Runs in the Family
On “Far Away” – the first song on her self-titled 2005 debut – Martha Wainwright sings:
I have no children
I have no husband
I have no reason to be alive
Now, a decade later, Wainwright is a mother of two. Arcangelo (or Arc, as he’s often known) is almost six years old and Francis is almost two. And, Wainwright has just released an album of lullabies with her half-sister, the equally talented but somewhat more understated singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche.
Joining a long line of sibling roots music duos, Songs in the Dark (released November 13 on PIAS Records) is the first album this pair have released as the Wainwright Sisters. It’s a pretty sprawling effort, at 16 songs, yet it doesn’t overstay its welcome. While all the songs are lullabies, there’s an incredible amount of variety here in terms of mood. Listeners can expect to be taken on an emotional journey from sadness to happiness, fear to humor. Some of the songs are borrowed from their musical family’s repertoire, and almost all of them are lovely.
A New Kind of Harmony
Born in 1976 and 1981, respectively, Martha and Lucy Wainwright may not trouble Katy Perry on the charts, but both women are part of New York City’s folk-rock elite. They share the same father – renowned singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III – but have different mothers.
Loudon’s first marriage, to the late singer Kate McGarrigle, produced two children – Martha and her brother, Rufus, also a remarkable musician. After that divorce, Loudon had a relationship with singer and actress Suzzy Roche, which produced a daughter, Lucy. Incidentally, both McGarrigle and Roche were the youngest members of singing sister groups – Kate & Anna McGarrigle and the Roches, respectively. And, it doesn’t take long in talking with this pair of half-sisters to discover that the significance of family in the Wainwright-Roche-McGarrigle clan cannot be overstated.
Despite that, Lucy told me in a recent phone interview, “We didn’t really sing together as kids. In the past couple [of] years, we’ve done some Christmas shows together where we sang as part of a bigger group. But this is certainly the first project we’ve ever done together one on one. It’s a first on many levels.
"We sounded a lot alike when we sang together. … Somehow, when we got together, whatever [it is that] we share emerged." - Lucy Wainwright Roche
“I think our individual work sounds really different from one another,” she adds. “But one of the most surprising things that we discovered in the studio was that we sounded a lot alike when we sang together. … There were times in the studio when we would listen back and we wouldn’t be able to tell ourselves apart. … Somehow, when we got together, whatever [it is that] we share emerged.”
“It was very easy and it was very comfortable,” Martha agrees. “I’m not used to that; I’m used to things being difficult.” She laughs. “You know, bickering or pushing or fighting – in the voice and in what you’re trying to say. [It] was kind of a relief to be able to just be more in harmony.”
Shortly after that phone conversation, the Wainwright Sisters delivered a show at New York’s City Winery, to celebrate the release of Songs in the Dark. Echoing what they’d told me on the phone, their rapport during that show was notably natural – both vocally and interpersonally.
Onstage and even during our interview, it was Martha who took the lead. She can have a bit of an edge, as anyone who has listened to her solo work knows. But she balances that out with wit, warmth, openness, and a truckload of talent. She’s capable of tapping a variety of genres from gut-wrenching, Piaf-style ballads to more traditional singer-songwriter fare to alternative rock that borders on dance music. Lucy, who has two solo efforts under her belt to Martha’s four, is a bit more even-keeled but also a talent to be reckoned with. Her voice, like her personality, is somewhat less gritty than her sister’s – clear as a bell with an incredible upper register. Yin and yang to a degree; together, they are a natural fit.
Holed Up at Camp 63
To record Songs in the Dark, Wainwright and Roche headed to rural Canada for two different sessions, the most recent taking place during last winter, with producer and bassist – and Wainwright’s husband – Brad Albetta at the helm. “The McGarrigle-Wainwright family has this house that my grandfather built, north of Montreal,” Wainwright told me. “[It] has four little cabins on it. They were built for local skiers. … The smallest one was abandoned for a long time. And then my mom took an interest in it about seven or eight years ago and sort of did a little fix-up on it. [It’s a] little chalet, this really small room with bunk beds basically, and a little bathroom. It’s Camp 63 – [that’s the] number on the door. I thought it would be nice to put a little recording studio in there with some of my husband’s gear. It’s a really small space but very quaint. It has a fireplace in it and these old double windows.”
While the room was important to capture the vibe, the impetus for Songs in the Dark came five or six years ago when Wainwright’s friend Davia Nelson – one half of the public radio producer team known as the Kitchen Sisters – sent her a mix CD shortly after Arc was born. As Wainwright wrote in the disc’s liner notes, that mix provided her with many of the songs that wound up on this record. To flesh out the disc even further, she and Roche dipped into their own collections and songs their parents had written.
