Martha Wainwright - Wetting the Ground with her Tears
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“I was lamenting the fact that I wasn’t signed a few years ago,” she states backstage in Southampton’s grandiose Guildhall. In person she’s quirkily attractive and highly engaging, if not a little self-deprecating. “I was crying, worrying for myself and what I was doing wrong. I was lamenting the fact that I hadn’t been signed as a younger person, because many of the greatest artists wrote their best songs when they were really young. And mom said “y’know Martha. You’ve already blown it for 21, so now you have until your thirties and then you can come out as more sophisticated.” I laughed and said: ‘OK, I’ll take that!’”
I think my family is surprisingly functional. I think it’s been helpful that our parents weren’t huge stars. I think that it can be really devastating to a kid who’s trying to break into the music business
Although she’s now 28, Martha Wainwright has just made one of the most refreshingly tortured and sublimely personal debut albums of recent years, In fact, at times it’s so emotionally raw and personal that it feels like an intrusion just listening to it, “The album is more structured, but the EP that was released last year (including the highly controversial ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ written about her father) was made up of things that I had hanging around when I needed something to sell on the road with Rufus. I wasn’t signed to anyone at the time so I could get away with it. Taking advantage of not being signed is something that I’ve made an art out of.”
Being from an Irish family you’re never supposed to wake up and say: “God, I feel terrible!” Everything is always fine
“You know, there’s something to be said about always being the underdog. It’s been hard not to be signed and always acting as backup singer, or opening for my brother. It’s tough on the ego. But there is an advantage to being the lesser-known one because people like to champion the loser.”
“My parents were divorced when I was 3 months,” (her mother is acclaimed folk singer Kate McGarrigle) she continues. “My dad wasn’t a horrible guy, but there was abandonment perhaps. We went to Canada with my mum because we had to. To be honest divorced parents, or more specifically fathers, that leave you, do end up being like every man who leaves you. But saying that, I think my family is surprisingly functional. I think it’s been helpful that our parents weren’t huge stars. I think that it can be really devastating to a kid who’s trying to break into the music business. My mother was so un-industry that making music became very organic. It was never about writing a hit and that gave us a healthy outlook. There was always room for Rufus and I to be more successful.”
Martha has been touring with her brother for some time now, and she’s also contributed to his various albums. Although there is undoubted competition between the two, a deep bond is also apparent when observing them on stage and in private. So how does she enjoy working with her brother? “It’s good, especially since Rufus has been sober. I wouldn’t say it’s more enjoyable, but it’s more professional. Rufus and I used to hang out more when both of us were drinking, which I still do. I don’t drink as much as I did because it was a sobering experience when Rufus took matters into his own hands and went into rehab. Because he’s my older brother I look up to him, whether I want to or not. If he’s out caning it, then I think I can do that too. I think it’s acceptable. We have strong constitutions and it’s a bad thing. Being from an Irish family you’re never supposed to wake up and say: “God, I feel terrible!” Everything is always fine. When Rufus went into the programme I started feeling guilty about what I was doing — even though I’d like to avoid being completely sober.”
What makes me sit down with a guitar is usually a break-up or feeling lonely or sad. So a combination of these things is going to make some troubling sounds
Loudon Wainwright III is famous for his highly personal and brutally honest lyrics. One of his most famous songs ‘Rufus Is A Tit Man’ was about the jealousy of seeing his baby son sucking on his wife’s nipple. His condemnatory remarks have certainly caused considerable frisson with his openly gay son, and Martha admits that his overtly personal approach also contributed to some of her own lyrical tirades. “He wrote this song called ‘I’d Rather Be Lonely’ and it’s one of these songs that’s very mean spirited but sung in a very nice way. The lyrics go: “Loneliness is happiness/ it takes less than two/ I’d rather be lonely — every time you cry you are just a clone of every woman I’ve ever known.” It had a beautiful melody and I always felt really sorry for the woman that it was about. Then one night we were playing in Scotland and I was up in the stalls listening, and he said: “that song is about my daughter”.
We’d lived together for a year when I was 14 and it went horribly wrong and he kicked me out. But I never knew this song was about me and I was devastated. I couldn’t believe he’d write that about his 14-year old daughter and I started bawling. I’m sure over time he’s learnt to accept a lot of things about his children, about women and gay people, and about life in general.”
Although father and daughter get on now, there’s an emotional quagmire that has never quite been traversed. Emotional abandonment comes across in both her and Rufus’ music, and on stage it seems that both are vying for attention, and still trying to live up to their fathers outmoded and outlandish expectations. “I’ve always been a sad person going through a lot of strife and not getting enough attention. Rufus was always the attention monger. It’s not very cool, but it was difficult because I worried that people didn’t like me enough, or I wasn’t popular — although I always was. But I couldn’t compete with his level of popularity. He really draws people in.”
“My mother’s also very sad. You just have to listen to the McGarrigle Sister’s songs. It’s all doom and gloom. My voice has a tendency to sound quite pained and rough round the edges. It lends itself to sadder songs. I’m not a very prolific writer and I’m not inspired to write about politics or current events. What makes me sit down with a guitar is usually a break-up or feeling lonely or sad. So a combination of these things is going to make some troubling sounds; especially as a lot of these songs were written when I was 20, and that’s a very volatile time — at least it was for me.”
When she moved to New York from Montreal, it was to get away from living with her mother and strike up a career on her own. Although she studied acting at first, her musical genes prevailed and she eventually found like-minded spirits on the city’s burgeoning folk scene. “It was a potentially useless thing to do, but what I did wasn’t completely folk. Although I’m a singer/songwriter I also have a band and we’d often go electric. But you could play these rooms forever and no-one would notice.”
Maybe I want something to write about. I like to have a reason to go on long walks by myself, and wet the ground with my tears. Otherwise what’s the point?
Her self-titled album took two years to make; mostly due to that fact that she was using her friend Brad Albetta’s studio for free. “Some of it is a little less edgy than the EP. It’s a bit more produced and there’s more going on musically. I had a full band and some overdubs and back-ups. Although there are two or three solo pieces that have a definite edge to them like ‘Who Was I Kidding?’ which was me on guitar with Garth Hudson from The Band making some sounds that make no sense. There are definitely some strange bits on it. I don’t want to use the word poppy because that isn’t the right word, but there are more songs that have a beginning, middle, and an end.”
“We spent a long time shopping it around before I had a manager. People didn’t get it at first because it wasn’t obvious. Maybe it’s because my voice is a little strange, but to be honest I’m living that person that you’re hearing. There was no pitch correction used and in many cases we did it in one take. What I care about most is, does it convey the emotion of the song? So maybe I’m more conscious of expressing emotion than I think I am. And writing these songs may help not to be on anti-depressants. I’m always crying in a corner somewhere but that’s probably because I set it up that way.
Maybe I want something to write about. I like to have a reason to go on long walks by myself, and wet the ground with my tears. Otherwise what’s the point? But I’m happy that my record’s coming out and I think my life will get better because of it.”
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