Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Symbols, sadness AND STRENGTH

SINGER-SONGWRITER MARTHA WAINWRIGHT is living a life full of meaning, mourning

  • Print

In the pantheon of Roman deities, the ultimate bad boy was Pluto, ruler of the underworld, owner of a three-headed beastie and the one god no mother wanted her daughter to hang out with under any circumstance.

Unfortunately for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, Pluto came up for air one morning just in time to get shot by one of Cupid's arrows. And the first young woman he happened to see was Ceres' daughter, Proserpina, whom Pluto squirreled away to hell to live as his bride.

Ceres, none too happy with this arrangement, asked divine head honcho Jupiter to intervene on her behalf. His own tough guys convinced Pluto to allow Proserpina to return to her mother -- but only for a few months out of every year.

Proserpina was the last song written by Montreal folksinger Kate McGarrigle before she succumbed to cancer in 2010. Her daughter, Martha Wainwright, has made it the centrepiece of her new album, Come Home To Mama, whose title references not just Roman mythology, but the never-ending yearning to remain close to her singer-songwriter goddess of a mother.

"My mother was perfectly aware she was straddling two worlds, having one foot in the next when she wrote that song," Wainwright, 36, said earlier this week in a telephone interview from Montreal.

On Saturday at Winnipeg's West End Cultural Centre, Wainwright will likely perform several of Kate McGarrigle's songs, including Proserpina, whose obvious sadness is tempered by the optimism of the Proserpina story serving as an allegory for renewal and spring, especially in a country covered so much of the year by snow.

Traditionally, the return of Proserpina to earth once a year was viewed as an explanation for the end of winter. In the Roman tale, nothing would grow while the young goddess was below ground.

CONTINUED C14

McGarrigle died two months before the birth of Wainwright's first child with her musician husband Brad Albetta. Wainwright said she believes her mother wrote Proserpina in part to express her desire to keep her daughter close.

Tragically, that did not happen during McGarrigle's final weeks.

"Especially at the end of her life, I wasn't able to be with her, because Arcangelo was born prematurely and we were stuck in England while he was (hospitalized)," Wainwright says. "So the whole thing with Come Home To Mama is so poignant for me. It's really hardcore."

On top of the themes of rebirth and the immortality of the mother-daughter bond, there's yet another level of symbolism to the song: It serves as a divorce parable. Kate McGarrigle and her songwriter sibling Anna were both children of divorce, as were Kate's children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, following their mother's split from singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III.

"Proserpina is a divorce tale in the sense where the mom gets the kid six months of the year and the dad gets the kid the other six months," says Martha, who reputedly wrote the song Bloody Mother F***ing A**hole about her dad, even though she actually maintains a relationship with her musical family's patriarch.

The bulk of the songs on Come Home To Mama are far less confrontational but just as honest and autobiographical, as her fans have come to expect over the course of two previous collections of her own songs. The subject matter has simply grown more serious after Wainwright got married, had her son and mourned the death of her mother.

In a departure from her previous albums, which were produced by Albetta, Wainwright enlisted Yuka Honda, of the rock band Cibo Matto, to lend a more lush soundscape to the album. Singer-songwriters have a tendency to revert to an Americana esthetic, explained Wainwright, who also said she relished the rare opportunity to work with a female producer.

The result is the album sounds less stark than its subject matter. Two songs, Leave Behind and Radio Star, deal with the concept of life in a post-apocalyptic world, possibly because of environmental disaster, she says. Coincidentally, she wound up getting an up-close look at environmental change only a few weeks after the album's October release, when Brooklyn, her current home, was inundated by Hurricane Sandy.

"I'm always surprised people don't associate climate change with the rising of the water levels and storms like that. I think there will be more and more of them," she says.

Oddly enough, one of the darkest songs on the album, Four Black Sheep, was written before Wainwright embarked on her emotional roller-coaster in 2010. The song was commissioned as an ode to the Black Sheep Inn, a live venue northeast of Ottawa, but became a fictionalized version of an experience familiar to every Canadian motorist: an ill-advised white-knuckle drive down a snowy highway between two cities.

In Wainwright's tale, she and her companions die along the way. Coincidentally or otherwise, Pluto arrived above ground with four black horses shortly before he abducted Proserpina.

Some songwriters struggle to imbue their work with meaning. For Martha Wainwright, the symbolism writes itself.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Concert preview

Martha Wainwright

óè West End Cultural Centre

óè Saturday, March 2, 8 p.m.

óè Tickets $25 in advance at jazzwinnipeg.com or $30 at the door

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2013 c1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Winnipeg Cheapskate: Cheap summer weekends

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Susan and Gary Harrisonwalk their dog Emma on a peaceful foggy morning in Assiniboine Park – Standup photo– November 27, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A gosling stares near water at Omands Creek Park-See Bryksa 30 day goose challenge- Day 25– June 21, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Which of Manitoba's new landlord-tenant rules are you looking forward to most?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google