Neither of the sisters wrote anything on Songs in the Dark. “Prairie Lullaby,” a slow, traditional tune originally recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, opens the record and is followed by the similar “Hobo’s Lullaby,” written by Goebel Reeves but made famous by Woody Guthrie.
The sisters also recorded their take on the classic Simon & Garfunkel song “El Condor Pasa.” Paul Simon has not only been an important influence on Roche and Wainwrights but shares an association with their family, especially on the Roche side. Some 40 years ago, he co-produced Seductive Reasoning, the debut album by a young Maggie and Terre Roche – Lucy’s aunts – before her mother even joined their band, the Roches. To boot, Lucy herself covered Simon’s classic “America” on her 2010 debut, Lucy.
“Around the time I was 11 or 12, I had a big love affair with [Simon & Garfunkel] records,” she explains. “When I was learning to play the guitar, [‘El Condor Pasa’] was one of the first songs I ever learned to play. It wasn’t actually in our first [group] of songs that we thought about. Then it just sort of popped into our heads one day, as a song that has a sort of sadness about it but also has a childlike quality. And I guess Martha was into it too. It’s a strange song, but it sort of fit in with everything else we were doing.”
If the disc can be divided into halves, then the remainder of the first half is comprised mainly of songs written by members of the Wainwright family. There is one penned by Loudon (“Lullaby”), one by Terre Roche (“Runs in the Family,” which, according to family lore, is the first song she ever wrote), and a collaboration called “Screaming Issue,” which Loudon and Terre wrote together for baby Lucy. On the latter as well as on “Lullaby,” Loudon Wainwright’s ambivalence about his role as a father comes through loud and clear. That ambivalence is at least leavened with some humor on “Lullaby.” But on “Screaming Issue,” the humor is gone. The song is actually pretty harrowing, as Loudon describes her birth, and its effect on him, in vivid detail. It’s a scene that’s cold in more ways than one:
Born on the 16th of December
Ludwig, Grandfather, and you
In Poland tanks were rolling
On Hudson Street it was snowing
Taxi ride to the hospital
Laboring by centimeters
Lucy, when I hear you crying I don’t know what I can do
You’re so miserable lying next to me I can’t help you
"It's interesting how things tie us back to one another, and of course to our parents. ... When I sing ['Lullaby to a Doll'], I sound a lot like my mother." - Martha Wainwright
In contrast, Kate McGarrigle’s “Lullaby to a Doll,” which she wrote for her daughter Martha, is also ambivalent but has a wistfulness and maternal warmth that Loudon’s lyrics obviously do not.
When I was small, I had dolls
Some could walk, some could talk, some could cry
Others would wet when I’d lie ’em down
And like a mother I’d rock them to sleep with some old melody
One I had learned at my mother’s knee
But you, you’re like no doll
You don’t fall asleep after I’ve kissed you goodnight
And unlike your doll you won’t stay small
You’ll grow and grow too soon to take flight
As the song plays out, McGarrigle’s writing nails the feeling many mothers experience, of being conflicted about wanting their children to grow up. “What was interesting about it,” Martha says, “is that Lucy [said] she knew the song and really liked [it] when she was a kid. Which I had no idea about, you know? I had already sort of turned away from my childhood. When Kate wrote it, I was coming into my teenage years, which were, to be honest with you, somewhat rebellious. I don’t know if Lucy liked it because she was younger than me and she liked the idea of it, [but] it was a nice connection.
“It’s interesting how things tie us back to one another,” she adds. “And of course to our parents. It’s surreal. When I sing that song, I sound a lot like my mother.”
As anyone who heard her last proper studio album, 2012’s Come Home to Mama, knows, Martha Wainwright is no stranger to surreal events and connections. That album was inspired by the twin life-changing events of losing her mother – McGarrigle died in January 2010, a month shy of her 64th birthday – and becoming a mother herself.
Arcangelo was born very prematurely, in a series of bizarre coincidences. “His due date was actually the day [Kate] died,” says Wainwright. “It was like an incredible passing of life from one to the other.”
Thus, the last two songs on Come Home to Mama – “All Your Clothes” and “Everything Wrong” – are both incredibly moving ballads that are sung to her mother and her son, respectively.
Still, despite the fact that the Wainwright family can rival anyone in the darkness department, they can also be witty and light – a thread that runs through the music of the entire Wainwright-McGarrigle-Roche clan. In this case, the lightest moment on the first half of Songs in the Dark is undoubtedly the “Baby Rocking Medley.”
