Surrounded by successful professional singers – father Loudon Wainwright III, mother Kate McGarrigle and aunt Anna McGarrigle, and precocious older brother Rufus – a young Martha Wainwright decided to be anything else.
“I knew I wanted to be a performer; I was kind of a ham growing up. So I thought that I should try to be an actor since everyone around me was a musician and I wanted to be different,” said the 38-year-old Canadian indie folk-pop singer-songwriter last week, talking to The Jerusalem Post from her home in Montreal.
“I went to theater school for a while [at Montreal’s Concordia University], but at some point I started writing songs because I was curious to see if I could do it like everyone else in my family. I wrote a few, thought they were pretty good, and decided that this might actually be an easier route to take since I’m basically uncreative and wanted to do something that wasn’t as difficult as acting,” she added with an unselfconscious laugh.
Maybe that’s because she realized how ludicrous it sounded to call her prolifically quirky musical output “uncreative.” Personal, tuneful and laced with sharp wit, Wainwright’s music has the family stamp all over it, but she has managed to forge her own path.
Her first recorded song was “Year of the Dragon,” which appeared on her mother and aunt’s 1998 album The McGarrigle Hour
The same year she started singing back-up for her brother both live and on record.
After moving to New York in the early 2000s, she landed a role in a stage musical called Largo and began to release a series of low-fi EPs.
Most notorious was her 2005 breakout, with the bold title of Bloody Mother **** Asshole
, which prompted singer Nora Jones to declare to Mojo
magazine that Wainwright was one of the “best things she heard all year.” London’s Sunday Times
included the title song in their songs of the year and Rolling Stone
called BMFA “a blistering prelude to her debut album,” which was released to further critical and commercial acclaim later that year.
“I don’t think BMFA would have gotten as much attention just because of the title if the quality of the songs didn’t back it up. A lot of people say shocking things and they don’t get any attention,” said Wainwright of the song, which is actually a heartfelt but profane acoustic hymn.
“It didn’t only have shocking words, but created feelings in people that they identified with. It’s kind of anthemic, and when people are singing along, they’re not thinking about who I wrote the song about, but about their own situation.”
“For me, the reaction to that song was an eye-opener to what songwriting was about.
My songs are very autobiographical and personal on the surface, but the minute I start singing, it’s no longer about me, it’s about how we all fit into the story – whether it’s marriage, relationships, children, issues that we all share.”
Wainwright’s approach appealed to a wide audience, including some famous fans like Pete Townshend, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and The Band’s Garth Hudson, who offered to help her out on her 2008 followup, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too
, alongside her mother, aunt and brother.
“Those guys are smart and they know what’s going on in the music world – they listen to a lot of young artists and they came to me as fans,” said Wainwright.
“I think that when they hear someone who they feel is not going to get played on the radio or supported by a huge pop machine or big record company, they want to help. They realize that writing from your heart and not writing to sell records is difficult.”
The following year, life got more complicated for Wainwright when she and her husband, producer Brad Albetta, had their first child within the same few months her mother died from cancer. The tumultuous time provided the material, however, for her latest album, Come Home to Mama
, which was recorded in her friend Sean Lennon’s home studio in New York and produced by his bandmate in Cibo Matto, Yuka C. Honda. She called the album – which combines passionate angst and twisted pop, a “culmination of my life.”
With a second child in tow, and a family move back to Montreal, to the sprawling home she inherited from her mother, Wainwright feels like she’s come full circle with a part of her past.
“Montreal is so different from Brooklyn, it’s a much softer place, calm, green and lovely. It’s also a totally different pace, so I’m trying that out for a while,” she said.
“I needed some time to write the new record, and with a new baby, I knew it would be easier to be near my family. And I really needed to take care of the house, go through it and throw things out. I’ve been reintegrating myself into the life I had left behind – ultimately, it’s about reconnecting.”
Just like the same thing she does effortlessly with her songs.Martha Wainwright will be performing on November 6 at Zappa Tel Aviv and November 7 at Zappa Herzliya. Both shows start at 8 p.m.