Released in April, singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright’s eponymous debut is as intimate and direct as any album you will hear this year. A strong showcase for the artist’s distinct and expressive voice, the thirteen songs on the record accentuate her frank lyrical approach without sacrificing the graceful melodies lying at their heart. Focusing for the most part on herself and the people who surround her, the intriguing narrative style of the compositions expertly blends
passion with understanding, while the nuances of the instrumental accompaniment effectively enhance their presentation.
Sister of baroque-pop sensation Rufus Wainwright and daughter of folk legends Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Martha’s emotional honesty and candid delivery has enabled her to forge a musical identity independent of family association. The witty confidence she displays on stage has also contributed to her growing reputation as one of the brightest young talents in the industry. As I found out prior to her appearance at Richard’s on Richards on October 13, this particular personality trait definitely extends beyond the boundaries of her performances.
Discorder: It seems that the lyrics on the album are very personal. Are they entirely autobiographical, or are there some elements you bring to them from other people’s experiences?
Martha Wainwright: They’re pretty much autobiographical, almost every line. But I try to express them in such a way that it’s not so much like I’m an open book. I try to use poetry and interesting phrases to make them tell their own story, so it’s autobiographical but I think through kind of a twisted lens.
Was there any apprehension about wearing your heart on your sleeve, so-to-speak?
Well no, and I think that using poetry helps with that. I don’t want to go out there and say, “My life sucks, and this guy left me, and then I was walking down the street, and then I got spat on by some guy…”. I think that becomes uninteresting after a while. It’s like ranting.
I read somewhere that a lot of the songs on your debut full-length were written when you were a few years younger than you are right now…
They were written basically over the last ten years.
Are they still relevant to you now?
Yeah. It was very important for me to get those songs down on a record and sort of encapsulate that time that I spent in the last seven or eight years having a strange music career and working a lot with my brother and having my own little very underground career. I built up a small fan base and I had three EP’s, so it was important for me to get that on a record in order to move on to the next thing and the next stage in my life; also, to sort of honour the songs and give them a chance to be available to the masses of people that are going to buy it. Hah!
So not just the CDBaby crowd?
Exactly. So I was happy to go back and visit the library of stuff that was there. I’m also not an incredibly prolific writer, so it was useful to me to have written a lot of songs, and I think a lot of them were good enough to warrant being put on a record. Also, I think that they tell an interesting story of someone in their 20’s, rather than a record that’s all “Last year I broke up with this guy and…”. I think it’s a grander, wider palette. And lastly, I also write the songs in such a way that I can remain interested because I think they all have several layers of meaning, so you can always choose to focus on one feeling about the song for a while, and then a month later sing about the other side of the song. I change the songs all the time.
That’s interesting, because the casual listener out there might find the album a bit lyrically onedimensional, as a lot of them deal with the passage
of time, and the tone seems fairly similar throughout. The emotional content is very raw and sincere, but there seems to be a bit of negativity bubbling
through the surface in every song.
Right, but I think that if you look further, every song is actually about hope. All of them end on an upswing, I find. Whether it’s the Oprah song [“TV Show”], which says “Not the way that I don’t love you, but the way that I hate myself”, but the last line is “Not the way that I don’t love you, but the way that I love myself”, or “This Life”, which is a song about listening to old country music and finding the power through music to move on instead of killing yourself …I think that a lot of the songs are cathartic—I might be inspired to write a song when I’m troubled by something, but through the writing of it I generally feel a lot better. I think that that comes out in them, to be honest.
I was wondering about the choice to put “Whither Must I Wander” on your album as the closing song. Did it stem from a desire to have some sort
of thematic consistency on the album or was it a product of some other motivation?
