As a child, Martha Wainwright had the best bedtime lullaby singers in the history of lullabies.
And she knew it. Her mother Kate and aunt Anna were better known as The McGarrigle Sisters, the Canadian folk duo who charmed audiences with the sparkling harmonies from the mid- 1970s until Kate’s death in 2010.
“My mom would sing to me or hum a nursery rhyme to me, and I would think, ‘Wow she has a nice voice.’ It was always a great privilege to hear her and her sister bringing music to life in your house,” said the 38-year-old singer-songwriter last week from her family’s home in Montreal.
A chip off the old block, Wainwright has followed in the footsteps of her mother and aunt, her sardonic folkie father Loudon Wainwright III (her parents divorced when she was young) and perhaps the most famous Wainwright family member, versatile singer-songwriting older brother, Rufus.
First backing up her brother on vocals and later, with a string of strikingly personal and edgy indie EPs and albums, Wainwright has established herself as a potent musical force that bypassed her family ties.
For the young Wainwright, growing up in a bohemian-style family full of performers was a natural fit, even though she was aware that the household was not like the others in their upscale Montreal neighborhood.
“I could tell that my mom seemed really different from most of the other moms,” she said. “We grew up in a nice neighborhood in Montreal because she bought our house when the market was low. Most of the families had stay-at-home moms with diamonds in the earrings. And here was my mom, this folksy lady. So I liked that part about being very different. It never bothered me.”
Rather than pursue music like the family genes dictated, Wainwright initially chose to make her mark in the acting field, acknowledging that “I knew I wanted to be a performer; I was kind of 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.”
While studying theater at Montreal’s Concordia University, she decided to try her hand at writing some songs to see if she had inherited the family talent. When she received an affirmative answer, music became her number one pursuit.
“I wrote a few songs, 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 said.
Her first recorded song was “Year of the Dragon” 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, Wainwright launched her solo career and released 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 the song “a blistering prelude to her debut album,” which was released to further critical and commercial acclaim later that year.
Wainwright said she thought the album struck a chord and made a splash with listeners despite the profanity, not because of it. “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 passionate and raw acoustic hymn that makes Alanis Morissette’s early diatribes pale in comparison. “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 song about but about their own situation,” she said.
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 album 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.”
In the ensuing years, Wainwright, has given birth to two children, her mother died and she’s moved back to the family home in Montreal. That’s where she wrote the songs for her latest album Come Home to Mama.
Following in the footsteps of Rufus, who has performed in Israel twice, Wainwright is making her maiden visit to the country next week, when she plays two solo shows – November 6 at Zappa Tel Aviv and the next night at Zappa Herzliya.
She said that her brother brought her mother on one of his trips here, and they visited holy sites in Jerusalem and went to the Dead Sea.
“It was a huge trip for them, a very big deal. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to see with my own eyes. I’ve heard a lot about it from Rufus and from my husband, and from Sean [Lennon]. The consensus is that Tel Aviv is a great, fun party town with lots of late nights,” Wainwright said with a laugh. “My husband thought it would be a good place to play because the energy I give off on stage is kind of aggressive, and hopefully people in Israel will be able to relate to that.”