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First Play and Q&A: Martha Wainwright, Goodnight City

Andrea Warner

“I used to do a lot of blow/ now I only do the show” is a brilliant line, and this album is full of them, some, like that one, written by Wainwright; some written for her (and with her) by a host of famous friends (Glen Hansard, brother Rufus, Beth Orton and Tune Yards’ Merrill Garbus). But the truly glorious thing about Goodnight City, Wainwright’s first album in four years, is her vocal delivery. This album is chock full of more characters than one of Dorothy Parker’s short story collections, and each is vivid and fully realized, bodies made whole by something as extraordinarily nebulous as hard work, talent, and craft.

You can stream Goodnight City in the player below, one week before its release on Nov. 11. It’s available for pre-order here.


Wainwright takes CBC Music through Goodnight City, and reflects on her host of celebrated collaborators, the long, strange spotlight of the McGarrigle/Wainwright legacy and why she’s leaving self-absorption behind.

I love the record, I’m really bowled over by it. Let’s start by talking about the first track, "Around the Bend."

Thanks. It felt like a first track, you know, and it was one of the first tracks that we recorded. It's a song that I wrote maybe two years ago. It's sort of emblematic of a lot of the record which is ... sort of a departure from the very autobiographical records that I've made. It's partially autobiographical and there's certainly some things that are very, very close to home. But it's also a little more expansive than that.

Were you just putting too much of your own life under a spotlight?

The last record that I made, Come Home to Mama, there were some songs on it that talked about my marriage that I thought were funny that I don't think my husband did? It just sort of put more of that into focus. You have to be ready to fight for things, like, if you're gonna go for it you gotta be really willing to defend it. On this record I’ve written some songs about my children, but those are people that I’m definitely more careful with than maybe other subjects that I’ve written about. It's just less of a self-absorbed time. You know, my first record in particular was really a reflection of a younger woman, I was 28 when it came out. It was kind of angry and pissy and great and more navel-gazing and then, you know, 10 years later I just turned 40 and it's a little bit more forward-viewing. A little bit less about myself and a little bit more about the world around me.

There’s been so much attention paid to your family's history of laying a lot of stuff out in song. There’s this idea that you guys communicate with each other through song. Are you conscious of growing up within that?

Well, I appreciated it greatly, you know, I mean, in the sense, I did and I didn't. I was happy to listen to songs that my parents wrote about each other because it confirmed that they actually knew each other [laughs]. Because they were divorced when I was young. It confirmed that they loved each other and that they cared about each other. That gave me a picture of who they were back then as my parents, you know, and it crystallized my vision of them, too. I loved my mother as a mom, but I also loved her as an artist. So I think it was great for me to have the opportunity to know her as an artist, and I hope my kids will love me as an artist too, you know?

I liked being sung about in most cases. In some cases I didn't. My dad wrote a song about me that was not great, but I don't think it was particularly detrimental. This is just not the time where I’m feeling like saying anything to my family. I’m seeing the world right now in a larger way and I’m more interested in things that don't concern me so specifically. Of course there are things that I’ve sort of couched in there that are totally autobiographical, but it's not as obvious. And I’m enjoying more playing with musical styles, and my voice and ... it's a little bit more playful and theatrical in a way. I get into different ways of singing, and because other people have written songs, I’m allowing myself to expand and kind of come out of myself a bit.

I’m so interested that you said "theatrical." Maybe it's the musical theatre nerd in me, but I just imagined immediately this album as an incredible contemporary musical.

Wow. I’m going to think about that. That's a great idea, I mean, I don't know how to tell the story, but that’s an interesting thought and ... isn't everyone’s life an incredible contemporary musical? [Laughs].

But so rarely do they have a chance to express it.

That's how I feel about mine. [Laughs].

There are so few avenues that let a woman's story really be expressed in this 360-degree, fully realized way. "The Window" was what really got me. I was like, "Oh my God, I can absolutely see this as being a scene."

