Martha Wainwright Interview

"Hopefully I won't spoil this for you," responds Martha Wainwright when, in a very unprofessional and fanboy-esque manner, I gush down the phone what an honour this interview opportunity is for me. A huge fan since I took a chance on her self-titled debut in 2005 (a case of, "Well, she is Rufus's sister, it's got to be worth at least one listen"), in the past month I had already been wowed by her new album, I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too, and her live return. All that was left was to speak to the lady herself...

After clearing up some geography issues - she's in Nijmegen, Holland on this Friday afternoon, after playing Amsterdam the night prior - she informs me that the tour is going well. "It's always interesting to play shows where maybe not everyone in the audience knows the songs, or have maybe only heard them once or twice. Considering that, I think the response has been very good which is great for me because people might know them more when we come back."

These new songs streamline the first album's mature bohemian folk, and anyone who was a fan of the frank lyrical approach won't be disappointed with her return. Surely though, singing about heartbreak and loss every night has got to be draining? "I try to write the songs in such a way that every time I sing one, it doesn't have to be gut-wrenching. They're very personal and very intense but, at the same time, I try to keep myself protected by virtue of having strong poetry, melody and instrumentation. That way, you can just get into the song as a piece of art in itself; you can apply several meanings to it or look at it from different points of view."

With the song Tower, introduced in Birmingham as her 'anti-war' song, Martha certainly looks at things from outside her own viewpoint, broaching the topical as she does. "It's in the first person but it was the first time I wrote a song that wasn't my story. It was inspired by images that I'd seen on television, and then I put myself in the position of a civilian torn apart by war." Despite moving away from the strictly personal, the compelling vocal and lyrics ('We had visions in the night/I was scared and you held me tight/It was like we were in black and white/As clear as day, as dark as night') still feel impossibly intimate. It's certainly my favourite track on the new album and I ask Martha, should she receive similar feedback marking the track out as a success, will she continue to explore writing outside of her comfort zone? "It was a really great thing to delve into and to start to think about just as a writer, just to sort of be able to move beyond singing solely about my own life. That is something I will always do but it feels good to open up the scope of possible subjects. It's exciting to me."

As someone who describes themselves as "still trying to figure out who I am", self-exploration and documentation are still key in Martha's songs. I wonder if she's ever chosen not to commit herself to certain lyrics or even whole songs that might have been a bit too close to the bone? "I think there have been moments where I might have been writing something out of anger, and then gone 'no I can't say that, it's ridiculous' and decided it wasn't worth it to hurt someone. That's not what I wanna do, that's not my intention."

Still, upon her first album's release, the press jumped upon the anthemic Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole as a song that had the potential to offend - and not just with its expletive-friendly title. Following brother Rufus's Dinner At Eight, a melancholy piano ballad that documents a difficult time in the relationship between him and father Loudon Wainwright III, the titular 'asshole' of Martha's track happened to be the same relation. Or was it? "I think it's totally been blown up by the press. That song was written based on an argument I had with my dad which I don't think is that uncommon a thing to happen with a young person. Obviously, it was a strong stance to take to say those words but, when I was writing the song, I didn't write it as Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole. I wrote the whole song and, then at the end, I said those words and thought 'God, this is just too funny to forget about'. I like to be clear that, when I say in the song 'For you whoever you are', I sort of mean that. It can be applied to anybody. I think the power of that song is that, as people are mouthing the words along with me in the audience, they're certainly not thinking about who I originally wrote it about."

In the interim between albums number one and two, Martha got hitched to her producer Brad Alberta, who tours with her playing bass. Considering the consequences of writing about people in her life, whether past or present, has this resulted in a few awkward moments in the studio? No new hubby wants to hear his wife singing about past break-ups, surely? "I don't know how he feels exactly - that would have to be a question for him - but they are past break-ups, 'past' being the operative word. The other thing is that, in writing and singing certain songs, you sort of get over the subject and are able to move on, and that's when the song takes on a life of its own."

