To the manor born
by Seth Rogovoy
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(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., August 19, 2004) – In the end, for singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright, there was really little choice about what she would be when she grew up.
“I shied away from it for a long time,” said Wainwright, the daughter of Kate McGarrigle, of the renowned Canadian sister folk duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, speaking recently by cell phone on a bus taking her from Woods Hole to her home in New York.
“I couldn’t avoid it,” said Wainwright, who performs on Saturday night at 8 in Mass MoCA’s Courtyard Café as part of the museum’s Alternative Cabaret series. “It certainly wasn’t pushed on me to do it. And once I decided, I was amply encouraged but not overly coddled. But I have no training in anything else, so I realized I’d better accept my fate.”
Raised mostly by her mother, Wainwright said she was taught to abide by the highest standards, a lesson which has stood her in good stead.
“My mother was critical of everyone,” said Wainwright. “She’s a bit of a hardass. That wasn’t going to be any different for her kids.
“Luckily I wrote some good songs off the bat that didn’t make her cringe, and that probably saved me some pain. The bar is high in that environment, and I appreciate that. You try and dig down in your heart and really try and write things that are truthful. That was very ingrained in me by my parents, because these are musicians who made music for no other reason than to express themselves because they felt it. Certainly it wasn’t to become famous. And that was a very good lesson.”
As if Wainwright didn’t have enough to live up to with the examples of her father, her mother and her aunt, in recent years her brother Rufus Wainwright has become something of a folk-rock cult figure. But instead of being sibling rivals, brother and sister are very supportive of each other. Martha has provided backup vocals on his recordings, and often tours with him as his warm-up act.
Wainwright confesses to a modicum of envy, however. “We’re both insecure people and competitive and wary of anyone who’s good, and that includes both of us,” she said. “But we’re also very supportive and want the best for each other. If we can’t succeed at this, we’re both sort of screwed, since we have no training at anything else.
Although Wainwright has her own unique style, she admits to being influenced strongly by her mother.
“People tell me I look like my mother, so why wouldn’t I sing like her,” said Wainwright, who began performing with the McGarrigle sisters while still a young girl. “There is a vague, indescribable resemblance, something that connects us. My voice and temperament have a lot of resemblances, and what my heart feels and thinks.
“At least I never tried to escape. I could have gone into pop music and sung other people’s songs, but I decided to try and write songs, drawing from the same places that my parents did.”
But Wainwright counts others besides her family members as important musical influences on her work,
“More than someone like Joni Mitchell, I’d be interested in listening to Edith Piaf and Nina Simone -- people who do something I can’t do, what I can just enjoy but don’t have to worry about making it any better than that. I just listen to how they sing a song with so much emotion,” said Wainwright, who began composing and performing her own material while still attending college in Montreal.
“And you can’t escape the power of Bob Dylan. Whenever you hear or come back to him, you can’t escape the heaviness of it and the brash attitude of a guy getting up there with a guitar and singing songs really in his own way and voice.”
In conjunction with Mass MoCA’s summer theme of art as intervention, Wainwright plans to add a few political protest songs to her concert tomorrow night.
”I’m going to try to find songs that wouldn’t be typical protest songs,” said Wainwright, who has performed in stage musicals and contributed to albums by her father, Dan Bern and Linda Thompson. “It’s such a strange time and an untypical war in many ways, and a bizarre, surreal situation, so I’m looking at a lot of songs that deal with humanity and lots of life more than the sort of ‘rise up against war,’ typical protest songs of the early ‘60s.
“But that’s hard to do, and I might end up trying tomorrow to learn some Woody Guthrie songs, because those are important, too. I’m looking to try to find things that are also beautiful in melody and words and poetry. A lot of protest songs are very simple musically, because they’re designed as sing-alongs. But my research is leading me to stranger places, whether they’re English songs, like Ewan MacColl, or Odetta, because she’s such a beautiful singer. I picked up a record of Utah Phillips where he recited poetry and did songs inspired by the first Gulf War. He’s amazing because he’s very smart.
“I’m not good at writing political songs, but I’m going to try to find a handful of interesting song that deal with war and are antiwar in their sentiment, and do some of my own songs, which are all about my own stupid life and love,” said Wainwright, who recently completed recording her first full-length album, which will be released in early 2005.
Her own songs tend to talk about “an estranged young woman in these very weird times -- the things that she thinks about, which are love, if the future’s going to be all right, why we’re here, and what it’s all about,” she said.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 20, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]