Martha Wainwright has only been famous for about six weeks, but so far she’s not particularly enjoying it. Touring without her band has meant a lot of sitting in restaurants alone, something she watched her father, Loudon Wainwright III, do for years, and always thought was kind of sad. Having grown up the daughter/sister/niece of a gaggle of modestly famous Wainwrights and McGarrigles, she already knows too much about the music industry to enjoy herself now.
“I’m probably more jaded than most people, which makes it less fun,” she says. “I already know that when [the record label sends you] flowers backstage, you’re paying for them. Armed with that knowledge, life is much darker.”
Now 28, Wainwright has released two discs in the space of two months: a splashy EP titled B.M.F.A. and a self-titled full-length debut. Both are great, flawed, provocative statements of purpose: Vaguely folk, thoroughly rock, with a spindly, Jon Brion-style cabaret vibe, they’re nervy and effortful, precisely the sort of records a moderately polite Canadian girl with a fondness for punk rock and a closetful of folk-singing relatives might make.
She wishes it were otherwise. “This is a time of [female artists] being pretty and perfect and having beautiful skin and being soft. I wish I could be like that, but I have all these troubling feelings and when I [write a song], that’s what comes out.”
Wainwright and her older brother Rufus were raised mostly by their mother, Kate McGarrigle, half of the folk duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Kate and Loudon split up when Martha was a year old; Kate moved the family to Canada, and no one saw much of Loudon after that.
Rufus and Martha sang informal backup for the McGarrigles throughout their childhoods, but Martha thought she might want to become an actress instead. Loudon bought her a guitar when she was 13. She didn’t touch it for five years. “One day I picked up the guitar and wrote a fucking great song in twenty minutes,” she recalls. “I was relieved. I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I’d like to think if I couldn’t do it, I would have been smart enough to stop right there.”
Rufus’ early success was a powerful inducement. “He was getting all the attention and I was getting worried. I was like, ‘Fuck this, I gotta try it.’…It’s all for attention. I’m the first to admit it.”
Martha spent most of her twenties in New York City, writing songs and singing backup for her brother. Tapes of her songs circulated in various indie-rock circles, but nothing really came of it. She recorded her debut without a deal in place, eventually signing to Rounder Records after her mother took a meeting there.
Her album (which has several tracks in common with the earlier EP) is that rare record which is both visceral and lovely, indebted to Chrissie Hynde and Leonard Cohen in equal measure. Wainwright likes to say that the album’s splashiest track, “B.M.F.A.” (shorthand for “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”), was written about her father, who was famously displeased with his daughter’s early-career dithering (“You say my time here has been some sort of joke/That I’ve been messing around/Some sort of incubating period/For when I really come around/I’m cracking up/And you have no idea”).
It’s the latest in a long line of Wainwright/McGarrigle songwriting-as-family-therapy numbers stretching back to Loudon’s 1970s track “Rufus Is A Tit Man”. “These weren’t people who shied away from their feelings,” Martha says of her family. “It would have been harder for me to be introverted in my songwriting.”
McGarrigle has always been supportive of her daughter’s career, telling Martha she envied her ability to perform and make records by herself. Her father has recently thawed. “What I’ve got, especially from my mom and now from my dad, is respect. I was always in the shadow of my parents, that they were so good. I didn’t know if I ever would be.”
It helps that the Wainwright parents were never enormously famous; Rufus has already outpaced both of them. “Rufus and I are very lucky because I know people whose parents are really famous, and that’s been crippling for them artistically,” Martha observes. “When your parents are a little bit famous, you can usurp them. That’s what every parent should want for their kid.”
Martha recently portrayed a torch singer in The Aviator (Rufus went to coffee with Martin Scorsese and things progressed from there). She hopes to get more acting work once her musical activities have settled down a bit. Cohen and Tom Waits are role models; they got to have long careers doing what they wanted. “We all want more, but at the same time I don’t care,” she says. “I want a long career, though. I don’t have any other skills.”
– ALLISON STEWART