Canadian chanteuse Martha Wainwright would like to offer a helpful preface to anyone partaking of her sonically adventurous new fifth album Love Will Be Reborn. “I am really, fundamentally at heart, a beatnik,” she says, so there’s a beret-cool, Howl-confessional catharsis shading this stark set, wherein she bravely exorcises some dark personal demons with a track listing that goes from slow and grim (the folk opener “Middle of the Lake,” a plaintive howler called “Getting Older,” and the ghostly a cappella “Report Card”) to fast and lyrically light (the spoken-word-retro “Hole in My Heart,” a church-carillon-chiming “Justice” and the breezy uptempo pop of “Sometimes”). The set closes on a French-sung, lullaby-innocent “Falaise de Malaise,” which makes you stop and wonder—was the pain you sensed pulsing in Wainwright’s voice at its inception just an Eyes Wide Shut dream? No, it was all too real, she admits, and she’s happy that listeners can’t leave until “the mood is galloping and cheery,” she says.
Wainwright’s trials and tribulations didn’t start with last year’s lockdown, but in 2018, when she divorced Brad, her husband of 11 years and the father of her two sons, 7 and 11. After a separation that had begun two years earlier, and on into long days in court where she was fighting for shared custody of her kids, the family-oriented artist (whose own illustrious clan boasts brother Rufus Wainwright, father Loudon Wainwright III, and her late folk-legend mother, Kate McGarrigle) found herself suddenly, altogether uncomfortably alone, and so depressed she couldn’t even be bothered to pick up her trusty guitar. When she finally did work up the nerve to compose again, she tried to lift her own flagging spirits with the hopeful Love Will Be Reborn title track. Fortunately, her prediction came true.
By the time Covid closed down Wainwright’s native Montreal, she had: found a new significant other; begun retooling her autobiography seven years after starting it; assembled the confessionals that would make up her record; hosted a Canadian TV vocal showcase called Mix Sonore; and bought and opened her own Hungry-I chic club/restaurant dubbed Ursa, where she scheduled several socially distanced concerts during lockdown, many of which she played herself. “And I always wanted Ursa to be a beatnik cafe, so I tried to incorporate some appropriate jazz,” she chortles, “But you know, people just don’t play that same type of jazz around here!” She’s happy, however, to get all skoodle-ee-doo-wah honest for all the cats and kittens in this candid chat …
Paste: So you’ve got your own Montreal cafe and music venue, Ursa. How, when, why?
Martha Wainwright: Put the “Why” first—that should be your first question. This idea was something that was in my mind for a long time, kind of like a nightmare/fantasy. So I’m stirring the pot in every way possible—singing songs, but also behind the counter, stirring the soup pot, serving drinks, hosting shows, kind of trying to smush together all the things that I like into one place. And maybe it was also the idea of being able to find some kind of job where I wasn’t touring, working all the time out of town. So two and a half years ago, this building became available, and upstairs are the offices of this great music festival called Pop Montreal, and they’ve been around for 20 years and they really put on great shows. And downstairs was this little basement-level restaurant and bar, so we transformed into a small music space, but it’s also all ages, and we’ve been doing these weird, fun shows, with family members and friends helping out, doing the work to get it done—real community-based stuff. And there’s booze—there’s a liquor license, because that was a necessity in order for people to come. But I didn’t just want to run a bar, because that would be bad for my health, so I made it all ages. And right now, I’m running a day camp out of there—I have to go teach a music class there in about an hour. So it’s all ages, people have little shows there, poetry readings, concerts, and we make food. So it’s really this kind of sweet thing that cost me a lot of money, so I’m gonna have to figure out if I’m gonna hold onto it or walk away, because it’s not really viable. But it’s been kind of a savior in many ways. And also because I’m here and my children are here, I thought I should try to have something to anchor me to Montreal. So it seemed like the right time to do that kind of thing, and it’s been fun. And during the pandemic, we’ve been able to do some really cool things from there, within the realms of what was safe and felt right to do. So it’s been good.
Paste: Playing devil’s advocate here, I’m sorry that you and your ex divorced in 2018. But can you imagine if you’d stayed together until the pandemic hit, with all its attendant pressure on couples?
Wainwright: Both of us might be dead! The children would have been orphans! But you know, the separation and divorce actually started in late 2016, so it was pre-pandemic. So it is what it is, and this record is obviously a reflection on that, but also clearly a new beginning and a new era. And there’s a new relationship, which was very much unexpected and very different. And I never would have expected anything as romantic or as overwhelmingly powerful. He’s French, and I was 42 when I met him, so it was really surprising, but it also made a lot of sense, because it actually is someone that I’ve met before, an acquaintance, we have friends in common, so there was a commonality. And I think that can really mean a lot. You’re at a similar place in life, and they’re at a similar place, so then it just feels right to lock in and go on the journey, the journey together. And the journey being kind of the second half of life. We’re so used to hearing about the journey of a youthful type of love, but there’s this other thing that can happen later on in life, a different kind of relationship, where you’re bringing more to the table with children and divorce and all sorts of other things. So it’s been really interesting and helpful, because it’s been a really difficult divorce. But I think I’m really relieved, also, because without that, the record would have been a lot darker. And depressing. And sort of … plagued, let’s say, otherwise. So it’s just really nice to have a broader perspective.
