Outside of perhaps the Carter Family, few musicians can claim the kind of cross-generational pedigree possessed by Martha Wainwright. The daughter of singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle and the sister of fellow performer Rufus Wainwright, Martha first gained substantial notice when she contributed a song to 1998′s McGarrigle Hour album by her mother and aunt Anna’s duo the McGarrigle Sisters. After some time touring as a backing vocalist for brother Rufus, she emerged with her self-titled 2005 solo debut and quickly established herself as an artist with her own distinctive style. 2008 has brought the release of her second full-length studio CD, I Know You’re Married But I Have Feelings Too, which, like its predecessor, is turning critical heads.
eMusic caught up with Martha Wainwright by phone just before the Fourth of July holiday, which the now Brooklyn New York resident was spending visiting her mother back in her native Montreal.
eMusic: Considering there was so much music around you growing up, was getting into the “family business” something that was expected of you?
Martha Wainwright: No, not really. In fact, I resisted it for a while.
eMusic: Any particular reason?
MW: Well, I think because everyone else was doing it, it seemed like the most unoriginal thing to do was to become a musician. And also, it’s very intimidating to be surrounded not only by a family of musicians, but also a family that had really great taste in music — because we were always listening to great music. So it took me a while to feel like I actually even wanted to try, out of fear of being mediocre. So I sort of tiptoed into it. It was really through singing with Rufus as a backup vocalist, seeing all the attention he was getting that helped push me. I really enjoyed singing, which I had done since I was a kid, and I had been secretly writing a couple of things to see if there was anything interesting for me to offer. I think what also helped was the fact that, in my family’s overall view of music, there was a real emphasis on quality and clarity and truth. That emphasis has certainly allowed me to connect with some sort of inner voice or inner truth, which I think is the thing that fuels my songs, and hopefully makes them interesting.
eMusic: You’ve been called a ‘confessional songwriter, ‘which is the same thing people have said about your father. Surely this isn’t a coincidence?
MW: I think what I’ve gotten from him is that it’s okay to express everything — from talking about your parents to talking about your life. But he does it in a way that includes an incredible amount of poetry and musicality — and that’s really important, too: to put the whole package together in an interesting and poetic way. I mean, with Loudon it’s more direct, but he’s such a great songsmith, and that’s where the art exists. And his sense of humor, of course.
eMusic: There’s also some of your mother’s influence as well, in terms of the way your music sounds…
MW: Oh, yes. I think some of my writing is very similar to Kate’s — and Anna’s. They have such amazing imagery, and their songs are steeped in nature and metaphor. I also find their records so perfectly produced, and I’m very moved by that. I also enjoy the richness of the McGarrigle’s records, and some of the way I structure background vocals and harmonies I take from their approach.
eMusic: Who are some of your other influences?
MW: Early on I loved emotive female singers, whether it was Dolly Parton or Edith Piaf. I also loved jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald. When I moved to New York, I became more interested in edgier stuff like Chrissie Hynde, and her ability to front a band and have more balls than so many guys. The ability for a female to play guitar and lead the band and write the songs was really an epiphany for me. Also someone like Patti Smith — I really like her writing. So it’s been about a lot of very strong women who are also very strong in their craft.
eMusic: You attended college in Montreal and studied drama. Considering some of your music is pretty theatrical, do you think that background had an effect on your style?
MW: To some extent, sure. My songs are so autobiographical and personal, and I try and express that onstage. When I perform, I’m exposed emotionally, and so having some theater training I think allows me to be in that state. So it’s exposed and raw, but I’m also leaning on certain skills — I don’t want to say “acting skills,” because it’s not as if I’m becoming a character; it’s actually just me being me. I mean, there’s not that much of a difference between my onstage person and my real life person, but I think having some theater in my background allows me to be exposed without doing any real damage [laughs].
eMusic: That theatricality comes across in some of the videos you’ve done — like the one for “When The Day is Short.” You’ve got several different personas in that one — was that a very involve process?
MW: That was actually all done in one day — one hell of long day! A lot of costume changes.
eMusic: Kind of like Madonna.
MW: That’s good. Yes — I’m like Madonna [laughs].
eMusic: There’s also your duet with Gary Lightbody on Snow Patrol’s “Set The Fire to the Third Bar.”
