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Dunlevy: Martha Wainwright opens new cultural venue in Mile End

“Welcome to Martha’s basement,” Montreal singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk quipped, taking the stage after Martha Wainwright Wednesday evening to play a couple of songs at a programming launch party for POP Montreal.

He was referring to the brand-new cultural venue Wainwright is opening in the heart of Mile End. It’s not really called Martha’s Basement, but it could well have been.

Wainwright’s cousins — many of whom have been appearing on stage with her for years and have been actively involved in getting the new space off the ground — call it the clubhouse.

“When we came in, it was our clubhouse,” Wainwright said, sitting in her new digs on Thursday. “The idea is for it to become a clubhouse for the community, for Mile End, Outremont, then greater Montreal, then the planet.”

It’s called Ursa, as in the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, commonly known as the big and little dipper — or, from the Latin, big she-bear and little she-bear.

“A couple of years ago, my divorce had started, and I had been having a really hard time,” Wainwright said. “A friend put a copper bracelet on my wrist that said ‘Mama bear.’

“That (term) rang really true to me. I was wanting to protect my kids; now I’m wanting to take care of, first, my own children, then all the children of the world, all of us.”

Martha Wainwright cleans up the kitchen in Ursa, the cultural venue she is opening in Montreal’s Mile End, on Thursday, May 23, 2019. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

That’s around the time Wainwright started thinking about opening her own venue. She mentioned it to me in cryptic asides during interviews last year and the year before, as she began scouting locales.

Then in December, she was walking up Parc Ave., near her Outremont home, and saw a “For Sale” sign on a building north of St-Viateur St., the upper two floors of which are home to POP Montreal’s offices, and the semi-basement of which formerly housed a restaurant.

“I think a lot of people were not interested in buying this building because POP Montreal was in it,” Wainwright said. “When I found out POP Montreal was here, I said, ‘I don’t want you to go anywhere. I want you to stay, I want to extend your lease, I want you to help me.’ ”

Yes, Wainwright is now POP Montreal’s landlord. And in the spirit of our city’s inclusive music festival, she sees Ursa as a space that will be defined by those who are drawn to it.

With its low ceilings and homey decor, the apartment-sized venue located at 5589 Parc Ave. has a laid-back, comfortably underground feel.

“People of a certain age come in and say, ‘Oh, it reminds me of a coffee house from the ’60s or ’70s,” Wainwright said. “If that’s what they see, they should be able to have that. Young mothers see their kids doing art class here; that sounds about right, yep.

“If younger hipster artists who are non-binary, queer Montrealers are wanting to do something, let’s do it. It’s multi-generational, multicultural, multilingual, whatever. Basically, I don’t want to define it.”

On Monday night, Wainwright and her brother Rufus hosted Ursa’s first event, an invite-only, $250 dinner (cooked up by Wainwright and her cousins) and show, featuring songs and banter by the singer-songwriter siblings for a select group of 80 people.

The proceeds went to Wainwright’s “slush fund” so that she can see her project through to fruition.

“I don’t have any money left,” she said.

But Ursa isn’t about that.

This is not a business model for ‘How are we going to make the most money.’

“This is not a business model for ‘How are we going to make the most money,’ ” she explained. “That hasn’t even been considered. What’s being considered at this point is ‘How are we going to break even?’ ”

Upcoming events include the soon-to-be-announced Ursa Micro festival, June 21-23, with performances by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, Little Scream, Betty Bonifassi, members of Plants and Animals, Broken Social Scene and others.

“There will be music starting around 1 o’clock,” Wainwright said. “Kids are welcome, we’re going to be making sandwiches, simple food, serving beer and maybe have a more serious concert at nighttime.”

Related

Wainwright has been making calls, inviting music acts performing at this summer’s Montreal International Jazz Festival to drop by after their gigs; early response has been positive.

She foresees more one-offs during the next few months, and busy times during POP Montreal in September, following which Ursa will open its doors full-time.

“I have some ideas because I have a forceful personality and I’m like, ‘Let’s do this thing,’ ” she said. “At the same time, you tell me what you want to do. I just see a giant calendar with weird things on it; let’s fill it in.”

tdunlevy@postmedia.com

twitter.com/TChaDunlevy

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