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.
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.
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