sexualisation but rather a nudity. It's hard to be naked and people are going to see some things and talk about it, but that feels good. It is a natural state and reflects my song writing. I haven't been created, or marketed or methodically arranged. Perhaps if I had been, I would be further ahead by now but I came into this business with a fully formed sound that was not going to change. It has taken me a long time to get where I am and I don't know if that would have been the case if I were a guy."
This record, much like Wainwright's back catalogue is not a wholly commercial affair. However, it is because of her unwavering refusal to alter the musical persona she came in to the industry with that has won her such ardent admiration. Wainwright recently used fan-generated site, PledgeMusic to secure funding for her US tour, bringing her fan base right into the mix. Martha elaborates on why PledgeMusic was necessary: "I wish I was in a position not to ask for money from fans and I was embarrassed at first, but I know there is an attraction to cutting out the middle man. Hopefully, people will feel that what I'm offering for their donation is fair. It's going to enable me to get back on the road to places I might not be able to otherwise; particularly, in the US where I don't have such a huge following."
The process of becoming and then losing a mother is woven into the fabric of Come Home to Mama. Martha explains how this has impacted on her desires for the future: "My motivations have changed now that I have a child and the responsibility of a small family. I just want to be able to take Arc with me as much as possible so there is no room for failure. It is a new beginning and I am a much different person now than when I started out. I have become an adult, which I never wanted to be! But I am hoping people are still interested in listening to women in their thirties who have something real to say."
Come Home To Mama by Martha Wainwright is out now.