Music Interviews

Martha Wainwright: “My songs are steeped in an earthiness. I feel a struggle to be understood” – Interview

“People would still think I’m pretty brilliant even if I hadn’t been born into a family of musicians,” Martha Wainwright proclaims confidently. She’s very likely right. If Martha Wainwright’s breathtaking debut didn’t suffice to recast her as so much more than the sister of Rufus Wainwright, the daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle (or, for the hopelessly unenlightened, “that girl from the Snow Patrol track”), perhaps her deliciously titled follow-up I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings Too will do the trick.

musicOMH caught up with Martha for a chat about the record, family feuds and why she’s fine with being known as the Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole chick…


The depth of Martha’s inwardly focused consciousness was on full display in her self-titled debut. After all, the critically acclaimed album is home to the evocative and bone-rattlingly angry Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, dedicated to her controversial father. Not that self-indulgence and introspection ever went out of style, but the new album sees Martha gazing beyond her navel as she tackles themes ranging from the ravages of war (in Tower) to her mother’s battle with cancer (in the harrowing In The Middle Of The Night). What’s changed? “The new album is definitely less autobiographical,” Martha explains. “On my debut, I wanted to tell the story of a young woman battling her issues. This one is more of an outward-looking album, and I also approached it with more of a lightness and a sense of humour. I think we all learn to look outside of ourselves as we get a bit older and begin to realise that our problems are not that drastic in comparison to what many other people in the world have to contend with.”

Sonically, the album has a slightly more upbeat commercial touch. It’s not a stretch to imagine tracks such as You Cheated Me and Coming Tonight as, dare I say, hit singles. Can we assume that the storm clouds have finally lifted? Did Martha struggle to tweak her sound in order to reach listeners whose ears have yet to be opened? “I don’t feel conflicted about it at all because I didn’t intentionally set out to make a more commercial album,” Martha reveals. “I think I must feel happier or something. Touring and singing a lot over the last few years just gave me the incentive to have more fun in the studio, work with different producers and spend more money. The poppier touch on tracks like You Cheated Me is just a reflection of my life, so it’s not odd to me since it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. Perhaps it’s a by-product of gaining more confidence and becoming more content…”

Martha partially credits her newfound confidence and contentment to her recent marriage to Brad Albetta, her producer and bassist. The album is not just a grandiose family affair (brother Rufus, mother Kate, aunt Anna McGarrigle and cousin Lily Lanken are enlisted on guest vocal and instrumental duties). Also making guest appearances on the album are The Band‘s Garth Hudson, The Who‘s Pete Townshend and Steely Dan‘s Donald Fagen.

“Clearly one of the many benefits of nepotism,” jokes Martha. “Garth Hudson is an artist I would always call to play on anything, just because with him you know you’re going to get something no one else is going to achieve. It’s also important to support him because Robbie Robertson stole all of The Band’s royalties, so Garth and the other guys deserve as much attention as they can get. Donald Fagen is an old family friend. With Pete Townshend, he’s a friend and a fan who I met a few years ago. I just asked him if he’d like to play something – it was musician to musician and friend to friend, rather than some big flash concept.”

“I did initially rebel against joining the ‘family business’, but I think it just came from a fear that I wouldn’t be good enough…” – Martha Wainwright

Having been exposed to music at such an early age, which artists do Martha consider as her musical heroes? Have these iconic figures remained constant throughout her musical career or have they changed with her evolution as an artist? “I don’t really write in his style, but as a songwriter I’ve always regarded Bob Dylan as a musical hero. How could you not? As far as female musicians go, Chrissie Hynde is just amazing. She has this intense control over her voice which I respect, probably because it’s a quality I lack. I also admire the fact that she’s a woman who has more balls than all the guys in the band combined. Performance-wise, I guess I’ve always looked up to someone like Dolly Parton who is just such a great singer. But my first and most constant influence would have to be Edith Piaf. Even as a child, her amazingly emotive performance style really clicked with me.”

Some artists run from the track which put them on the map, whereas others happily embrace it. What is Martha’s relationship with B.M.F.A? “I love singing B.M.F.A. because it’s a very useful song to sing. It can be about anybody and anything, and I really see it as being very anthemic. The minute I started singing it on the road, it was no longer about me or whoever I was thinking of. It really became about whoever the audience wanted it to be about, and I would start feeling like I was part of a choir. I’m happy to be known for that track, since I can see why people would find it so powerful.”

