Martha Wainwright: Success is relative

Forget the Bedingfields. John Walsh investigates a far more intriguing musical dynasty, the wonderful Wainwright clan
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The Independent Culture

Snow is falling on Chalk Farm Road as if released by a celestial set designer, transforming the down-at-heel leather shops and cheap Thai eateries into stage props for a monochrome musical. Flakes the size of communion wafers crash slowly onto cars, walking boots, umbrellas and the woolly hats of patrons entering the Barfly, a pub and music venue of lovingly-maintained, Withnail-era shabbiness. Upstairs in the tiny concert room, a woman of 28 takes the stage without preamble, nods at the packed and steaming crowd and disappears, kneeling to plug a jack into her acoustic guitar. The crowd is unsure. Is she a roadie? It's hard to tell. Her fair hair is in schoolgirl bunches and she wears a grey working shirt and tight jeans. Then her face reappears above the heads of the audience. "Hi," she says. "I'm Martha. But I guess you..." Yes, we did know. At least we knew the name. Most of us haven't seen her in person before, but we know her stuff. It's been sort-of available on cassette and extended-play

Snow is falling on Chalk Farm Road as if released by a celestial set designer, transforming the down-at-heel leather shops and cheap Thai eateries into stage props for a monochrome musical. Flakes the size of communion wafers crash slowly onto cars, walking boots, umbrellas and the woolly hats of patrons entering the Barfly, a pub and music venue of lovingly-maintained, Withnail-era shabbiness. Upstairs in the tiny concert room, a woman of 28 takes the stage without preamble, nods at the packed and steaming crowd and disappears, kneeling to plug a jack into her acoustic guitar. The crowd is unsure. Is she a roadie? It's hard to tell. Her fair hair is in schoolgirl bunches and she wears a grey working shirt and tight jeans. Then her face reappears above the heads of the audience. "Hi," she says. "I'm Martha. But I guess you..." Yes, we did know. At least we knew the name. Most of us haven't seen her in person before, but we know her stuff. It's been sort-of available on cassette and extended-play CD: 10 songs of sophisticated teen yearning, suffering and getting over it ("The Car Song", "Bye Bye Blackbird", "Factory", "Lolita") driven by complex, newly-minted guitar chords and a voice that is one moment as sweet and put-upon as Billie Holiday's, the next as strong as Joni Mitchell's.

And we know her brilliant genetic pedigree as the daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and as the sister of Rufus. Loudon is a non-precious singer-songwriter. He wrote "Motel Blues" and the "Suicide Song" trilogy, and satirised hippie self-esteem in the hilarious "Samson and the Warden" and American vainglory in "Bicentennial". He's written 289 songs, brought out 20 albums, and been called "the new Bob Dylan," a position he lampooned in "Talkin' New Bob Dylan Blues". For a period he occupied a weekly guest slot on Jasper Carrott's TV comedy show.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle hail from Montreal, Canada. They've made 10 records but never bettered their first two. They sing updated hillbilly folk (with accordion and mandolin), sweet blues with spiky lyrics, jolly gospel, and Frenchified ballads (in French), in wonderfully pure, strong voices like sarcastic seraphim. "Go Leave" is the saddest song ever recorded, "Talk to Me of Mendocino" the most swooningly rapturous song ever sung about landscape. It was chosen by Emmylou Harris on Desert Island Discs. Jeremy Irons chose "First Born" from their second album, Dancer With Bruised Knees. Linda Ronstadt had a hit with their "Heart Like a Wheel" while Maria Muldaur covered their jaunty slave lament, "The Work Song."

Rufus Wainwright is the modern crown prince of operatic pop, a classically-trained, omni-talented, gay genius, a combination of Puccini and Frank ( Guys and Dolls) Loesser with just a touch of Shirley Bassey. His confessional songs of love and loss are splashed over five albums, most recently Want One.