MW: That one was great because I didn’t have to do much. Gary Lightbody wrote that with me in mind to sing it. I didn’t really know him before, but he’s a fan of my voice and they reached out to me. As it happened, they were in the studio and I was in Dublin, so I went in and tracked the song after a pint of Guinness and it turned out really beautifully. A bunch of times now I’ve been able to get onstage with Snow Patrol at a few festivals and do the song. You know, they’re huge in Europe, so it’s been sometimes in front of like 80,000 people. It’s really fun to stand there and sing with a wind machine in your hair.
eMusic: You also made an appearance in the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator…
MW: Again, that was just something that happened. Rufus had been cast in the movie as a singer, and they wanted to add scenes and they asked him if he knew anyone that could sing in a 1940s style, and he recommended me. I was sitting in a flat in London with a friend smoking cigarettes and lamenting how crappy our lives were and what’s going to happen to us, and the next day I was on a first class flight to Montreal where they shot the film, and then on a soundstage with Martin Scorsese directing me. It was just an incredible experience.
Sometimes I do feel I live a very charmed existence, since I’ve been offered some really wonderful opportunities. For example, last year I did Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht’s Seven Deadly Sins at Covent Garden in London with the Royal Ballet. One of their choreographers is a fan, and he wanted to put on the piece. It’s a Ballanchine opera ballet. They usually have opera singers do it, but because it’s Weill they thought they could go another way, give it an edgier sound, so they asked me. It’s so exciting — I’m onstage with all of the dancers doing a little bit of movement with them — basically, it’s heavily choreographed for me to get the hell out of the way of a flying foot. They’re doing it again this coming January.
eMusic: Let’s talk about the new record. You worked with three different producers — how did that process work?
MW: Well, I made the first one with [bassist] Brad [Albetta], who’s now my husband. For this one, I thought at first I’d look for an outside producer to sort of change things up, thinking I’ll find maybe a big shot and go that way. I knew I wanted to make a poppier record, because I think it’s a reflection of the last couple of years of my life. My mood is sort of lighter and more fun and I wanted to go for that. So I met with a lot of producers and demoed things, but after a while I realized that I didn’t really want one guy, some older guy, to take over. So I wound up with two people who I thought were really great — Martin Terefe [Ron Sexsmith, KT Tunstall] and Tore Johansson [Cardigans, Franz Ferdinand] — and then I did a few songs with Brad because I get the sense that there’s a sort of honesty that he really captures in my music.
eMusic: Are you the kind of writer that feels proprietary about their material?
MW: Going in, I don’t have any idea about what the songs should sound like as finished tracks. Generally, I start a song in the studio with voice and guitar and with whichever musicians might be in the room, and sort of go from there. I’m very open minded, though I’m also a control freak without knowing what I really want, which sometimes puts me in an odd position. But I do know what I don’t like, so I’m happy to have people try a lot of things and then I can say, “Yes, that’s great” or “No get rid of that.” I’m not a kid, I want to be very involved in the whole process of it. I’ll let a producer take an idea so far, but if I don’t like it, I’ll ixnay it. And I’m happy the way the album turned out, because it’s really a representation of my eclectic tastes. I wanted certain songs to have a poppier feel, but didn’t want the whole thing to sound that way. Ultimately, It’s about serving each song.
eMusic: In the past, you’ve described your writing style as “flying without a net.” Do you still feel that way?
MW: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think I’m also maturing slightly, but I’m always trying to push the envelope, and to be open to emotional stories that might be a bit intense. That’s fun for me, but it’s also been really interesting to have to flex my songwriting muscle more. Rather that wait around for inspiration, I’ve had to really look outside myself and find meanings outside my own personal life, and try to describe things around me — to basically become a real writer. You can see that in “Tower Song,” where I’m speaking in the first person, but it’s an antiwar song described by perhaps a victim of war, and again in “George,” about a friend of mine who killed himself. Those are cases where I’m just sort of slightly lifting my eyes up from my own navel and seeing that the world has bigger problem than my own. I think that’s something that happens with age, and the realization of seeing yourself in the larger picture of life.
eMusic: Given that your music is so personal, what kind of reaction do you tend to get from listeners?
MW: It’s interesting. I would say that the more personal the song is, the more universal it is. The minute I sing it, it’s no longer about who I wrote it about or myself — and that’s what I’m seeing from audiences. When they close their eyes or sing along, it’s no longer my story, it’s our story. II think that’s what happens when you’re a songwriter and you write things from your heart: it’s about communicating the story of humanity and what a lot of people are feeling. That, I think, is the real value and use of a song. I don’t want to just talk about my life and “woe is me.” I don’t think that serves much of a purpose. I know it may sound self-serving, but what I’ve noticed from people is that they’ll come up to me and say, “You know, that song really got me through a break up,” or “What you said about that guy in that song put me to tears.” It’s not “Martha’s life is so difficult.” It’s “My life is so difficult.”