With a life that is obviously full of stories, Martha is an emotionally honest artist who has drawn inspiration almost exclusively from personal experiences as opposed to conjuring up hypothetical situations. But are there any topics which are too personal or taboo even for her? “Of course I’ve written things down and then gone, “I can’t say that. That’s wrong.” But what I want to do is talk about things which affect us all without hurting anyone’s feelings,” explains Martha. “Certainly, with B.M.F.A. I probably went a bit far, but I would like to reiterate to everyone, especially my dad, who has to bear the brunt of everything, that it truly is about whomever or whatever the listener wants it to be about. I don’t want to use people and I don’t want to use songs to complain about my feelings. People are so safe with songwriting nowadays that it’s so repetitive. I’m just trying to push the envelope.”

“My first and most constant influence would have to be Edith Piaf…” – Martha Wainwright

The Wainwright family soap opera is well documented. An album reviewer for The Guardian flippantly remarked that we should officially recognise a “sub-section of the singer-songwriter genre entirely devoted to songs about what a crap bloke Loudon Wainwright III is.” In a recent radio appearance, Martha expressed her displeasure over these comments. She takes the chance to dispel misconceptions people may have about her family, particularly her father. “I would definitely like to clear some things up. All I can say is that my father has certainly done a great job. With me writing a song at 21 about being angry with my parents, I think it’s pretty much a standard of how a lot of young people feel at that age. These songs are snapshots of particular moments in time, and the reality of the situation is a lot more complicated.”

Martha’s success can be attributed to the fact that she knows exactly where she lies on the musical spectrum. While Rufus is renowned for his theatrical panache, Martha recognises that any attempt to ‘outglitter’ her brother would be inauthentic, and not in keeping with her artistic identity. “I think Rufus and I are very different. There are some similarities, like the sophistication in the music which we both put out there. But I think he’s a lot more dramatic and romantic with his songwriting. Rufus is more imaginative, and there are more characters in his songs, as well as a higher level of grandiosity in terms of his performance. My songs are steeped in an earthiness, and I feel more of a struggle to be understood. I sort of see Rufus’ career in music as being written in the stars, whereas my career sort of came up from the roots in a more arduous way.”

What would Martha be doing if she hadn’t been born into a family of musicians? “Exactly what I’m doing now. Sometimes people aren’t that impressed since I obviously got all this stuff because of the family I was born into, but I’d like to think I’d still be a singer and songwriter. I did initially rebel against joining the ‘family business’, but I think it just came from a fear that I wouldn’t be good enough…”

Last year, Martha flexed her artistic muscles further by singing in the Royal Ballet’s performance of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. I commented on her seamless movement around the stage, which she attributes to her instinct of self-preservation, as well as a childhood passion for dance.

“People are so safe with songwriting nowadays that it’s so repetitive. I’m just trying to push the envelope” – Martha Wainwright

“We’re doing it again in January 2009 actually. When the choreographer Will Tuckett asked me to do the piece, I told him I wanted to do as much movement as possible without looking like an idiot. I was taught to move around very specifically so I wouldn’t get decapitated by a foot. It’s like all of my girly childhood dreams have suddenly come true – I got married and got to dance with prima ballerinas in Covent Garden. All I’m missing now is a little pony.”

With an album title like I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, Martha is a lyricist who employs the English language with unbridled incisiveness. So it came as a surprise to me that her favourite lyric on the album was marked by restraint and understatement. “I really like the line, ‘I wish I were a singer. A dancer, dancing for your love’ in I Wish I Were. It’s just so fun to sing, you know?”

Rufus has unabashedly proclaimed that he has lusted after stardom since the age of five. While clearly not a ten-bodyguards-and-hundred-page-hospitality-riders type of girl, does Martha possess that same Wainwright family hunger to be in the limelight, or would she prefer to be heard and not seen?

“I like being in the limelight, and I’m a natural leader in terms of leading a band. It’s never really been about being a superstar, but more about doing what I love. Rufus has always known that this was what he wanted to do and that he was destined for stardom, and I’ve always envied him for his focus. I enjoy having the spotlight on me to an extent, but I’ve probably come out and assumed centre stage in a far more accidental and gratuitous way.”

And with that, the reticent songbird goes off to write some more. In a world where Hiltons and Kardashians shamelessly elevate themselves onto the gaudy pedestal that is their birthright, Martha Wainwright is a breath of fresh air, having actually put her inherited fame to good use. And when you’re this talented, a little bit of nepotism never hurt anyone.

Martha Wainwright’s album I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too is out now through Drowned in Sound.

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