Published Nov 18, 2016Martha Wainwright's new album, Goodnight City (out now on Cadence) is "a farewell to youth and the anxieties and the angst of youth." Her last solo album, 2012's Come Home To Mama, was partially a response to the death of her mother, Kate McGarrigle, in 2010, which happened immediately after Wainwright herself became a mother.
In the interceding years, Wainwright had a second child and made a record of creepy lullabies with her half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche (2015's Songs In the Dark). So at 40, Wainwright is deep in the "domestic life," as she calls it; a place of strength and kindness and less-self-absorption, but not always especially conducive to songwriting.
"I knew I needed to make a record, and I didn't quite have enough songs — probably because I was more distracted from being a songwriter from being a mother," she tells Exclaim! "I spoke to [pianist and co-producer] Thomas Bartlett (Sufjan Stevens, Glen Hansard, The National) and he had this idea of asking other songwriters that we know to write songs for me or with me in mind as a way to fill out an album.
"For me it was a great release," Wainwright adds. "I wrote six or seven songs for this record but it was wonderful to not have the pressure of writing all 12 or 13."
It was also an opportunity for Wainwright — an incredibly versatile, theatrical, and sometimes edgy singer — to flex out in various directions and stylistically meet her writers and co-writers halfway. She says she made changes to all the songs, except her brother Rufus Wainwright's song about her younger son, Francis. "It was basically me sounding like Rufus, which is really fun," she says. Other contributors include Wainwright's cousin, Lily Lanken and aunt, Anna McGarrigle; poetry/lyrics by Michael Ondaatje paired with music by Bartlett; Beth Orton, Glen Hansard and Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus.
"I get to play bit more, I get to be a little bit more theatrical, I get to be a little more open," Wainwright says. "Less constrained by my own life and my own eccentricities. In many ways it's the way I've always wanted to make music." Wainwright explains that her taste has always been eclectic, but early on she felt pressured to stay more in a box or a genre.
"I would sort of touch on these interests of mine: a little jazzy here, a little rocky there, but I was never able to fully go for it as much as I've let myself do on this record. Even my own songs — I find my own songs are much more open and they're definitely less navel-gazing."
Wainwright views Goodnight City as being more hopeful, joyful and lighter than her previous records (though it has it's blue moments) and admits this probably has to do with parenthood and aging. Her sons, Arcangelo and Francis Valentine, and her husband, bassist and co-producer Brad Albetta, permeate the album: there are three songs that are specifically about the kids, and many of the other songs mention them.
"It's kind of a great relief," Wainwright says. "You have to be stronger for your kids. You have to get out of the bed in the morning and make breakfast and be available to them emotionally cause they need you to be. You can't really fall apart, or, you can, but you have to hide that as best as you can to protect them."
"Around The Bend," one of the best songs on the album, and one of the ones that Wainwright wrote, is partly autobiographical, partly fictional, and may just be about consciously choosing to leave the dark times behind.
"I've had a lot of great opportunities and a lot has been handed to me in my life. I'm a very privileged person but I've always struggled a lot," Wainwright admits. "There was something uncomfortable with everything in the past for me; I've been pained, I've been insecure, I've felt that somehow I didn't succeed or [something] was not quite right.
"I've always had that weight on me, I don't know why exactly, but I feel that with this [record] that sort of changed a bit. Maybe I'm one of those people — I'm hoping that I'm one of those people — that the second half of my life is going to be better than the first."
Martha Wainwright will be performing in Toronto, ON on November 23 and Stratford, ON on November 24.