One way or another, family and its tangled relationships have been a running theme in the work of Martha Wainwright.
As the daughter of acclaimed folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and younger sister of Rufus Wainwright, with whom she started off as a backing singer, it was no surprise that she too entered the musical trade in her own right.
But her recently-released fourth solo album, Goodnight City, has seen Martha take a change of tack.
Back with her regular producers Brad Albetta (who is also her husband) and Thomas Bartlett after an album’s break, she has opened up to working with other songwriters on her own project for the first time.
Speaking to The Guide from her home in Montreal, Canada, Martha explains how the new album came about.
‘I’m normally on my own on my own records, I would write all the songs, so this was a different thing.
‘It was a mix of two ideas, because I have had another child and I was busy with domestic life and all the rest of it, I was worried about not being able to make a record, because it takes a lot of time to come up with 12, 13, 14 good new songs.
‘Thomas had the idea of asking these artists to write songs for me. He wanted to do a whole album of that.
‘We were talking about that a couple of years ago – it was going to be a whole album of these great songwriters writing songs for me to sing.
‘As we were asking people I started to write my own songs as well, and there were some that I felt really strongly about that I really loved, and wanted to be on my next record, so it was kind of a combo in the end, where we took six or seven of my songs and picked from the other artists’ songs they had contributed – the songs that made the most sense for me to sing, the songs that were somewhat reflective of me, so the record has a “Martha Wainwright” feeling.’
It’s a record sung by a woman who is a mother – it’s not a children’s album by any stretch of the imagination and it’s not obviously about motherhood, but it does reflect a woman who just turned 40Martha Wainwright
Among the contributors are Glen Hansard (who won an Oscar for the song Falling Slowly), singer-songwriter Beth Orton, Rufus Wainwright, poet Michael Ondaatje and Merrill Garbus of tune-yArDs.
So did Martha want or need to change much of the contributed songs?
‘It depended on the song. I wanted them to still reflect the artist who contributed the song, so for Take The Reins, I wanted it to sound like me and Merrill were having a duet. That’s why we asked tune-yArDs to do a song, because we wanted to hear her.
‘And on Rufus’s song, you really hear him. I didn’t change it a lot, some I changed the chorus, or added a bridge, but really I didn’t want to do too much, they came to me mostly finished.
‘I wanted to find my way into them but also keep the essence of the artist who had written them.’
Did she know Rufus had written a song about her youngest son, Francis?
‘I didn’t. At the time I was writing my own song about him. When I found out, I was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to coexist on the same record, even though I love them both. But I really like how they bookend the whole thing and they work nicely like that as a beginning and an end, so I’m glad that worked and we didn’t have to forego one as they’re both so different.’
Her last album, 2012’s Come Home To Mama, was written in response to her mother’s death and also becoming a mother herself. For it, she worked with Yuka Honda of cult alt-pop act Cibo Matto, who gave things a more electronic sound.
‘I really enjoyed working with Yuka. I think after my mother died I wanted to work with a woman, and there was something about the way she handled me as an artist and took care of me and nurtured me, that I was really craving. I really put a lot in to her hands, she really took on a lot. And then on this record I returned to working with Brad and Thomas which requires a little bit more from me.
‘I think it was necessary for me to move away from making a record with Brad in order to be able to go back to it.;
Is there any kind of theme to this album?
‘There is – it’s not so obvious, but it’s there – it’s children. There’s two songs about Francis, there’s one song, Window, written about (eldest son) Arcangelo, and references in most of the songs.
‘It’s a record sung by a woman who is a mother – it’s not a children’s album by any stretch of the imagination and it’s not obviously about motherhood, but it does reflect a woman who just turned 40, so I’m at a stage in my life - it’s kind of a farewell to youth, and a new chapter, a new beginning of a more adult type of existence that I think in many ways is going to be easier for me in many ways than my youth.’
She gives a little laugh.
‘Well, I’m hoping it will be.’
Ah yes – how was turning 40 last year for her?
‘It was a big birthday and I certainly celebrated it in a big way, yes I do feel kind of partially relieved, obviously a little afraid too.
‘So much of the past for me has been a lot about the struggle. On my first records too, you hear a lot of that struggle and aggression and anger, which I think was reflective of me at the time, and a lot of young people. But I’m hoping that on this new record I’m hearing a bit more of an outward gaze, less of an internalising of everything.
‘And obviously my job, is to primarily to protect and take care of my kids, and I want to do that, have to do that by keeping working - my main responsibility is to them, and that means I don’t quit, I have to keep going. But it’s in a slightly different way.
‘I think the conflict now will be to how to juggle both - how to be an artist and how to be a mother.’
Immediately before Goodnight City Martha had worked with her half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche on Songs in The Dark, an album of lullabies their respective mothers would sing to them as children, which they released as The Wainwright Sisters. What was that like to do?
‘It was such a great experience making the rocrd and also touring it because it’s such a relief to be on stage with somebody else.
I’ve always done everything sort of on my own – sometimes I travel with the band – but I’m really fundamentally I’m up there on my own in many ways, and just to be there and lean on her, she’s very funny and she’s very comfortable on stage. We had a great time on stage, and we could share the same hotel room, you know, you just weren’t alone, and it was great for both of us.
‘I hope we can do more, but if there’s another record, or it would be more touring the lullabies, I’m not sure what it would look like but it was very positive for both of us.’
And Lucy’s not the only family member she’s thinking of working with. A project with Rufus could be in the pipeline.
‘I think Rufus and I are looking at doing something together – we’re kind of circling that at the moment. Whether it would be a record of each others songs, or a record of our mother’s songs, or what it would look like, I think that people want that, and we want to do that.
‘I think it would be something really special.
‘I was his back-up singer for his first two records, and I sing a lot on those first two albums, but then we went our separate ways and I was focused on defining myself outside of the context of my family.
‘Now I’m much more confortable with who I am and I’m ready to go back and collaborate with my family members and use them for their name and their talent – and how they can help me!’ she laughs.
Martha Wainwright is at Komedia in Brighton on Monday, January 23. Doors 7.30pm. Tickets £22. Go to komedia.co.uk