Nottingham, 13 March 2005: the much-loved and somewhat scuzzy Rock City is slowly filling up in anticipation of a Wilco gig when a woman with a guitar takes to the stage. She introduces herself as Martha Wainwright and proceeds to play a short but attention-grabbing set of songs from her forthcoming debut album. All alone on the stage, she somehow manages to fill it, quelling the pre-gig chitchat and drawing enthusiastic applause after each song. People stop what they're doing and move forward for a closer look. They stay there, too. For a support act with only an EP in her back catalogue, this is no mean feat.
I'm sure I'm not the only person who went out and bought Martha Wainwright's album as soon as it was released - purely on the strength of that performance. Later in the year, Martha went on to play various sets at Glastonbury, appearing alongside her brother Rufus on the Other Stage and in the Guardian Lounge and performing sets of her own on the Other Stage and at a rammed Acoustic Tent. Her star, quite obviously, is in the ascendant. Though her self-titled debut album was released back in April, she tours the UK next month, and Martha Wainwright is so arresting that it seems timely to give it a few virtual column inches.
Of course, you can’t really talk about Martha without reference to her family, so we’ll get that out of the way now: her father is Loudon Wainwright III, her mother is Kate McGarrigle and then there’s elder brother Rufus; between them, they’ve released a considerable body of work. Martha, 29, has toured with her brother and released her album a month after Rufus’ citically-acclaimed Want Two.
Pressure? Well, yes. But these talented siblings couldn’t be further apart: Rufus’ sound is flamboyant, operatic and elaborate; his sister’s raw, husky and exposed. Martha Wainwright is a disarming, emotional piece of work, alternately vulnerable and ballsy.
There’s much to admire here. Opener Far Away is plaintive and folky, a beautiful melody layered with haunting, poignant vocals. Martha picks up the pace with the upbeat, catchy G.P.T. and brings it back down again with Factory – on which her mother plays the banjo - a lament about feeling out of place at a trendy party.
Much of the album is confessional and plaintive, but there’s anger here too. Ball and Chain is a bitter tirade against men who treat women without respect, and Bl**dy Mother F***ing ***hole is a cathartic, blistering rant, reportedly directed at her father (and often dedicated to him at gigs). It’s the most stripped-down track on offer – essentially just Martha and her guitar – and one of the most memorable, too. Its astonishing vigour is cleverly followed by the quieter, easy-going TV Show, which was originally named The Oprah Song. Rufus Wainwright guests on The Maker and the album closes with an enchanting cover of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Wither Must I Wander, Martha’s chorister-like vocals at odds with the breathy rasp of the rest of the album but charming nevertheless.
It's very hard to pin down Martha Wainwright's style and draw comparisons with other singers; she's been mentioned in the same breath as Kate Rusby, but she's far peppier and her lyrics are more immediate and not so obviously folky. Hers is an album of contrasts and extremes, an intimate, heartfelt offering that bodes very well for the future - and if her impassioned performances at Nottingham and Glastonbury are anything to go by, you’re in for a treat if you catch her on tour next month. Beguiling.