I think that it was a combination of a lot of things. I think it sums up the record nicely, it’s a great ending song, and it’s also really nice to take it away from the Martha Wainwright boo-hoo-hoo, woe-is-me, navel-gazing thing a bit and bring in a more global and beautiful character. I also put it on the record because I had just learnt it and liked it, and because I have always been asked to sing old songs, mostly standards (and standards that aren’t too famous hopefully, because of the way that I sing). I felt that everyone was putting standards on their records, everything from the forties and the thirties, and I thought “I don’t want to do that. Let’s open up the music box another thirty years and bring it back to the turn of the century and revisit that interesting time in music.”
Obviously your family is very musical. Can you elaborate on your surroundings growing up and how much of an influence that exerted on you and
your musical development?
The environment that my brother and I grew up in was one that embraced individual creativity and emotional exploration, in the sense that we weren’t all sitting around in a banjo jamboree. There was a high level of really critical music listening and an interest in experimentation, but in a way that was behind doors. It wasn’t showy. What I picked up from that was not so much an ability to play with other people and jam out on funk music. What it pushed me to do more was put myself into a secluded, private place, with just me on the guitar, to try and express the things that I was feeling. I never thought to write songs
really until devastating things happened to me—I wasn’t writing little tunes at fourteen.
Is there still a competitive musical environment in your family? A rivalry of sorts?
I don’t think so. Right now I’m a little out of the loop, in the sense that I used to sing a lot with the McGarrigle’s before this record came out, and with Rufus, but now it’s time to do a little bit less of that and focus on trying to set up a long career for myself. It’s never going to be separated from those people, and I’m glad about that because I think there’s an incredible amount of respect and awe that we all have for one another, because everyone’s so fucking talented in their own way. So, more than a competitiveness, sometimes I’m intimidated and I’m scared that I won’t succeed, but I feel that with other musicians too.
Having seen the bar set so high, is there ever a fear that it’s difficult to live up to what’s come before?
Yeah, I think that one of the strange ways that I make music is I make music with an incredible amount of confidence and an incredible amount
of vulnerability. The way that I present songs, especially live, I think there’s a real side of me that’s worried that it’s not good enough, or that it’s fraudulent that I’m standing up on a stage, or that it was handed to me by my family. But then there’s a part of me that knows that it’s not bad, that it’s pretty good. You have to have a lot of confidence to get up on stage every night and do this, so there must be some there somewhere.
Okay. So I know you’re not going to like this next question very much… it’s about your dad…
I didn’t write that song about my dad, by the way.
Well that’s a very strong misconception then, because it’s been discussed in pretty much every single thing that I’ve read…
I know, because I made the mistake of telling someone that I did and then saying it on stage. What happened was I wrote that song based on an argument that I had with my dad about him not taking me seriously as a musician. In retrospect, I think I wrote it because I was concerned he might be right. In my mid-twenties, I was doing a lot of hanging out and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to become a professional musician. I had a very underground career and he took me aside and said something like, “Look Martha, sugar, get off the pot. What are you doing?”, as any concerned parent would do. And I, as any sort of young person in my mid-twenties would do to a parent, was like “Well fuck you, motherfucker! Who are you to tell me?” I think I wrote that song almost
as a battle-call to myself, to convince myself that I was good enough. So I went into writing the song going “Fuck you, dad!” or whatever, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s all in the first person, and it says “For you, whoever you are”. I don’t mean that to my dad… I mean it to whoever the person is that’s questioning me. “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” came out of my mouth after I’d written the song, and I thought it was so fucking funny that I couldn’t just not use it. It was an inspired moment. So that song has gotten me into a lot of trouble with that subject, although my father doesn’t care. I don’t think he’s ever actually responded to it in that way. Anyone who writes songs knows there’s a certain amount of poetic license. And also, you can start writing a song about someone, especially when it’s very emotional, and you’ll feel differently the next day, but you’re still gonna sing that song if it was well-written. And a song like “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” is useful to me and to everyone in the audience because no one in the audience cares who it’s about for me.
They all have an idea of who it’s about for them, and that’s where the song takes on its own life. It’s no longer about me and this argument that I had
with my dad, it’s about a lot of different things.
Different things to different people.