Cool as Folk

Armed with barbed hooks and sweet melodies, Canadian diva Martha Wainwright shakes her family tree

Martha Wainwright’s first musical memory is harmornising with her mother, Kate McGarrigle, and aunt, Anna McGarrigle. “I just remember learning to sing in a group and my mother standing behind me and pulling lightly on my hair when I got the notes wrong,” says Martha with a laugh, pointing out that such a picture may “sound dreadful but it’s actually not”.

“It really taught me a lot and it also made me into a lot more of a subtler singer because when you sing in a group, you can’t override everyone, you [have to] work towards the sound of everyone.”

Nowadays, Martha Wainwright does little blending in. With a voice that is feverish, sexy, lifeworn, and edged with so much contradiction (she can sound emotionally beaten and fragile, yet in the next breath command storm-bearing intensity), she’s a singer-songwriter who can seize your attention with nothing more than her discerning words and a guitar. Last year she released her debut album,
Martha Wainwright, and her emergence as a gutsy, individual artist is impressive given her life has been shadowed by her famously musical family. Her father is American songwriter, Loudon Wainwright III, her mother and aunt sing as folk duo, The McGarrigle Sisters and her brother, Rufus Wainwright, is gaining cult status with his cabaret pop.

She recently played with her brother in Europe – “it was the only way I could see the man.” She dryly adds it allowed her to “take advantage of his growing success”. Martha has happily acknowledged Rufus’ help before. She credits him for enriching her voice by writing complicated parts for her to sing when accompanying his songs and he also helped snag her a cameo as a singer in
The Aviator). That he has had a headstart on success doesn’t bother her because “what we do is so particular that it just makes it almost uncomparable. We’re so musically independent.”

While Rufus and Martha get along (despite his infamous claim that he was “prettier” than she was), their family story is far from a Von Trapp Family tale of clean-cut cheer. In the early 70s, her father, Loudon, left their heavily-pregnant mother Kate to be with performance artist Penny Arcade in Europe. Kate went after him but returned to Canada without their father and then miscarried She detailed this heartbreaking experience in her song, “Go Leave”. Martha’s blistering hate song, “Bloody Mother F***ing Asshole”, is about her father, Loudon. It’s a hand-grenade of a song, lobbed for all the times he had let her down, and justice for the many times he had written about her in song. She was spotlit in his tracks, “Pretty Little Martha”, “Five Years Old”, and “Hitting You” (a song about him striking her as a young child), but he “crossed the line” with “I’d Rather Be Lonely”. In an interview with The Guardian, she described how she’d always felt sad for the unfortunate woman the song was about because of the line, “Every time I see you cry you’re just a clone of every woman I've known”. He later blabbed to a concert audience that the song was about her and the time they had lived together in his one-bedroom New York apartment when she was 14.

Rufus didn’t get off lightly either, with Loudon writing songs like “Rufus Is A Tit Man” (a strangely Oedipal song about Loudon being jealous of Rufus being breastfed). Of course, Rufus retaliated in song, and as Martha has pointed out, when people ask her how she could have written “Bloody Mother F***ing Asshole”, her response is that that’s how her clan of songwriters deals with things. In the past, she’s said, “in our family, the real way to hurt someone would be to not write the song about it.”

She admits she still feels this way. “I know that Rufus and I really come from a tradition of singing about our family. Especially from our father’s point of view.” Yet her anger towards her father seems to have mellowed. Where she once said her Dad was someone who penned songs about his children instead of bringing them up, she now says his public versing is ”the way that he’s been able to embrace all the members of his family, when maybe there wasn’t enough time to spend actual time together. I think it’s kind of a gift. It just means that we’re thinking about these people.”

In any case, “Bloody Mother F***ing Asshole” is no longer defined by her father – many fans have interpreted it according to their own navigations of heartbreak. “The funny thing is the more personal the song, the more universal it almost becomes,” she says. “There’s tragedy everywhere [not just your own]. Broaden the scope and you’ll find tragedy.”

However, it’s a mistake to see Martha as a humourless, tortured musician, although even her own family members – the ones who aren’t songwriters (she insists they do exist!) – are so convinced by her sorrowful songs that they approach her after shows with concerns. Yet onstage, she is funny and charming, as anyone who attended her knock-out shows last year will know. Admitting her less-publicised happiness at her gigs, she proved she didn’t take herself too seriously, particularly when introducing her track “Ball and Chain” with this ironic disclaimer. “This song is about male genitalia. There are too many songs about tits and ass. Not enough about meat and two veg.”

This time around, Martha will be performing at two festivals – The Great Escape and East Coast Blues and Roots Festival – in addition to her solo shows. Will it be hard making her intimate songs travel in such exposed settings? “Sometimes if you want people’s attention, the best thing to do is get quieter.”

Lee Tran Lam

The Big Issue, 13-28 March, 2006