Martha Wainwright’s Fine Balance

The following article was first published by Monday Magazine and can be found here.

Martha Wainwright is a study in graceful balance. For the past 15 years, the singer-songwriter has crafted a body of work so achingly transparent and confessional that we often feel as though we’re thumbing through the pages of her tear-stained diary. But Wainwright’s own music comprises only half her story as she often lays her own songs aside to pay homage to older musical traditions.

Born in Montreal, Wainwright — who is playing St. Ann’s Academy on Sun., March 10 — played an integral role in 2005’s Leonard Cohen tribute concert and film, “I’m Your Man” with her show-stopping renditions of “The Traitor” and “Tower of Song”. In 2009, now based in New York, Wainwright recorded an album comprised entirely of the Edith Piaf songs that most captivated her as a child. Since then, Wainwright has been working hard to preserve the legacy of her biggest influence in both life and music — her mother, folk legend Kate McGarrigle.

“It’s been three years now since my mother died. My brother, Rufus, and I have been putting a lot of energy into keeping her legacy alive with tribute shows, Christmas concerts, albums and a film. All of this has been incredibly important as we want to keep her legacy alive, but in some ways also I feel like it’s time now to close the book and find a way to move forward into a different reality.”

Wainwright’s most recent release, “Come Home to Momma”, perfectly captures her moment of transition. The album at once looks forward and back. While mostly comprised of Wainwright’s material, the album’s title comes from its fourth track, “Proserpina”, which was the last song McGarrigle wrote. As Wainwright explains, the song eventually became the cornerstone for the rest of the album.

“I recorded “Proserpina” very soon after my mother died and put it aside for another day. I wanted to connect with her in some way as a lot of my own songs on this album are about her dying and rebirth. The story of Persephone, which is what “Proserpina” is about, became the most concise and beautiful way of saying the things I try to say in a more humanistic and faulted way. My own songwriting is more frantic, so “Proserpina” became the album’s beacon.”

Wainwright’s frantic form of songwriting proved a useful outlet for her intense emotions in the wake of her mother’s passing. A new mother at the time of her own mother’s passing, Wainwright took refuge in songwriting as she came to terms with her loss.

“I was dealing with a new reality: everything had changed very quickly. A lot of the sadness and anger and frustration came out as I wrote. With an infant, you don’t want to be crying all the time. You can’t crawl into bed and into a depression. You need to be really strong for your infant: it’s part of your responsibility as a mother. But when I went into a little room with a guitar and started to write songs again, I feel like that was a place where a lot of the more raw, disturbed aggression came out. The extremes are the things that inspire songs.”

St. Ann’s Academy’s intimate stage will provide a perfect venue for Wainwright’s newfound musical synthesis. The stage will provide an occasion for songwriting traditions, old and new, to meet and if “Come Home to Momma” is any indication, two seemingly disparate traditions shall indeed dance when brought together by the incomparable songstress.

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