Martha Wainwright does not suffer fools gladly. Just ask anyone about whom she's ever written a song. (I'm looking at you, "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole.") She started her fifteen-year recording career being best known as the sister of Rufus Wainwright and daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. She has been a player in their family performance act, an indie-folk singer-songwriter star, a self-proclaimed "angry young woman," an actress, an interpreter of Edith Piaf, and a person who is always outspoken about who she is both in song and in conversation.
But with age sometimes comes wisdom, and a new sort of outlook. Wainwright has found domestic bliss in her childhood home in Montreal, left to her by her mother after she passed away following a battle with cancer. She lives there with her husband, who is also her producer, and their two young sons.
Wainwright talked to me about writing Goodnight City, her sixth record — or not writing it, and allowing the talents of others to come in and speak through her interpretations — and how motherhood has impacted her artistry, but in a way she hopes those without kids will find appealing.
Courtney E. Smith: There's not really a theme on this album. It's made up of very different songs. Several of them are about mothers, fathers, and children, though—what caused that theme to emerge?
Martha Wainwright: It's about having children myself; I have two small children. The songs are about them. "Window" is about my eldest son, and the songs "Franci" and "Francis," which my brother [Rufus] wrote, are about my youngest son. There are definitely children mentioned on the record, but not in the way you might expect children to be mentioned. I find the songs sound more like love songs, while "Window" is more frightening and about trying to protect someone from the world. Obviously, they've become a new theme for me as a songwriter. They probably replaced, in many ways, other things from the past, like men, loneliness, and insecurity.
CES: When I listened to "Before the Children Came Along," I found myself wondering if it was about you and your husband or about your parents before you were born. Did that point of view play into it?
MW: It's about me. I have a strong tendency to write songs about myself and my life, which continues on this record with the six songs I wrote. The other songs were written by other artists for me, and they're songs I feel are reflective of my life in some way, and that's why I chose them. "Before the Children Came Along" is about my husband and me — it's directly about trying to conceive a child in Australia, which is why the first line is "We made love in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth before the dawn." It's very specific to that experience. What happens in my songwriting is that there is usually an element, or several elements, that are true, and then I allow myself to get a little more poetic or reach out into the world of make-believe to blur the edges so it's not a pointlessly revealing exercise.
CES: Did you feel any hesitancy since you've had kids to be as vulnerable and confessional in songwriting as you have been? Were you worried about what they would think?
MW: I think I've become much more careful. I've gotten bitten in the ass by that in the past, in a totally OK way. It was really important for me to say what I wanted to say. Some of my fans really appreciate that honesty and that someone is talking about issues openly. I think that's an important role to play as a songwriter — we write songs about ourselves, but really they're for other people to identify with and feel like the artist or songwriter is expressing big ideas in a way they understand and feel themselves. But I think my songwriting has changed. Maybe because I've had children, but also maybe because I'm slightly more confident than I was as a young person. My first record was an "angry young woman" record, about someone who was quite insecure in many ways and quite pissed off about unrequited love and rejection. That was a reflection of me at the time. It came out when I was 28. I feel like it was a good story of a young woman around that age, but now, just over ten years later, this is another chapter. I know that's tacky to say, but it is. I just turned 40 and have two young children, and this record reflects more a woman in that time in her life. It sounds like I'm going through menopause [laughs]. That will happen in five or ten years, and that's another record!
Things have changed, though. I care more about what my children think than I care what other people think about my songs. Having written songs about men or about my dad or my family that could have hurt some feelings, I'm willing to do that, and I think it's totally fine. Our job as parents is to screw our kids up to some extent, but I have to be careful because I don't really want to hurt them. But I also know that as a kid there were songs written about me and I loved it, especially the ones that were nice. It would be weird for me to not write songs about my kids. I feel like I have to talk about it. I'm just trying to do it in a way that's interesting to the listener. I'm hopeful that people will get it who have kids, but that people who don't have kids will too and won't be annoyed. But I've never pleased everyone, that's for sure, and I don't think I can start now.
CES: How did you feel about collaborating on writing songs?
MW: What happened is that Thomas Bartlett, who is the co-producer on this record along with my husband, Brad Albeta, came to me a few years ago and said he'd like to make a record of me singing songs written for me by other people. He said he wanted to do it to match my great voice with songs by people who are more commercially successful so we could have some commercially successful songs [laughs]. The concept was really good on paper, but then I started writing my own songs. I'd taken a break for a year or two because I'd been pregnant. I started writing some really good songs. I had some that I felt really strongly about. We were getting a bunch of stuff back from our requests to artists to write songs that reflected me in some way, but not all of it was great. We realized that maybe if you are writing songs and you write a really great one, you might want Rihanna or Beyoncé to sing it. Or you might want to sing it yourself!
I had to pick other songs that I felt could reflect me, but I changed them in some way — I'd rewrite them a little, or change the chords, or change the lyrics — to fuse these two things together. So it really is a record of the sort I make every four years, I put my all into it, but I was able to take the best of what different artists could offer me. I used them to the best of my capability and took the pressure off of myself. I could come up with half the record and fill it out with the tracks offered to me by all these great people.
The exercise of asking other songwriters who are so talented and particular in their songwriting to let me interpret their songs, songs that were written for me, does open up the door to other types of listeners who might find raw Martha Wainwright to be a little too much [laughs]. I think it was also a relief for me to not have to write twelve songs that were great in the midst of bringing up kids and working on a book — which has been scary! This was a way for me to put out a Martha Wainwright record and allow other people with talent to help me.
CES: You have several different voices, sounding Kate Bush–esque in "Around the Bend" and Tom Waits–esque in "So Down." It's like your vocal interpretations are all over the place on this project — why?
MW: That definitely happens, because I didn't want to lose the spirit of the writer. To stick a more-typical-of-me vocal on top of it wouldn't have worked as well, and this way it was more theatrical. I've always had eclectic taste in music and touched on all of these styles in my earlier records. People would discourage me from doing it, telling me it wasn't easily marketed without a specific vibe — I was told not to get too jazzy, too poppy, too country, because it confuses people. I always wanted to push out a little bit, but I never could do it thoroughly. Now that I'm older, I don't really care what people think. I've talked enough about myself over the last fifteen years of record-making that I feel like now I can push my wings out more, with the help of these songwriters. Their words, most of the time, allow me to be more expressive in my voice and go for it. Also my voice has changed over the years, so I have more control over it now and can do more with it.
Certain songs I wrote, like "So Down," I wrote that and I play the guitar on it. I've always loved Sonic Youth and I wanted to do a song that was more in that vein. I know how to do this stuff, I just haven't always allowed myself to do it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Courtney E. Smith is the author of Record Collecting for Girls and a freelance writer.