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!