For someone whose work is so unflinching in terms of its content, Martha surprises me when she claims, "I'm very shy when it comes to writing songs, I do them very privately." With that in mind, I ask what Brad's reaction was to Niger River, a song that bypasses the unrequited flames of old and dedicates itself to the new Mr Wainwright. "I hope it was a good reaction, I think it was," she shyly replies. "It's my first positive love song, although you would hardly be able to tell. I started writing it before we married but I finished it afterwards. I wanted to let him know that, you know, it's not all bad."

While the new album is home to this wedding present of sorts, it also features an appearance from "fan and friend" Pete Townshend on the radio-friendly You Cheated Me. "It wasn't about him doing a big cameo thing," Martha is quick to point out. "It was just a case of this great musician being in the room and, because he's so brilliant, seeing if we could fit what he did into the song."

Members of The Who aside, Martha has also called upon some people closer to home to round out certain songs. Big bro Rufus may be busy writing an opera commissioned by the New York Met, a project Martha assures me won't feature her ("This is no Spring Awakening," she laughs, "it's a real production to be sung by real opera singers"), he still found time to contribute backing vocals to The George Song. "I usually call upon Rufus when I've run out of ideas because he never does; I sort of try and take what I can from him, while making sure it works in the song. I wish I could use him more."

Even mom, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, gets a look in on a cover of Pink Floyd's See Emily Play. "We had been asked to cover it for a Syd Barrett tribute a year ago. It was nice to have her take on the song without being overly influenced by the original; you can really just sort of interpret the song through the lyrics and melody." Martha admits that coming from such a credited musical lineage is often daunting. "I did Jools Holland the other day and he had a clip of my mom singing and, to me, that's just like 'fuck'. She's so good. I don't know if it's just because she's my mom but I'm so bowled over when I see her, and I just hope I'm doing her proud. Sometimes I worry I'll never be that good."

At this point, I think Martha has forgotten she's talking to someone who could vehemently argue with that opinion for the better part of the afternoon. Fortunately for my dignity, I choose instead to ask, away from Floyd and live covers of, among others, Leonard Cohen and Edith Piaf, if there's anyone she still wishes to cover? "I feel somewhat confident as a singer singing other people's songs. It would be really neat at some point to sing an aria. I did Kurt Weill on stage at Covent Garden, but I think to sing any classical songs is always really great if you can bring something to them without the chops that are necessary." Any plans to follow in Rufus's ruby slippers and emulate a whole performer's show, a la his Judy Garland tributes? Her response is pretty much a flat-out 'no' but this doesn't stop her praising her sibling's effort. "I think that was kind of a brilliant thing to do. I don't think it was his intention to sound like Judy Garland, although the keys and stuff like that were the same. It was very much him."

My time with Martha is winding up, and having talked with her so much about her family's contributions to music and covering other people's material, I bring the talk back round to her. She tells me she's looking forward to festival season so she can bring her music to new crowds, as well as hearing new music that she might not necessarily elsewhere. "Y'know, it's weird, I do a lot of radio promo and I don't necessarily like what I hear there." One suspects, although this record has a couple of tracks that could be big radio hits, that Martha is making music for herself more than anybody else. "With this being my second record, it's still about me coming out of my shell in a lot of ways. There's not much I can do about being who I am, so I just need to accept that."

Well, I've certainly accepted her and, despite an apparent sense of self-deprecation running through our chat, I know I'm not alone in this. Heck, I know a lot of fans at the Birmingham show were bowled over by her performance - and, indeed, a pair of very kinky boots she was wearing which turned out to be a big talking point. She laughs heartily, suggesting I'm not the first person to go along to one of her shows and comment on her choice of footwear. "What can I say? This is turning out to be The Kinky Boots Tour. You just coined it."

If anyone's thinking of nabbing that, you'll have me to deal with. Catch Martha and her kinky boots at various UK festivals this summer. Visit for more details.

Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:19:06

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