The singer-songwriter pens an achingly vulnerable meditation on middle age.
Photo by Gaëlle Leroyer
by Yasmine Shemesh
Martha Wainwright is sitting on the balcony at Ursa, the cafe-event space she owns in Montréal’s Mile End. The singer-songwriter is having her makeup done for a photoshoot with sweet background chatter of children, car horn beeps, and sporadic crackles of wind. With the ongoing pandemic limiting live shows this summer, Wainwright has been hosting day camps for kids at the venue. Today, campers are participating in a workshop on safety and navigating topics like what to do when confronted by strangers in the park.
Wainwright opened Ursa in the spring of 2019, both to root at home with her two young boys, Arcangelo and Francis, and combine her love for cooking and music. It was inspired by venues she visited in Europe that operate as an inclusive community space, a place where art coexists and isn’t compartmentalized. The concept was something that long simmered in the back of Wainwright’s mind, as the pairing of food and music has always been such an integral part of her upbringing. She is, of course, sister of fellow musicianRufus Wainwright, and daughter to folk icons Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle—half of the sister duo, Kate & Anna McGarrigle.
“When my aunt would come and practice at home with my mom, it was generally done in the kitchen and there was always something bubbling on the stove, you know, dinner for that evening,” Wainwright recalls. Kate often made moussaka and the Greek dish is one that now Wainwright herself loves to cook. She likes to prepare its different stages (eggplant, wine-drenched lamb sauce, noodles, béchamel) while listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast live from New York and sipping a glass of red. Like the meal, it’s a layered, delicious process.
Ursa is also where Wainwright started work on her new album, Love Will Be Reborn. Its coziness was the perfect setting for unravelling the layers of the past few years—a painful divorce from producer Brad Albetta; the surprising discovery of new love; an intricate journey towards finding joy again—and channeling it into her songwriting. Wainwright closed the venue to the public for about a week and invited three Toronto musicians she toured with for her last record, 2016’s folk-rock opus, Goodnight City, to hunker down with her. They’d barbecue outside, crack a beer in the afternoon, and take over the entire space. “I think what it allowed with the music was to have this kind of living room setting,” she says. “We could get to a really honest way of performing the songs and a real togetherness that you really hear on the album.”
As a result, Love Will Be Reborn is an achingly vulnerable meditation on middle age, with evocative instrumentation in Wainwright’s entirely distinctive realm of folk, jazz, rock, and punk that draw out the poignancy of her words and raw emotion in her voice. “How long does this go on?” she implores on “Sometimes,” surveying a scale of feelings felt during her breakup. There’s “Middle of the Lake,” naming rock and roll as her salvation. Another standout is “Rainbow,” a rousing track that, Wainwright says, is particularly important to her. It’s about survival. She talks about “basically wanting to die, but then needing to go on for the kids and for the neighbours and for music—just let me find that strength, drum up that strength, wherever that’s going to come from, to keep going.”
Wainwright is always brutally honest in her music, but her usual way of not mincing words conflicted somewhat with wanting to protect her children from the grim details of divorce. It pushed her as a songwriter. “I think my approach has been to find ways to say what I feel, but in a way that maybe they’ll understand when they’re older, when it’s okay for them to hear these things—because it’s important to be honest, but also look at them through a broader lens,” she says. “What have I learned? What are the things that I know are true that I can say that’s positive, that’s good, or that can resonate in different ways?”
On “Report Card,” the agony Wainwright felt amid custody arrangements comes through as she sings, “I hope you don’t miss me as much as I miss you, because my heart is always broken and I don’t want you to feel the way I do.” The heart-wrenching song, stripped back with dark guitar pangs and whispering cymbals, was recorded live off the floor at Ursa. “It’s just me baring my soul a little bit to the kids—but, really, I’m talking to the audience, the adults, who know more of what I’m talking about. [The boys] kind of laugh at the report card thing and then they’re distracted. They’re interested in Minecraft, you know what I mean? It’s like, why do they have to be subjected to Martha Wainwright? That’s a lot!” Wainwright laughs.
