I first met musician Martha Wainwright last year when her older son Arcangelo was in the same kindergarten class as my older son Jesse. We have younger sons about the same age too, and we live in the same neighborhood in Montreal. I remember seeing her once at the grocery store before we’d formally met. She was wearing a colorful poncho that you might characterize as “statement vintage” and she was speaking to Arc in French which, for a native English speaker in a French town, implies a subtle nonconformity.
I thought to myself, she looks fun. And she is—she’s the kind of mom who will lean out the window of her station wagon and holler something funny across three lanes of traffic if she passes you schlepping home with grocery bags and kids and backpacks.
Martha’s latest album, Goodnight City, was released last month. She’s been touring the U.S. and Canada and will be playing in Europe and Australia in early 2017. I spoke to her at her house, after we’d both put our kids to bed. She had recently gotten home from the first leg of her album tour.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Sometimes I want to go on tour, you know? Peace out, y’all. I’m going on tour!
Martha Wainwright: That’s totally how it feels. In my case, there’s a cycle: You write a record, you make it, and then you tour it. By the time it’s time to tour it, I’m ready. I can’t wait for hotel rooms, and room service, and restaurants every night. For me, the best part is being told where I have to be every day. I struggle with having the energy and the strength to stay motivated while making my own schedule. So I like being on the road—at three we have soundcheck, and then we have dinner, and then we have the show, and then we have signing, and then we go to bed, and then on to the next.
When you’re at home, making your own schedule, to what extent are you able to incorporate your creative work into your daily routine? There’s that famous Alice Munro quote—something like, “I wrote while the kids were napping.” Can you do that, or you have to leave the house?
I think where I fail the most is in my process. When I’m around the house, which I am every day, my tendency is to take care of the children, and then try and stay on top of the things that need to happen so, you know, the gas doesn’t get turned off. Then there’s managerial things—talking to this person about writing my book, or doing a radio show—work that is related to creative work. And then there’s food preparation and housework. Then there’s socializing. And at the bottom of all of that, there’s working—creative work. I don’t think that’s served me well. What it means is that all of my creative work is about all of these other things down the list preceding it. Personal life.
But I do have to write songs for my albums, so I force myself to do it. And when I force myself to do it, I’m greatly relieved, and much happier. I’ll go months without writing a song, and I’ll get very nervous. And then I’ll say, you know what? I’m going to take the guitar, and I’m not going to do the dishes. And then something will happen, generally, because it’s been so long.
How do you experience the conflicts between your creative work and your domestic life? Where do those inflection points appear?
Recently, things have gotten to a fever pitch with the demands of parenting and work, and I’ve realized that in terms of the domestic responsibilities I’ve taken on over the years—those are gonna have to take a hit. When I started to work a lot again preparing for this record, my “me time” went away. So there’s no gym, there’s no yoga class. That’s gone. Crafts, or movies, that’s gone.
Well, I’d like to! I knit. I’ve always wanted to knit more. Cooking—doing things with your hands—those are really important. Right now I realized that in order be a good parent, and to work efficiently—and this is for people who can afford it—I’m going to have to hire someone clean my house more than once a week. Create some order. Because I can’t do it. It’s eating up hours that I need for working. I’m failing at it, it’s causing anxiety. I’m like, my whole life I’ve done dishes, and of course I will continue to do dishes, but I need help. I’d rather have the help with the house than with the kids.
I remember doing an interview—it was before Francis was born, I only had Arc. It was a TV show in Australia and I was on this panel of “Important Women.” Executive women, professional women. And I was saying, “Oh, in my house, I vacuum once a week,” explaining how my domestic life informs my songwriting. And one of these women, dressed in a power pantsuit and diamond earrings, she stares at me and she says, “If I ever found myself vacuuming, I’d know that I have too much time on my hands, that I’m not doing the right thing.” At the time I was like, “What an odd thing to say!”
But just this past week—really—I was like, “I think I know what the fuck she’s talking about. I don’t think I should be vacuuming!” Between trying to finish my book, which is late, and helping the kids with their homework, and helping Arc with reading—I was like, maybe the vacuuming has got to stop. Being very domestic was always a part of my life that I just accepted, and I think I always thought it was very charming. I think it’s because my mom and my aunts [folk musicians Kate, Anna, and Jane McGarrigle], they practically made dinner on stage at their shows. That was the vibe.
Why was it easier for them?
Because they didn’t work as much as I do. They stayed home with the kids a lot.
Why? Was life cheaper then?
They didn’t need as much money to live, but also other people covered their songs and that made money. Linda Rondstadt. Emmylou Harris—you know? She loved her daughters, but she was never home. So I don’t think she vacuumed that much. I mean, I’m sure she has, but she made the other choice. And I’m like, hmm, maybe that’s the choice that needs to be made right now.
OK, so let’s talk touring with kids. Lay it out for me. How do you like to do it?
It’s run the gamut somewhat. After I had Arc, Brad [Albetta, Wainwright’s husband, a bassist and producer] and I were on the road together, so we could be a family on the road. Arc never went to daycare, for four years. Mainly it was cousins and aunts who would come with us to help with him.
Our tours were a family trip. It revolves around the children, which is kind of great. Everybody on this tour better like babies, OK? It wasn’t child-centric in the sense that, well, we’re not remotely nervous parents. So we were still going to a restaurant after the show with the infant until two in the morning, but it’s just that he was there with us all the time.
It was a way for me to control my own self-destructive nature and my habits, which are always nipping at my heels a bit. Having a child on the road, with a bunch of people who have a propensity to party—it was really helpful. I’m not saying that it stopped people from drinking or doing any drugs at all, but it was minimized. We were able to work better. And I was 33, and it was like, OK, time to make that decision. Are you going to like, totally be rock and roll, or are you going to want to keep doing this for a long time?