Paste: It might be summed in the metaphor of you rhyming “Getting older” with “I need your shoulder” on the album’s second track, “Getting Older.”
Wainwright: Yeah. And I think that is a beautiful thing to say. “I’m getting older—I need your shoulder,” Exactly. It’s a different partnership, a different journey. It’s kind of like, “Are we going to fade out together?” I think also, for me, with my songs, I was always caught up in things—a lot of them are autobiographical, and often a lot of them have to do with being worthy or accepted or loved, or loved by a man and that kind of thing. And motherhood, too, of course. And it’s really interesting to get to a point where you’re not trying to please anybody else, where somebody’s just happy with who you are. So when I see myself on the cover of this record, I do see this person that I don’t really recognize, but it does feel like there’s a freedom and a female power that is from outside and also from within, that I think is sort of helping me. And if I could connect it maybe a parallel, this space in Montreal is called Ursa, which is a female bear. And I wanted to call it Ursa because it sounds kind of like an institute, but it’s also the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor. But right at the beginning of the preparation for divorce, when it was really, really awful, someone had put a copper bracelet around my wrist that said “Mama Bear.” And this concept of protection came to me, and I of course was thinking about my kids and wanting to protect them, and I was devastated to not be able to be with them all the time. And that’s been the hardest part of this whole thing for me, but I had this kind of protective sense, of needing to find the strength to survive. So I just needed to, I dunno … find the inner mama bear.
Paste: There are times on this album where your voice just soars. And then there are other times where you push it so hard, it’s unadorned and almost cracking, like it was done in one tortured take. It’s brutal, some of this stuff.
Wainwright: Yeah. Yeah. Some of the songs were really brutal to write. For a long time, I would try and pick up the guitar, and it was just so horrible and dark that I just put it down. But then I thought, “I’m really gonna have to write some songs, because I’m gonna have to do something. And I wanna work again, I wanna get back to it.” So I would just do little sections, just go, “Okay, well here’s the melody. And here’s this weird line “Why can’t I be a rainbow?” Where I was basically saying, “Why can’t I die?”
Paste: Well, the opening track is “Middle of the Lake.” And that’s where Montgomery Clift shoved Shelley Winters to her death—you don’t always go to the middle of the lake for good fishing.
Wainwright: Exactly. There was definitely a lot of that. And I was pulled to the water in a way that … like, I’ve never felt this way, this kind of deep sadness. And it was a totally different feeling when you find yourself walking towards the river here. Because it’s the St. Lawrence, and it’s incredibly fast, and it’s like a death river, basically. And there were many nights where I was just like, “Augh! I just wanna go. But … the children, the kids … I can’t.” So that was good! There’s that! But yeah, on this record there’s a lot of fear, and it’s fitting alongside songs like “Justice,” where I was in the court system, and I was confronted by judges who considered me to be in the circus, because I’m a singer, you know? So all of a sudden I’m confronted with not seeing my children ever again because I work nights. It’s scary. And I missed my mom, and I was certainly afraid, but I was always having to seek and then find the strength to go on to be the savior, in a way. Like, “No, no, no—I have to stay alive. I have to be strong. I have to not lose the house. I have to do these things, otherwise it will be terrible.” So it was very much a strengthening thing, too. Especially when you find that you are drumming up that strength from somewhere.
Paste: What was this Canadian TV show you hosted last year, Mix Sonore?
Wainwright: It’s a French television show where I was the host, and I’m gonna do it again this year. I host a TV show of live music, and the concept is for French-speaking Canada, including that type of artist. But it’s work, you know? It’s work for someone like me. It’s a smaller industry here, but it’s music, it’s a new discovery, it’s getting paid for being on camera. It’s kind of like you’re learning a new skill. So now, I can host a television show—I’m happy to report that. So it was something to try, and hey—it’s a gig. And there were some beautiful musical moments on there. But with every type of gig I do, I try. And I sing a lot, I sing with other people, I do my job.
Paste: Will it be difficult touring this album? Revisiting these emotional moments, night after night?
Wainwright: Well, some of these songs are about my breakup with Brad, certainly. But some of them are about other things. And also, because I’ve been doing this a long time, a lot of my songs I’ve been singing for 20 years, plus. And if you write them a certain way, then you can keep singing them, because they kind of take on different meanings, you know? Like when you see Joni Mitchell sing “Both Sides Now”—obviously, it’s different from 1965, or whenever she did a second version. And I’m not claiming that my songs are exactly as perfect as that, but the hope, the desire, is that some of them will ring out for a long, long time. And ring with some truth, because their concepts are larger than the moment. It’s not just this moment—it’s a much, much longer thing.
Watch Wainwright’s 2016 Paste Studio session below.