TORONTO - It's been 32 months since legendary Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle succumbed to sarcoma, a period her grieving son Rufus Wainwright has spent organizing tribute concerts on both sides of the Atlantic, assembling a compilation album in his mother's honour and contributing to an engrossing documentary now getting a home release.
And yet, whenever he watches director Lian Lunson's "Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle," he's once again overcome by emotion.
"I mean, I still cry when I see it," Wainwright said in a telephone interview this week. "What's brilliant about this movie ... it's just about kids losing their mom. And that happens to everybody.
"For people who come in and they don't know anything about Kate's music, they very quickly kind of latch onto just the general paradigm of the loss of a parent."
The film captures a star-studded McGarrigle tribute held at New York's Town Hall theatre in May 2011, a rousing if tear-soaked affair featuring appearances from nine-time Grammy winner Norah Jones, country legend Emmylou Harris, late-night giggler Jimmy Fallon and English troubadour Antony Hegarty in addition to many members of the McGarrigle clan, including Kate's sister (and longtime performing partner) Anna and her daughter, Martha Wainwright.
With the film now available across most video-on-demand formats — including iTunes, YouTube, Xbox and Sony platforms — Wainwright talked to The Canadian Press about his mother, his defiantly diverse career and the McGarrigles' music, which he calls a "renewable resource."
CP: After your mother died, you really threw yourself into honouring her. Was it difficult standing onstage and singing her songs so soon after her death?
Wainwright: Everybody who loses a close parent, and even a parent they're not so close to, it's always a traumatic and sad experience. On the other hand, going up there and really inhabiting our grief, there's certainly something more searing about it. You're definitely throwing the butter right onto the frying pan. (laughs) And then again, maybe the butter will melt sooner then.
Martha and I and my aunt Anna as well, we all miss Kate dearly. And me especially, because Kate and I were arguably the closest. She haunts me constantly. And the floor will fall under me at certain times. But in general, we've survived this and — for all of the fears and pitfalls of the stage — we are stronger through the end of it. Though it probably was more intense than what most people have to deal with initially.
CP: You and Martha have a great rapport at these concerts and it's captured again in the film. Have you grown closer since Kate died?
Wainwright: We've always been fairly close because our mother really stuck us together. Kate would have preferred if we had been a duo, actually — that was kind of her great dream, that we would become the Wainwright brother and sister act. She was right in a way. When Martha and I do join forces, it's extremely powerful and it is something that arguably is bigger than each of us individually. We're very fortunate to have realized this power of unity that we have.
CP: Fans of your mother's seem to simultaneously lament and treasure the fact that she wasn't more well-known. Are you trying to bring her music to more people?
Wainwright: Kate's songs and Anna's songs are some of the best songs written of that period. And if you're going to throw them all into a body of water, they will float, and be up there on top with all the other great songs. So I have more of a sense of shepherding them to their rightful position.
I mean, I have ulterior motives because certainly Martha and I now own Kate's publishing, so if someone ever did cover one of those songs — and it is starting to happen, having Norah Jones sing "Mendocino" is a real coup — it works out well for us.
But it's really all about the material. Yes, Kate and Anna's audience were lucky to have it as their own secret treasure but like any secret treasure, once it's discovered, it's gone.
CP: There's a nice moment in the film where Martha says you've only made it in the family once you're asked to sing. Do you remember when your mother took notice of your talent?
Wainwright: I have no memory of it whatsovever because I famously started extremely young, meaning that Kate claims that at six months I could sing. Having had a child myself, I have reservations about that pronouncement. But she claims she would sing "Old MacDonald" and then I would sing "E-I-E-I-O" and then modulate the key. Needless to say, it was always around for me.
CP: Your mother was very principled about her music. Did you inherit that from her?
Wainwright: She was my greatest admirer and my greatest critic at the same time. I certainly inherited a kind of roving heart, always looking for what's emotionally true and powerful. There were certain things I didn't get from her, which I wish I had. My mother was also an incredibly adept musician. She could blow any pianist out of the water with her ear ... she could play the banjo, she could play the guitar, she could play the violin, she was technically this wizard. Martha and I are fairly good at her instruments, but we're not like she was. Alas, maybe my daughter. Who knows? Let's hope that skips a generation.
CP: Early in your career you attained recognition and publicity on a huge scale. How did your mother feel about that?
Wainwright: She was very excited. One thing that my mother didn't have was this ferocious ambition and an armour one needs to survive in show business. But both Martha and I have that. We probably more got that from our dad (folksinger Loudon Wainwright III). She had a sense that I could make it and that I was sturdy enough to do so. But there was also a bit of resentment and jealousy because that was the one element that she didn't have. She had all the talent, she had all the beauty, she had all the brains, but when she was out there in the storm of Hollywood or Manhattan, she just felt like the little girl from Montreal. So I think she was happy for us, but I think she would have liked to be more famous and more successful financially.
CP: You mentioned Hollywood. Have you ever felt the Hollywood lure?
Wainwright: My daughter lives part time in Los Angeles, she's between Paris and L.A. She lives with her mother. So I'm planning on spending a lot of time in L.A. And when you're in California, you can't help but start to hook in to what's going on there, for better or worse. The last time I spent a month there, I came back and I was like: "Well, I have five TV shows I'm going to do and three movies and I'm going to be the lead in this commercial." It kind of happens that way. Half the things never happen. But if you're there, you kind of go Hollywood immediately.
Answers have been edited and condensed.