There are some incredible memories from when we were touring with Arc as a baby. We were playing Paris, and our tour bus would wait on the outskirts of town for the show to be over, and then come in to pick us up. Brad and I loved going to this restaurant, Wepler’s, which is on the traffic roundabout at Place de Clichy, it’s an old establishment of French cuisine, a giant brasserie basically. So after the show we’re all there, with Arc of course, who is sleeping in the car seat, and the wine is flowing, and it’s midnight, it’s one o’clock. We’re told, OK, the bus is coming, time to go. And it’s the weekend, so the streets are completely jammed. The bus is circling the roundabout out front, and it can’t stop. So we’re trying to finish our wine, and we finally stumble out, we’re carrying the baby seat. And we’re running through all these cars, trying to get on the moving tour bus, and you know, everyone’s smoking, and we just played Paris, and had this wonderful meal, and it was—it was a dream. We got on the bus, softly put Arc into our bunk. It’s this feeling of, “Oh, I can do it all!”
But I bet it can be so exhausting sometimes, with the kids on tour.
More recently, I’ve taken Francis on his own to a couple of gigs in Calgary. I didn’t bring a nanny. I had a drummer and a guitar player. So I would call ahead the day before the show, and organize with the people who ran the hall that someone would bring their teenager to babysit.
After soundcheck I’d bring the babysitter back to the hotel room, and I’d be like, ‘OK, here’s the bottle, good luck, see you in four hours. If you have a problem, call your mother. ‘Cause you can’t call me—I’ll be on stage. Call your mom.’ They looked a little scared. But I was like, I gotta go. And I meant it—don’t hesitate to call your mother!
I would come back to the hotel, tiptoe in at midnight, pay the babysitter, and then Francis, of course, would wake up at 4 a.m. because we were on the west coast and he had jet lag. It was dark out. No restaurants were open. I’d be lying there showing him books. The sun would be just peeking out and we’d go walk outside with the stroller. Just looking for somewhere we could get, like, a banana. And then we’d drive in, and do a show again. I was like, “This is a not a long-term solution.” The shows weren’t affected by it, I don’t think, but I was so tired by the end of it. But also kind of energized! Because it’s fun to say you did it.
Another time, also with Francis, I was in LA for a gig. I thought I had a babysitter, but she couldn’t come. I thought I had a family member who could make it, but they couldn’t.
So I’m driving to the venue, I’m running late. I show up in my rental car, people are lined up out front, and I come through the front door, carrying the baby in the car seat and my guitar, like, “I’m sorry!” I walk in, and I put the baby in the car seat up on the bar. They’re like, “This baby can’t be here.” And I’m like, “Well, I gotta play the show. Find somebody on your staff who can watch him. He’s sleeping!”
So did someone just come and sit with him? That is amazing.
Yeah! There was no backstage, really. So he was back at the bar. And I had to sign CDs afterwards, and the audience could not believe that I had the baby. Fans were helping me with him.
You really are not a nervous parent, and your kids aren’t nervous. Do you subscribe to the idea that kids will basically adapt to their surroundings?
I definitely subscribe to the idea that if you’re not nervous, your kids probably won’t be totally high-strung. My kids aren’t super easy, but they’re—
Your kids are knock-around guys! They’re comfortable around strangers, they’re easygoing.
Well, Brad and I haven’t had too much in the way of day jobs, so they see a lot of their parents, you know? So that’s probably part of why they’re so relaxed—they’re adored, they’re doted upon.
It can be up and down, though. I just got back from this mini-tour. When your kids don’t see you for a while, you expect that you’ll walk in the door and they’ll be like, “Mommy!” And they might do that for a minute, but then they might kind of resent you for being gone, or they might have gotten used to how it is with dad, or they might have made some new alliances that you don’t know about. So you’re not really in the full rhythm of domestic power that you can really get into when you’re on top of your game.
And I was tired, I was emotional, and they were like, hitting me, you know they’re boys, they’re playing rough with me. Or they’re like, calling me a loser. They were hugging me and then saying I hate you. And you’re like, ‘OK, whatever you need to do right now!’ And just trying to accommodate their emotions—I try not to ask the question, ‘Why are you being mean to mommy?’ [laughs] but sometimes I can’t help it! I’m not supposed to ask that, right? The child psychologists say you’re not supposed to ask that [laughs].
So I got them to bed, and then, just… poured myself a glass of white wine, and just sort of ended up on the floor for hours, thinking about life, and why it’s like this. It was better that I waited until they were asleep. It needed to happen.
I want to talk about the single on your new album, “Around the Bend.” A few different moms that I know have really been feeling it. There’s something a little bit “Landslide”-y about it—it feels like a renegotiation of the terms of your identity. When you have really little kids, motherhood can really take over your whole identity. And as kids get older, you enter into a new phase, you’re not just a mom, you’re a woman again. The song speaks to me, it legitimates that experience for me. Is this anything like what you were thinking when you wrote it?
Part of it is, I don’t want people to forget who I was. I’m still that person. I’m making myself more vulnerable as a post-new-mom. Yeah, I’m a woman again. One of the things that’s happening, especially with my older son, is that it’s very important to me to be the best mother possible—and my life revolves around the kids—but I don’t want them to know that it does. I want them to feel like they have their own lives. I’m not defined by them, and they don’t have to be defined by me. I don’t want them to feel that smothering feeling. And part of doing that means that I have to return a bit to who I was. I don’t think that it’s going to help them if they feel that I’m completely defined by them. I have an individuality that I need to return to. I always loved seeing my mom as a mom and as a great artist. I guess I want my kids to think I’m a great mom but also be proud that their mom stayed with it and never stopped singing.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton is a writer and graduate student in Montreal.