Martha Wainwright: ‘Divorce has given me wisdom’

The musician, 45, talks about putting down roots, losing her mother, playing music and and how middle age has been a transformative time

My first memory is my mother [folk singer Kate McGarrigle] singing to me. It was the song Go Tell Aunt Rhody, which is about a goose dying and the gander being depressed. Very morbid. I was very little. I remember her hand softly caressing my arm while she sang it to me. It’s a lovely memory. It’s a sad song, even a scary one. But it was comforting.

I’m still grieving for my mother. I’m very much in it. She’s been gone over 10 years now, but I wear a lot of her clothes, I live in the house she lived in and I sing her songs. Her dying at 63 has defined me in lots of ways. I was only 33 when I lost her. But this year I’ve been thinking about it differently. Dying young means that you’re saved years of old age. There’s a lot of suffering in old age. That’s been helping me to think like that.

I don’t think there’s anything beyond death. That said, I was out walking the other day and briefly thought otherwise. I’ve got two kids and I was thinking how I might explain death to them. I’d like them to understand that I’m going to die, and other people are going to die, and that needs to happen so that other people can be born. I think that’s healthy, even though I know how scared and sad that would make them feel. And so I briefly started thinking about reincarnation. But I don’t believe that, even though I do feel like we – animals, people, plants – are one.

I’ve been putting down roots like never before. I’d normally be on the road – Glastonbury, Cambridge Folk Festival, all these places I miss – but because I can’t be, I’ve been walking the streets of my neighbourhood, looking at the people I live around. At the moment I’m running a day camp. I’m wearing an apron. I have clay under my fingernails. Later on, I will make lunch for 12 children. It’s so different to what I know, but I like it.

Middle age is a transformative time. There’s a real A and B side to my new record. I wrote the title track at the beginning of my divorce [to producer Brad Albetta] five years ago. I wasn’t very happy and I was scared. But I think subconsciously I was driven to make something good out of something really bad. So there are songs about a terrible, scary divorce, losing access to your children, lawyers and courts and darkness. But also love and new beginnings.

Divorce has given me wisdom. But also a deep feeling of anger and hatred, which I had never had before. It’s a terrible feeling to dislike somebody so much. I just constantly try and remind myself that I did, at one point, love this person very much and that I chose to have children with them. I have to look at my children and see their father in them and find a way to be OK. I’m trying to really focus on the positive things, which I’ve never done. When I was young and writing sad songs about how terrible life can be, I never thought like this. But you have to find the good in things. The river is calling, you know.

Music has saved my life. It makes me feel good. Expressing myself makes me feel good. Playing and singing to people makes me feel good. I truly believe it’s what has kept me out of the gutter.

Martha’s new album, Love Will Be Reborn, is released on 20 August on Cooking Vinyl


James McMahon

The GuardianTramp

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