There hasn't been a more strenuously self-chronicled and name-checked extended family in modern music. The births of Rufus and Martha were commemorated by both parents ("First Born", "Rufus is a Tit Man", "Pretty Little Martha", "First Birthday", "Five Years Old"), while the break-up of the parents' marriage was charted in Kate's "Go Leave" and "Come a Long Way" and in Loudon's albums, Attempted Mustache and Unrequited. Kate and Anna sang about their sister ("Kitty Come Home") and the death of their mother ("Song for Gaby"). Martha wrote about Rufus in "Laurel and Hardy" and her father in "Jimi (Takes So Much Time)", and sang the accusatory "Father/Daughter Dialogue" on stage with Loudon. Rufus sang about Martha in "Sister Sister" and about his bitter rivalry with his father in "Dinner at Eight."

And the Wainwrights are coming: Rufus kicked off a tour this week and releases his new record, Want Two, on Monday. Martha's debut CD, Martha Wainwright, is out in April. Their father is coming over for his own tour of duty in April. As they take their stages, the family's complicated history will be dramatised again.

If you doubted it, here's Martha at the Barfly, introducing her first number. "This is a song for my Dad," she breathes huskily, before singing "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole." She throws her large head back and gazes at the lights in pain or ecstasy. Her long tongue curls round the side of her mouth. At the climax, she bounces up and down in little-kid excitement. It all looks terribly familiar.

"Have you any idea," I ask her when we meet, "how many of your father's stage-mannerisms you've picked up?" She sighs: "Yeah I know, it's sick. If I hadn't had my high heels on, I'd have stood on one leg like him, too. I can't help it. But most of the audience have never seen him. This is the thing about having parents who are great but not hugely successful. It allows you to exist."

Loudon and Kate split when Martha was only one. She, her brother, and mother, left New York for the McGarrigle homestead in Montreal. The internal evidence of early songs like "Laurel and Hardy" suggests the siblings were unkind to each other. Were they? "Of course. We were totally struggling to have the most attention from our Mom. You see, Rufus is an egomaniac and I'm kinda insecure, so everything he did affected me and hurt me. If he was getting a lot of attention, it caused me anxiety. But I wanted the best for Rufus as well so I was confused. When he was sent a huge recording contract by Dreamworks, I remember thinking, 'Oh shit, this is not good'. But the song is also about defending him, reminding myself that he's an incredible spirit, saying don't be petty, don't be small, grow up."

The children were encouraged to sing from the outset. "My voice was always husky. In the school holidays, we'd go to the festivals in Cambridge and Reading with Kate and Anna. We weren't on stage for every song but we'd do two or three things. I'd be on stage, aged six or seven, with Rufus and my cousins Lily and Sylvan, Anna's kids. Rufus would have his own mike and stand gesturing theatrically. We would share a mike and giggle."

These cute excursions weren't all fun. "When you sang with Kate and Anna, you had to have your part dead-right. You'd be practising and they'd be standing behind you, pulling your hair. It was scary - I can still remember Kate's gnarled hand reaching towards me." She preferred being with her father. "One of my finest and earliest memories was of being on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. My father invited Rufus and me up to sing 'Dead Skunk'. There's a photo of us - I was about eight, looking very composed with a straight back, and I can remember that day, standing there, thinking, 'I like this'."

The absent father has been an obsession in her work for many years. Did she grow up feeling unloved, or just frustrated that he was never around? "I remember thinking very highly of him. He was this guy who'd come and buy us things in the summertime. He was very funny; Mom was the dragon-lady. I'd look forward to hanging out with him because we'd have canned spaghetti and ice cream. I wasn't frustrated - I just couldn't think why my dad wouldn't want to spend more time with me, wouldn't want to think I was his beautiful daughter."

Her real animus against Loudon, though, was the fact that he didn't believe in her. When, inspired by Rufus's dazzling contract, Martha dusted off her guitar and headed for the big city, her father wasn't encouraging. "I was writing little songs in New York and drinking and being a fuck-up, and he literally did not take me seriously. He was like, 'Aren't you going to get a real job, or go to school?' That was really mean. I was trying and I needed his help. My mother supported me, financially, and always helped me, but he didn't give me that kind of support. That's why I call him an asshole."

