When we last met Martha Wainwright, in 2008, she told us that her first and most constant influence was French chanteuse Edith Piaf. A year and a half later she’s taken that influence and run with it.
We’re in north London to chat about the impending release of her superb, ambitious collection of Piaf covers, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris, or its assumed title of Martha Wainwright’s Piaf Record. “Well, that’s what everyone would call it anyway,” she says.
It’s a brave departure after the success of her two self-penned album releases. “Actually it wasn’t my idea. It was the producer Hal Willner’s idea. In fact he proposed it three or four years ago – before my second album I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, but I wanted to record that album first. And I wasn’t sure about doing a record of Piaf songs because the film La Vie En Rose was coming out and I didn’t want to attach myself to that project and look like I was on that bandwagon.”
Piaf’s canon bears close study by anyone attempting to do it justice. “Hal told me to listen to the music and he sent me something like 300 songs by Piaf on an iPod.” So how did she whittle that down to the 15 tracks that make up the album? “Hal and I knew we wanted to focus on the songs that were perhaps lesser known. I knew I didn’t want to do Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien or La Vie En Rose because I felt that story had been heard and told, and there were all these other songs that were incredibly remarkable, and that also perhaps told the story of her life in a different way through the variation of the type of song that she sang, whether that was a song about La Resistance or about street life, or whatever other elements that sort of reflected her own life.
“I had wanted to make a French album at some point, but we broke these songs at a couple of tiny shows at a place called The Stone, which is a tiny little loft space in the East Village in New York. And I realised that Hal had a point in making it just Piaf songs because there was a focus and a conciseness that shows. If I’d done French songs from different eras it could’ve got lost and lacked in precision. By trying to pick lesser known songs it gave the project more glue.”
There are a couple of Piaf’s more famous songs. L’Accordeoniste was included, as was La Foule “because it’s just so fun. To be honest I didn’t really choose that one – we couldn’t help but do it.”
But the bulk of the album is made up of lesser known tracks. The title, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris is a line taken from one of them, Les Grognards. Meaning ‘barefoot without a gun in Paris’, it has a ring in both languages. Which of the other songs does she think stand out? “I like Les Blouses Blanches which is sort of her going mentally crazy and is sort of a reference to white blouses which in turn mean whitecoats in a psych ward. And I like Marie Trottoir which is just a little ditty about an old hooker.”
She likes some more than others though. “My favourite song is Soudain Une Vallee, which is totally different sounding. It was originally an English song with terrible lyrics – Suddenly A Valley, or Suddenly In A Valley, or maybe Suddenly, There Is A Valley. I don’t know. I found it recently and it’s absolutely dreadful. But I really like the French lyrics. They’re very simple and maybe that’s why I like them and the way they express the melody.”
On hearing the album, the reproduction is so immaculate that it may take the listener by surprise when, at the end of the third song, a round of applause kicks in and it’s revealed that it was recorded live. “Actually my record company were going to take out all of the applause – they said that live albums don’t sell. But it was really fucking hard to do because every song is done in one take and I’m not letting people think it’s a studio album.”
In common with much of the project’s gestation it was made on an intimate scale. “It was recorded in Dixon Place, a very small experimental space downtown in New York that only sits about 80 people. If it was a studio album it would sound even better, because I would have fixed things. So they took out the applause for the first couple of songs, but then we had to reveal,” she chuckles, “because I wanted people to be impressed”.
Having already alluded to the fact that she was weary of piggybacking the Oscar-winning film La Vie En Rose, she reinforces her desire to distance this project from that one. “Actually I’ve never seen that film. This is terrible but I haven’t gotten round to it and at the time I was sort of dubious of the idea of a sort of romantic, sexy film about Piaf, because she was not that attractive, and I thought that Marion Cotillard was not a proper casting. Although since then I’ve heard it’s absolutely great from people that I trust.”
