Martha Wainwright vs. the St. James church organ

We caught up with the Montreal singer-songwriter ahead of her performance at the St. James, which opens the annual Canadian International Organ Competition.

Crédit John Zimmerman1

Martha Wainwright and Christian Lane. Photo by John Zimmerman

After a long spell in New York City, Martha Wainwright has returned to her hometown. She moved back to la belle province in February, just in time for the birth of her second child (Francis Valentine) and now they and the rest of the family — her husband Brad Albetta and elder son, Arcangelo — are settled in the Outremont house she inherited from her late mother Kate McGarrigle.

When I spoke to Wainwright last week, she revealed that she has two new records in the works: she’s begun writing a new solo record, and begun recording an album of creepy lullabies with her sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche.

But the reason we connected was to discuss the very special concert she’s playing in Montreal tonight, accompanied by award-winning organists Jean-Willy Kunz and Christian Lane at the St. James United Church, to open the annual Canadian International Organ Competition.

Martha Wainwright 2Lorraine Carpenter: How did you get involved with this event?

Martha Wainwright: It’s totally weird but wonderful. I don’t know if my brother found him or how it worked out but the priest who did my mother’s funeral at Notre Dame Cathedral, he’s just this smart guy who’s involved in the cultural world as well, and he knows some of the organizers at this organ festival. They were looking to try something a little bit different to widen their audience so he proposed that I do a concert with some organ players, and they liked the idea so they reached out to me. At first I was completely confused and then I thought it could be really neat and really fun, so I said definitely, let’s try it.

LC: Have you ever been accompanied by a church organ before?

MW: Oh no.

St_James-1LC: So I guess that was part of the appeal, to do something different that’s outside of your comfort zone?

MW: Well absolutely. Something different, something strange, but also it’s an incredible-sounding instrument and I was really curious to hear what this could sound like with my music. I only really wanted to do it if I could use the organist to play my own songs — that’s what appealed to me about it, to breathe some new life into these songs and also to hear myself singing in a big church with a giant instrument.

Another thing I really like about this is how relaxed it is. The organists and I have had not so much time together; we rehearsed a bit but there’s a real sense of jamming with the musicians, which is really amazing. I get to play my guitar and stamp my foot with this guy who’s doing crazy stuff.

LC: How did you go about choosing the material you’re going to play?

MW: I wanted to do some of my own stuff, but I’ve always sung other people’s songs and some jazz standards, so there’s some of that, and a little bit of light classical music, some easier arias, some stuff that’s churchier-sounding, some great pop songs that I’ve always wanted to do, that are just beautiful songs. For me it was about what is melodic, because the organ can do so much. It was really fun to pick songs that have space for the organ to soar and other songs that are fast in tempo so that you can really hear the organ work — it’s a four-limbed instrument ’cause you’re playing with your feet, too, and because it’s so versatile, you can really throw a lot at the instrument and it will react in many ways. ■


Martha Wainwright opens the Canadian International Organ Competition with organists Jean-Willy Kunz and Christian Lane at St. James United Church (463 Ste-Catherine W.), 8 p.m., $40. Tickets are available here.

The Canadian International Organ Competition runs Oct. 7–19