Martha Wainwright on quest to map out life as musician and mom

IN CONCERT

What: Martha Wainwright with Mappe Of

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When: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Where: Capital Ballroom (formerly Sugar), 858 Yates St.

Tickets: $22.50 at Lyle’s Place and Ticketweb.ca

When Martha Wainwright wrote and recorded Goodnight City last year, she had plenty on her plate — tops being her two young sons, Arcangelo and Francis Valentine.

In part, the record says farewell to her wild, pre-children past, but there’s also a sense of hope. A blurred photo of Wainwright, now 41, on the album cover shows her head spinning in two directions, simultaneously looking back on the past and forward to the future.

“It’s a farewell to something,” she said. “There’s a goodbye to my youth, and a look forward to the second half of my life. “That’s the theme.”

An emotional investigation by Wainwright is always worth a listen. With a soul-baring songwriting style, she has addressed various facets of her life on previous albums. Goodnight City is no different.

“There are things I’ve seen and done, that I would not wish on anyone,” she sings on Around the Bend, the album’s opening cut. “I go to bed at dawn, when you wish it would rain [and] wash away the pain.”

Wainwright moved from New York — where she was born — to Montreal — where she was raised — three years ago. “Montreal is more conducive to child-rearing,” she said. “My experience with New York was more in my wilder days.”

She said she is going through a divorce from longtime partner and bandmate Brad Albetta, who co-produced Goodnight City, an upheaval that has greatly affected the tour that brings the Juno Award nominee to Victoria for a performance on Saturday.

“It’s been hard for me. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to do this and leave the kids. It’s been painful.”

Her ability to balance motherhood with her career as a singer-songwriter has been on Wainwright’s mind a lot lately. Wainwright, whose sons are seven and three, didn’t want to give up her career to be a mom, but said it’s tough juggling the two. In the long run, motherhood might win, she admitted. “That will be the challenge of the next 10 years — to figure out how to do that. Maybe, there’s a slightly different equation that can be made, and that’s what I’m going to experiment with. I have a responsibility to support my kids.”

She might take a cue from her mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who stepped away from the spotlight during her peak years as a performer to raise Wainwright and her brother, Rufus. McGarrigle, who died from cancer at 63 in 2010, reduced her work schedule to summer folk-festival gigs and extended tours every so often. “My mom would have liked to work more, because she would have liked to be more successful, and it probably hurt her career to not do it. But at the same time, I really don’t think she would have done it any differently.”

Several songs were written about Rufus and Martha by their parents — their father is Louden Wainwright III — and the children have reciprocated on several occasions. Martha’s Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, for example, is about her resentment stemming from her once-fraught relationship with her father, whom McGarrigle divorced when Martha was a baby. Wainwright said she now understands her father’s decision to temporarily choose his career over his children, and has come to appreciate how difficult that choice must have been.

“My dad worked constantly. He travelled and kept his career going, and that’s commendable. My mom, along with her sister, Anna, stopped working for about 10 years. They didn’t make a record for eight years, and it was because they wanted to be home with their kids. Neither way is right.”

Wainwright’s new album features songs written by Rufus, Beth Orton, Glen Hansard, Michael Ondaatje and Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. She called on them to help her complete Goodnight City, as she was short of material for a full album. “We’ve been at the same party for a long time,” she said. “They know me, and we have similar lives, in a way. There are some similarities there.”

The catch, Wainwright said, was that each song had to be written from her standpoint, and in her writing voice, so that when she sang them, they sounded unmistakably hers. For years, she’d had the idea of having friends write songs for her. But with her children young and busy, it seemed like the time had arrived. “It was certainly practical to have these songs presented to me by these great songwriters that were very reflective of me and my life. It was a relief to be able to focus on the singing and the interpretation of the songs. There’s a lightness on the record for that reason.”

Fans shouldn’t expect the same degree of levity in Stories I Might Regret Telling You, her in-progress memoir. Wainwright had the book finished when her divorce process began, forcing Wainwright to contact her editors. A rewrite will be underway soon, she said.

“I thought it was done and then it wasn’t done. I went back to it and thought: ‘This isn’t what I quite need it to be.’ And my life changed. I’m going through a divorce, so when you’re writing an autobiography and memoir, and that happens, you go back and change some sentences. I need to take a little step back and look at it, and absorb it.”

The memoir needs to “gestate and percolate” some more, but will be available soon, Wainwright said. Look to her songs for clues as to what will be revealed.

“It’s sort of what you would expect. It pushes the envelope just about as far as you can get away with, without getting sued.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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