Wainwright’s own parents divorced when she was little. “I think that my reaction to [my divorce] was so strong that I wonder if that was not the child in me reliving it in a way, you know? The fear and the anxiety that I felt,” she considers. “So rather than it kind of helping me, does it make it worse that I had been through this as a kid? Why was this happening again?”
Wainwright surprised herself when she wrote Love Will Be Reborn’s title track amid such devastation. She went to a friend’s house in London, England—“I never co-write with people,” she adds, “I’m really shy”—but felt flustered and asked for some privacy to get started. The song, and tears, flowed out in mere minutes. “There’s sort of a medieval vibe to it, English vibe to it, and it’s talking about nature and this kind of religious concept of rebirth. It was just totally different, but it felt so true to something. It was like someone was talking through me, maybe some sort of angel of the future saying everything’s going to be alright.” Lyrics like “There is love in every part of me, I know / But the key has fallen deep into the snow / When the spring comes I will find it, and unlock my heart to rewind it” served as an affirmation and Wainwright played the song frequently to herself on the road as she toured in 2017. “It really carried me through,” she says.
The hopefulness of “Love Will Be Reborn” radiates in other places on the record, most obviously in “Hole in My Heart.” It’s the single upbeat love song on the album, Wainwright says with a laugh. It’s about her partner, Nico, who she fell in love with, completely unexpectedly, at 42. Their paths crossed over the years through a mutual friend, but one night at St. Ann’s Warehouse—the New York theatre where her brother Rufus performed his show, Northern Stars, celebrating great Canadian songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen—everything shifted. “I sang one of [Rufus’] songs and Nico came with our friend and it just was a thing in the hall. I saw him across the room and we locked eyes and it was a very strong and powerful feeling.” Wainwright was swept off her feet. “It wasn’t me after my divorce sort of doing Bumble and swiping left, you know, it was this whole other thing that was much more sweet and really beautiful and really exciting. It just made me feel alive.” On the song, Wainwright’s voice is clear and soars gloriously over rollicking percussion and electric riffs.
The emphasis on Wainwright’s voice across Love Will Be Reborn was intentional—and one of the reasons she wanted to collaborate with producer Pierre Marchand. “I’ve always been somewhat known for my voice, but I’ve never really given myself the opportunity to work with somebody who that’s their kind of thing,” she says. “So I really wanted to treat myself and give myself over to Pierre and let him do his magic.” It made her sing better, she adds.
Marchand also produced Wainwright’s mother and aunt’s 1990 record, Heartbeats Accelerating. Wainwright is the same age now as Kate was then, a fact that doesn’t escape her. “It’s really a quintessential middle age album, maybe even more than this one,” Wainwright says, describing Heartbeats as “intense and dark.” Considering the intensity and darkness she has experienced to reach this stage in her own life, Wainwright has learnt a lot about love: that it changes, evolves. That, she says, “it’s always there to protect you and to save you.”
When asked what brings her joy right now, Wainwright doesn’t hesitate. The present moment. Specifically, the summer camps at Ursa. “I just show up in the morning, I turn my phone off, I do music class with the kids, and my kids are often there, and just, ‘Okay, what time is lunch? Do we have snacks? Does anybody need to poop?’ At the end of those days, I just feel really happy. To keep it really basic, just dealing with the kids. That, to me, seems so valuable.” The purity of them is rejuvenating. They see through your bullshit, she adds.
The camera on Wainwright’s phone suddenly flicks on. The sun is shining and she’s smiling. Behind her are blooming flowers and plants trailing down. It’s beautiful, I exclaim. “Thank you,” Wainwright says, moving her phone side-to-side to show the greenery. She’s beaming, so visibly proud of this place, what she has put into it, what it gives her in return. “I’m here at Ursa, in the garden.”