"I think it's impossible to always be there for your kids. As a female artist, it's a choice that we make to try and do both. It's a hard road." - Martha Wainwright
“That was [another] one that was on the original [mix] CD,” says Wainwright. “It’s by a woman named Rosalie Sorrels who my mom always loved. She was a great songwriter but she was always conflicted in her life between her work and her children. I thought that was a really important thing to bring up. It’s certainly something that I [relate to]. … She had six kids and she continued to be a songwriter. And to be honest, it was always [said] that perhaps her kids suffered because of it, because she wasn’t always there for them. I think it’s impossible to always be there for your kids. As a female artist, it’s a choice that we make to try and do both. It’s a hard road.”
In the middle of the “Baby Rocking Medley,” there’s a section where Wainwright talks it out. “It’s 5:30 in the morning,” she says. “That kid has not quit howling now for six hours. … Things are getting awful bad and you need something else. Every culture’s got one: it’s the hostile baby-rocking song. You just can’t keep all that stuff bottled up inside yourself. You need to let it out some way, or you’d get strange. … Punch the baby in the mouth … You can’t do that. You’d get an awful big ticket for it, and it makes you feel lousy. So you take that baby and you rock it firmly, smile sweetly … And you sing the hostile baby-rocking song.” And then she and Roche do just that. It’s a way to acknowledge the challenge of being a new parent – but with a little more humor and perhaps less self-indulgence than Loudon could have managed.
Why Lullabies Exist
The second half of Songs in the Dark includes a Townes Van Zandt cover, as well as several traditional songs (including the a cappella album closer, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”), an instrumental (Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby”), and what is probably the bleakest track on the album: Richard Thompson’s “End of the Rainbow” is so dark that it makes “Screaming Issue” sound like a Sesame Street song. To wit:
All the sad and empty faces
That pass you on the street
All running in their sleep, all in a dream
Every loving handshake
Is just another man to beat
How your heart aches just to cut him to the core
Life seems so rosy in the cradle
But I’ll be a friend I’ll tell you what’s in store
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow
There’s nothing to grow up for anymore
It’s heavy stuff, especially for an album of lullabies. When the sisters began singing it during their album release show in New York, there were laughs from quite a few audience members. But, by the time they finished, you could have heard a pin drop.
“When we first talked about it,” Roche says, “I think [we] were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s such an amazing song, but is it okay to include in this collection?’ We sort of fell in love with it, and I think once we recorded it, there wasn’t any doubt about whether or not it should be included.”
“There’s a spectrum of darkness on the record and [that song] is definitely the most intense one,” adds Wainwright. “I mean, you can’t go any further. I put it later on the record because I’m hoping the children will have already fallen asleep by then, and it’ll now just be for the adults to listen to.
“The record does have a practical purpose,” she continues. “It ties into why lullabies exist in the first place. Or one of the reasons lullabies exist, and one of the reasons why they were always somewhat morbid and sad and intense [is that] they served a purpose. To warn children in some way of the harsh realities of life. Children in the past were more exposed to death, they were going to funerals a lot more often, [so] it was a way to normalize these things so that they weren’t in shock.”
At the “End of the Rainbow”
In her liner notes, Wainwright writes, “The strongest songs on the record, I think, are our parents’ songs.” And, with the possible exception of “End of the Rainbow,” I have to agree.
“Singing songs meant for or about me is something I can’t describe,” continues Wainwright. “When I’m singing ‘Lullaby for a Doll,’ which was written for me by my mom, I feel I’ve become her. I sound a lot like her and can’t help but feel the mystery of genetics and the oddness of how we all got here. … I can go on and on but I don’t want to bore people. I just want to say that I miss my mother and the songs she sang to me. The song ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody’ is the song she most often sang. … I sing it now for my kids.”
Indeed, Songs in the Dark may have started as a pleasant side project for the Wainwright Sisters, but it clearly evolved into something bigger. Not only has it introduced these half-sisters to what they’re capable of as a musical duo, but it also seems to have opened new doors for them toward understanding their parents better. This is especially true in Wainwright’s case. With her mother gone – and being a mother herself now – she has become part of a long chain, stepping into her mother’s place.
Roche may not be a parent, but she has a pretty strong connection to children nonetheless. Not only is she Wainwright’s de facto babysitter, but she worked as an elementary school teacher before going into the family business of music.
“I really liked that job,” Roche says of her time in the classroom. “It’s not [unlike] doing shows; it’s kind of about communicating with a group of people. I always really liked kids. When I was a teenager, I did a lot of babysitting and stuff. But teaching? I loved it.”
Nonetheless, with Roche’s two solo albums and this remarkable new collaboration with her sister, it’s hard to picture her having to go back to the classroom. With Songs in the Dark, the Wainwright Sisters have not only made a lovely record; they’ve uncovered truths about family, growth, and tradition that have brought them closer to each other and themselves, and shed light on the roots from which they came.