“I want people to feel like anything can happen here,” says singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright, sitting in Ursa, her new small-event space in Montreal’s Mile End. “Ursa is what you want or need it to be, as long as it promotes positive things. My vision is a giant calendar on the wall, or Google calendar, and people just putting stuff in it.”
Ursa, named after the northern she-bear constellations, came about partly by chance, and partly as the realization of a dream. Ms. Wainwright has long wanted to have a place of her own where music and art could help foster a sense of community – “and where I could play and could also bring my kids.”
The chance part happened after she sold a property she owned in Brooklyn, and began looking for somewhere to invest the money in Montreal. After much searching, she found it in an old building around the corner from her home. The main tenant, at 5589 Avenue du Parc, is the indie festival organization, Pop Montreal. There’s also a former restaurant space in the basement, which Ms. Wainwright recognized as a place where her dream might come true.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I set up a room downstairs, and ask all my friends to come and play?’” she says. “We could make some food, and try to create a vibe, and see what happens.” The timing was right. Her young children are in school, and she’s working on a new album due out next year.
“Ursa is not based on profit,” she says. “It’s about finding something sustainable. I don’t have the bucks to staff this place and run it every day of the week.”
The sense of community that she’s after is modelled on what she already knows from her wide family circle.
“I’m really close to my cousins, they’re like siblings, and there’s a natural, communal way we work together with our extended family and friends,” she says. Several of them spent long hours building Ursa’s low stage, chopping out a stone dividing wall, installing stage lights, setting up a small bar and sewing the multicoloured drapes that soften the acoustics in the shoebox-shaped main room. A foyer area has sofas and a bar, for those who want a drink while the music is playing.
Ursa had its first gathering on Monday: a private fundraiser for the space, and the building, which will soon need a new roof. Ms. Wainwright and her brother Rufus Wainwright both performed, a small art auction was held and novelist/blogger Sean Michaels did a DJ set. “Me and my cousins also made dinner for 80,” Ms. Wainwright says. “I’m so used to being in the kitchen and cooking for people.”
Having an indie festival quartered upstairs is a bonus. “I love Pop Montreal, and they’re music promoters. I need them.”
Ms. Wainwright is planning two weekend festivals: Ursa Micro at the beginning of summer, featuring members of Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene; and The Last Rose of Summer, just before Labour Day. She also expects friends to come by for late-night shows after their gigs at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, or at Pop Montreal in the fall.
She also has memoirs in the works, titled Stories I Might Regret Telling You. “I worked on it for three years, and almost had it done, and then I went through a horrific divorce,” she says. “Now I’m back on top of it, but obviously talking about a difficult marriage is something you don’t really want to do in a book, especially if you have children.”
Will her new album reflect on that breakup? “Hopefully, I’m learning the art of subtlety," she says. "I would still like to express myself without hurting anybody, but that’s hard to do.”
Daniel Seligman, Pop Montreal’s creative director, says his group was relieved to acquire a sympathetic landlord, and intrigued by the possibilities of Ursa. “Pop Montreal is an intimate festival,” he says. “We’re never going to have 20,000 people in front of a big stage.”
Their festival HQ is the Rialto Theatre, which has two performance spaces, room for exhibitions and a festival conference, and a spot for late-night sets in the basement. They also program at the Cinéma L’Amour, a porn house that is also “a gorgeous old Yiddish vaudeville theatre, basically untouched, with incredible acoustics,” Mr. Seligman says.
The lineup for the festival’s 18th edition includes established stars such as Laurie Anderson and Nick Cave; and relative newcomers such as Brazil’s explosive mamba negra band Teto Preto; British post-R&B singer Tirzah; and New Zealand’s singer-songwriter Aldous Harding. Canadian performers include Noh-wave band, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan; saxophonist Colin Stetson; and rockers Hollerado. The full roster is at popmontreal.com.