Martha wainwright Ursa Montreal

Martha Wainwright in Ursa's kitchen. Photo by Penelope Fortier

Martha Wainwright’s Montreal music venue Ursa is a dream come true

An interview with the singer-songwriter and entrepreneur about her music and art space.

Martha Wainwright is on the tail end of several shows marking the 10-year anniversary of the death of her mother Kate McCarrigle. When we met in Ursa, the event space in Montreal she opened nine months ago, the walls were still hung with photos of Kate and her sister Anna McCarrigle from a tribute show and exhibition back in early February. She’s both at ease with her mother’s death, in the sense that she “live[s] in her house and” and “literally wear[s] her clothes”, but speaks about a tendency not to think about these things, and then to suddenly realize that “I’ve lost my voice or my back hurts or I can’t get up out of bed or I drink to much.” 

Death and memory, in other words, have a way of manifesting themselves regardless, but she seems dedicated to the task of honouring her mother while moving forward with her own life. “We’ve really kept [Kate’s] legacy alive in many ways and I think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t have a therapist right now but when I have had a therapist they haven’t told me that it’s bad to do.” Dealing with the archive of her mother and her mother’s music has made her consider what “musical legacy means – its importance or its unimportance.”

Family and it’s legacy is key to Wainwright’s sense of herself, whether it’s talking about how Rufus takes their mother’s death differently way out in Los Angeles, or how her cousins came to help paint and clean Ursa and to sew the curtains for the space, or how she wants Ursa to be something her kids can “grow into.” 

On the genesis of Ursa, Martha Wainwright says: “Well for many years I had, I don’t think its a childish fantasty, but a stupid idea to have a little music venue/space where I’d be wearing an apron and cooking and then I’d sing songs.” It was a notion she toyed with while living in Bed Stuy in New York City, but an idea she’s only been recently able to realize here in Montreal.

The space is getting busier but they’re “still fumbling terribly.” Still, part of the idea was to “open it and see what the community dictates, what the space dictates.” It’s still early days, but Wainwright has a vision for the space, part of which involves convincing musicians coming through town for the Jazz Festival or for Osheaga to pass by for “a little after show.”

Now, Martha Wainwright likes to talk about money, and it is mildly disconcerting to sit in front of a Wainwright while they speak so blithely about how “everybody in [her] family for one reason or another is really strapped for cash” and how they need more to fix the roof on the family home. She’s got a sense of her own privilege -– of how inheriting her mother’s apartment in Outremont has insulated her from rising rents in the neighbourhood, but there’s a disconnect too, where Ursa recently hosted a $200 per ticket fundraiser for itself. 

Then again, Wainwright talks about the ways in which private money has shaped the American arts scene, those “families that have a long history of being philanthropists,” whereas in Canada, arts funding tends to fall somewhat awkwardly between the private and the governmental. The money talk, in other words, may be a little gauche, but it’s likely also an honest reflection of how hard it is for any artist to get by, even those with a name and enough cash for a fixer-upper in the Mile End, and Wainwright clearly wants to be part of the solution, part of a community of artists and not just a community of creative hustlers. Even just sitting in Ursa, in this slightly chilly but very cute semi-basement, I felt relaxed but enthused. The space oozes that itch of involvement – that desire to be a part of something. 

Ursa is in the process of coming into itself, but is very cosy and truly redolent of the laissez-faire core of Montreal, a core that feels increasingly hard to find. Wainwright describes how people tell her “Thank you for being here. There’s nothing like this anymore and Mile End Montreal is being thrown out to the wolves.” It does feel like it exists outside of time. A co-worker, Ian Davies, the writer and one of the musicians behind the local project Holding Hands, said it seemed like just the kind of place he’d imagine a young Bob Dylan might have played, and I think he’s right. It seems to readily invite mythologizing. Martha Wainwright making soup served from lovely mismatched bowls, any number of well known folk singers playing to a tiny crowd out of a sound system made by “these crazy guys who make it out in Boucherville or somewhere.” As Wainwright put it, “there’s a lot of possibility to have a really beautiful moment.” ■

Ursa is located at 5589 Parc in Montreal. Martha Wainwright will be live-steaming from Ursa as part of POP Montreal’s Leonard Cohen sing-along on Sunday, March 22, 8 p.m.

For more about the venue, please go to the Ursa Facebook page.

For more coverage of the Montreal music scene, see the Music section.

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