It's odd to think that, although Martha's songs, have been familiar to the cognoscenti for five years, it's taken her all this time to get a CD out. "No-one would sign me," she explains, with more steel than pathos in her voice. "That is, no-one from a major label who was anywhere high-up enough for me to know they had complete confidence in me and it wasn't going to get shelved.". In other words, some people wanted to sign her up, but they weren't grand enough for her. Some big names were interested, like Joe Boyd (who produced Kate and Anna McGarrigle's first two albums) "but that would have involved making straight-ahead folk records - and anyway, when your producer's more famous than you are, it makes you wary".

So, with a band of cronies and "a little money" she started putting her record together. "It suited me to be underground, it suited my personality - maybe even the fact that I wasn't prepared to do the work and be as focussed as you need to be successful."

Martha is endearingly fond of boho excess. "I've spent a lot of time in bars when I should have been, you know, networking and picking the greatest manager and so on". Much of her early twenties were spent in Nightingales, "a dump on Second Avenue with real cheap liquor and a rough scene. It was fantastic. People would put on little shows, there'd be open mikes and poets.It was a great way to... to drink yourself into oblivion.I've frolicked with the bohemians at the bottom of the barrel."

After spending years on the road with Rufus, singing backing vocals, performing at "little gigs" of her own, and accompanying her father on the confrontationally titled "Quality Time Tour", Martha is fledged and confident at last. She does not feel in competition with her classically-trained brother. "I think I approach music in a very natural way. I have a good ear and I can sing because of my genes, but I have no intellectual concept of music." She's not even, she says, a good guitarist. "I know only the basic chords. I can't do inversions and I can't jam. If someone's playing something, I can't follow it. But you know?" -- she makes a face like a bulldog with a bee on its nose - "I don't care. Because so many people can fucking jam, and they all play guitar the same fucking way.

"But there's one thing I can do which no one else in the family can do, which is rock. Rufus isn't very good at rocking out - it's like a joke when he tries to do it. But I like to get real sweaty, even if I'm not on electric guitar. I figure if you have four guys up there on stage, they might as well be playing their instruments, like, a lot."

She is unimpressed by the slew of female singer-songwriters around at present ("I just wanna line 'em all up against a wall and shoot 'em") and disparages the cocktail-hour stylings that have become ubiquitous. "There are so many musicians who went to jazz school, and all the singer-songwriters pick up these musicians and the whole thing sounds like Norah Jones. Lots of wacky chords to accompany, like, a folk song."

Over here she's fallen for the Kaiser Chiefs: "'I Predict a Riot' - I can't get that song out of my head. Them and Franz Ferdinand." Last year, she was onto the Scissor Sisters before anyone else. "The singer gave Rufus an advance copy," she says. "I remember listening to it and thinking, 'This is going to be big.' "

Bringing out the CD is clearly a culminating moment in her life. Her father, it seems, has always been faster with blame than praise. "When I toured with Loudon four years ago in England, every time I came off stage he'd tell me one or two things I'd done wrong. He'd say, 'I wouldn't have started with that,' or "that was a bit slow,' and I was like, 'fuck you', you know? Too much. Leave me alone or applaud me". So - did he like the CD? "He was really pleasantly surprised and happy to say he really liked it. He wouldn't have said that if he didn't mean it. It's been an uphill battle in some ways, but now I think I could handle anything".

As she prepares for the photographer by changing into a Matthew Williamson cocktail frock and battered trainers, I notice the huge ring on her wedding finger. "This is my grandmother's. I wear it to show how much I wish I were married". Did she have a young man in England? "No, I prefer older men. I'm sure it has something to do with the lack of dads in my life, but what can I do?"

I mutter something about the Electra complex, a woman's subconscious desire to sleep with her father and assist him in killing her mother. "I don't wanna shag my dad," says Martha Wainwright, as though keen to put it on the record at last. "I just want to be taken care of".

Martha Wainwright's debut album is out on Drowned in Sound on 4 April

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