I see dancers, yeah. I love that song and I think it’s really strong. A lot of the expansiveness of the record is also the collaboration of other people. Thomas Bartlett, who's one of the producers and who plays all the keyboards and all the piano on the whole record, who wrote one of the songs, too. He did a lot of the programming on "Window" and "Alexandria" and I really appreciate what he was able to pull out of some of this stuff.

Other things were done in a very old-school way that I used to make records where there's just the four of us on the floor, just tracking live and picking a take and saying, "OK, well that's what it is," and there might be kind of a mistake here, or, you know, the vocal's not perfect, but that’s what it's gonna be. [Other times] we built the song more from the ground up. I feel expanded by being able to sing these different ways, and sing other lyrics written by other people. I think in a way it removes me from shackles that I’ve always sort of put myself into, or any artist puts themselves into.

You're doing things on this record that I’ve never heard you do before. It’s really exciting as a listener. Can we talk a little bit about the collaborations? How did you select what you wanted to include on this album? How did it help tell the story?

My records generally need to be autobiographical somewhat. I wrote half the songs and thought the other songs should be written by people who know me and who I am connected to in some way. We asked them to write a song for me or about me in some way, some reflective way so that it would almost be like a duet between me and the other artist. You would still hear the other artist coming through on the track, but it's me singing it. Kind of a way to use them and their talent, and their brilliance but still have it be about me.

We got a lot of songs from a lot of different people. I was able to chose the ones that I felt were the strongest for me to sing. And then I was able also to change them, some chords, some lyrics. Sort of Martha-fy them. Or Martha-rize them? They're all people that I know and that I’ve worked with in some way over the years. Some of them are new to me, newer friends, Merrill Garbus [tUnE-yArDs] being the newest, but she's worked with Thomas Bartlett before and she's just so great. I really appreciate her sensibility on the track ["Take the Reins"].

It's a really interesting song, too. It moves you into a different space, particularly sandwiched between "One of Us" and "Francis." What about the songs credited to you and somebody, like with Glen Hansard or the one with Lily Lanken and your aunt, Anna McGarrigle. Is that you all writing together or is it you doing the sort of Marthafication afterwards?

The Glen one, "One of Us," I wrote the bridge. He had this idea, kind of more commercial and good, the chorus and the verses, and then I felt like it needed something, so I added a more complicated bridge. I always try to complicate things a little bit. I felt it filled out the song a bit. With "Look Into My Eyes," that's Lily Lanken — Anna had written the chords and had this little idea and then I added to it and we just sort of did it together and sang on it together in the studio.

What about Michael Ondaatje's "Piano Music"? Was that a pre-existing piece or did he write that specifically for you?

No, I think he wrote it for this. Thomas Bartlett asked him to a write a poem for this record, for me, and so he did that and then Thomas put music to it and wrote the melody, and I sang it. He's a big music fan, Michael, he's been a big McGarrigle fan and also a fan of mine, and I’d met him a bunch of times. He's a fan and a supporter, and was generous enough to lend us his talent.

"So Down" recalled Blondie for me. There’s a lot of attitude and energy.

Well, that's how I really feel. I’ve always been, um, not stuck behind the acoustic guitar, just, I play the acoustic guitar because it's easier, there's always one around. Sometimes I bang on it as if it's an electric, and so I decided to let myself play electric. That’s what happens when I play electric guitar, I sound like Sonic Youth, which is the type of music I used to listen to a lot. It’s an attitude that's in my music anyway, but now it's just letting it really rip.

You wrote "Franci" and then your brother, Rufus, wrote "Francis." Are they companion pieces to a certain extent?

I kind of like to think of them like that but it was happenstance. Around the time of the making of this record, or the conception of this record, Francis was born, so it was really at the front of my mind, so I wrote a song. And then Rufus, not knowing that I’d written that song, wrote another song about him and I just thought they were both so fantastic and completely different and you know, he is a subject that is really on the record a lot, and the title comes from a phrase that he says that I always just liked. I was like, I want them both on the record, and I wasn't going to change the title of either one of them. I’m happy that they can be there together, you know?

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