Best New Artist Juno nominee Martha Wainwright walks down the streets of Austin, Texas, cellphone in hand, drifting among the thousands of music fans and industry types congregated for the granddaddy of music festivals, South by Southwest.
“Oh wait, I just walked by…” Her voice is suddenly muffled by angry guitars. She says, laughing, “I can’t believe that I’m doing this to you; I’m going into the depths of hell. I’m trying to give The Coast a little glimpse into the nightmare that is South by Southwest.”
Besides her own Saturday night slot— “trying to do as well as you can when singing over talking people”—Wainwright is performing with friends, moody popsters Snow Patrol, and sampling the fine Texas margaritas and barbecue. She confesses that, really, she’s in town for the metabolism-altering meat, and after a brief discussion of what it does to your digestive system, the singer gets serious for a moment.
“I do like the democratic process”—of SxSW—“I like that all these people, that many people have never heard of, are playing in the same festival as some really, really famous people and sometimes in the same venue. That’s a good thing—an even playing field,” she says. “But it is funny that all the label executives and people who work in the business are staying at high-end hotels and all the artists are in the dingy, fucking dumpy hotels out of town. It’s really a microcosm of the music industry in many ways, which is kind of nauseating.”
Wainwright’s cynicism was built on firsthand experiences and outsider observations. Born in 1976, the only daughter of Kate McGarrigle, one-half of iconic Canadian folk duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and honest-to-a-fault folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, Wainwright appeared on numerous stages and recordings, along with big bro Rufus, as The McGarrigle Sisters and Family. Before releasing her gorgeous self-titled debut and an EP, I Will Internalize, in 2005, she supported Rufus on backing vocals, released four EPs and quietly grew her own dedicated fan base.
Although by rights she’s a music veteran, Wainwright believes that she’s appropriately placed in the Juno’s new artist category—”there’s no best old performer who never made a record”—and the timing of her first album is perfect.
“I think that it’s smart, and maybe I knew something, putting out a record when I was 29, that still allows me to feel young,” she says. “It still feels very much like the beginning, which is good because after the first six or seven years of me plodding away as Rufus’s backup singer and working with people who wanted to change my songs all the time, being fully confident to take the bull by the horns was difficult for me. I think I wrote some great songs, I gained a lot of experience, but I think I needed to do that to get to the place where I’m at now.”
She admits to being “secretly giddy” about the nomination, although she learned early on that awards are not necessarily a measure of success. “It’s great to be in a situation that’s not based on Grammy awards, and it never was, where we came out of—Rufus and our parents—it was really about the music, oddly enough, in the sense that Kate had two children and Anna had one by the time their first record came out,” Wainwright says. “They stayed at home, they didn’t go out on the road a lot, and so it was really based on fucking banjo-picking rather than the pressures of having to succeed, and what that does, and how you have to change your personality a bit.”
Unlike June Carter Cash, who, according to interviews, learned to play the role of the comedian in “country music’s First Family” to compensate for insecurities about her singing voice, Wainwright cultivated an onstage vulnerability to set herself apart from the rest of the family. “I think that I faked it over the years, but there’s a comfort level,” she says. “As a kid, I definitely liked being on stage, although I never had the perfect humour to back it up. And then I needed something to do on stage, so I wrote these songs that are very vulnerable and not at all hammy.”
Don’t let the vulnerability mislead you: although she sings of blistering loneliness, Martha Wainwright is damn funny. “I think people are surprised, especially because the music’s so serious. How do you have this gregarious or showbiz attitude on stage but back it up with this serious music?” she asks. “I think that I have a good balance, in an old, very traditional folk or troubadour-esque kind of way. Those are people with their guitars who have been doing this for years and years, who have a very strong connection and talk to the audience directly. They’re a little different and they’re in the moment and they’re putting the songs across in as honest a way they can.”
Theatre school training comes in handy too, whether it’s shooting a video for “When the Day is Short,” a romantic vignette set in London, where she coyly plays the prostitute, the diva and the ingenue; or thanks to Rufus, as a 1940s torch singer in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a cameo that Wainwright says, laughing, is a “good example of what nepotism can do.”
Martha Wainwright’s roots are in Montreal. She still has a place in la belle province, but calls New York home, mostly for practical purposes. She keeps a clean sink and toilet, but has a hard time throwing stuff out (especially clothes), collects pieces of paper in her back pockets until her ass bulges and often ends her tours “with 20 plastic bags, things falling out of them, missing shoes. I look like a homeless bag lady wearing seven jackets, on the plane with five carry-ons, arguing with people.”
Despite her extraordinary upbringing, Martha Wainwright seems, well, pretty normal. Much ado was made about “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” a musical response to her father and her family’s legacy of divulging emotional details in their music: She was the subject of Loudon’s “Pretty Little Martha” and “Hitting You,” and when she was 19, they performed the duet “Father/Daughter Dialogue,” a subversion on the “Cats in the Cradle” theme, on his 1996 album, Grown Man.
The song “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” “became an anthem very quickly,” Wainwright says. “I think that”—she stops for a second to search for the right words— “it’s a very personal song, and it’s about me, and very soon after performing it live and putting it on an EP, it was no longer that; singing and playing it and having people sing along—it’s for them or something. For me, it’s still very empowering to sing because it’s fun to say those words.”
They’re Wainwright’s words, but the lyrics resonate (especially for women) in their powerful simplicity: “I will not pretend/I will not put on a smile/I will not say I’m all right for you/When all I wanted was to be good,” honouring the age-old songwriters’ philosophy that the more personal a song is, the more universal it becomes. “I think people really appreciate the honesty and openness. People have told me they’ve felt what I’m singing about and I’m always flabbergasted,” Wainwright says. “I also thank god that I’m not just up there complaining about my life, and being on stage with my own problems and boring people to death because that’s the last thing I want to do.”
Martha Wainwright at Songwriters’ Circle, April 2 at Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 1pm, $35, 494-3820.