“Also, my father (Loudon Wainwright III) walked out of the film. He’s a film snob who only watches rare Japanese cinema. So I thought there might be something wrong with the film. But the reason he walked out was that he thought it was so overly typically French with the red wine and the smoking or whatever and I thought to myself ‘well, actually, that’s how the French are’. He just couldn’t accept the fact that the French are really that French.”
As such, she says, “the album is not a reflection of the film. I think her name has come up now, and it was time for someone to shine a light, not only on Piaf’s life, but also on the oeuvre, on the music, and to pay tribute not only to Piaf, but also to the writers of the songs. My brother did a tribute to Judy Garland which was about him connecting with her. This is more about me just singing some Edith Piaf songs.”
How does she define the difference? “I was just moved by these songs and wanted to sing them as myself, although what of course ended up happening is that Piaf’s ghost gets in there. So many of these songs were written for her specifically and reflect her story. Even though I don’t try to sound like her, I can’t help it and sometimes hit notes that resonate. I’m tipping my hat to her.”
Having married her producer and bassist Brad Albetta in 2007, she takes the opportunity to drop a baby-sized bombshell when explaining what’s coming up next for her. “I’ll take the Piaf record to the Barbican on 11th November, and then the Pigalle Club a couple of weeks later and then I’m gonna wait ‘cos I’m gonna have a baby in January so I can’t go on the road much past December.”
Well, no. And at this point, as she sits back looking relaxed and casual in a mess of choppy hair and stripey leggings, her discrete baby bump becomes suddenly noticeable. She seems happy and positive and taking it all in her stride as “in springtime hopefully people will still be interested and we’ll come out and do festivals. Hopefully Glastonbury. I’d like to take Piaf to Glastonbury. I’ve gone for the last seven years in a row and camped and all the rest of it. Practically died each time.”
But first she goes to the Barbican. Along with the Royal Festival Hall, the Palladium and the Royal Opera House, she’s played the most impressive venues in London. “It’s the sign of a good agent. I’ve jumped on the backs of other great artists in my family, or of Judy Garland or Piaf, and I have worked hard in this town. I have also played most of the small bars as well. I’ve been coming here a long time.”
There’s one more of the big London concert houses to tick off. “Of course I’m going to be doing the Royal Albert Hall this Christmas” she exclaims, alluding to the A Not So Silent Night, where she’ll be joining forces with brother Rufus and her mother Kate McGarrigle to bring their family Christmas show to England for the first time.
“The last three times we’ve done it at Carnegie Hall and that’s been very New York centric with guests like Laurie Anderson and Antony and Emmylou Harris. We invite people who we generally know well or who we have sung with – it’s not just a star fucking thing. There’s genuinely a connection and so we wanted to bring it to London. It’s about singing together and because we like people to be incorporated into singing all the group stuff as well and bring them in to have the living room feeling. People have always said that my mum and my aunt’s shows are sort of like walking into their living room.”
So who can we expect at the Royal Albert Hall? “Shlomo will be there. And Guy Garvey because we love him and he’s a great singer. Boy George, because Rufus and him have a connection over the years. French and Saunders. And there are a couple of people that I can’t announce because I’m not allowed to”. Good surprises? Big surprises? “Yes, big surprises that are worth getting excited for”.
All in all, Martha’s getting ready for a hell of a busy time. Surely she’s not thinking further into the future than this album? “Well, actually I started writing my next record without realising it this summer. I’ve been working with ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. I composed some stuff and he put a bunch of my songs to dance. I composed a 25 minute song cycle for him to choreograph to.”
From solo artist to collaborator, did she enjoy the change of working pattern? “I really liked the process,” she says, “and thought that maybe this might be the beginning of the next record of these sort of larger chunks of music. It’s perhaps a bit more cinematic and a little less ‘woe is me’ personal. So come December, after the Christmas show, and when I have time to sit around,” she says optimistically, “I’ll start up with that again and start to write for the next record, with a movement based inspiration.”
You can’t help but admire her work ethic, embracing challenges and throwing herself into whatever project she attaches herself to. Martha Wainwright is not one for standing still.