Published Nov 16, 2015It's a bit of a surprise that Songs in the Dark is the Wainwright Sisters' first collaboration. After all, both Martha Wainwright and her half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche have written and performed with assorted family members, and are the decedents of two of folk music's best-known sister acts: Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and the Roches. But the two didn't have much of a chance to play music together growing up with their respective mothers in Montreal and New York City. When Martha got the idea to make an album of the lullabies she had played and sung for her young sons, the pair found that they fit together easily.
"It was like, 'You take this verse, I'll take that verse, then I'll go to the harmony…' and the kids were running around the whole time," Martha Wainwright tells Exclaim! "We'd practice for an hour, and go make dinner."
These lullabies aren't always soothing, though. Death, disappointment and abandonment are common themes throughout the album. From the ominous murder ballad "Long Lankin" to Richard Thompson's bleak "End of the Rainbow," these songs may have soothing melodies, but the lyrics tell another story. Even the deceptively bouncy "Baby Rockin' Medley" is an opportunity to dance a baby to sleep while singing about giving the little screamer away.
Wainwright is aware of these contradictions, and how older lullabies are frequently morbid. "Death was a much larger part of children's lives hundreds of years ago," she explains. "More people in their families died, they had to go to funerals and wakes, dolls were made with their own coffins. I don't think these songs were trying to scare children, but just explain some of the difficulties they were going to face. And kids love to talk about death; I don't know why."
There's also the fact that the singer of these songs might well be at the end of her rope. "Often, a mother has had a really rough day, and had a lot on her chest. And who is the one person who will listen to her, and not talk back to her? The nursing baby. So she'll talk about how her man's gone away, maybe, or how there isn't any money.
"Sometimes it's hard, you get sad at night, and you're allowed to have this exchange with your children. They're allowed to see you at that low moment."
The tenderest songs on the album are songs about the Wainwright Sisters themselves. "Lullaby for a Doll," a document of Martha's toddler games, was written by her mother Kate, while "Screaming Issue" is an unusually earnest ode to the then two-week-old Lucy, by the Wainwright's father, Loudon Wainwright III. But those songs are the anomalies.
"Obviously, it's not a straight-up children's album," Wainwright admits, "But by the time we do 'End of the Rainbow,' it's way down at track 12. You're not going to turn up the volume at that time of night."
Songs in the Dark is out now on MapleMusic, and the Wainwright Sisters play Montreal's Phi Centre on December 1.