The first thing I noticed about her was her leg—pumping, beating, propelling her music onstage at the Roundhouse in London. And that voice. One moment, tiny, held back, then, in a whiplash, fierce and exploding. Cascading. Mesmerizing. And those lyrics. Cutting, wrenching, funny.
A year later, gathered with her extended family, Boy George, and other friends onstage at Royal Albert Hall, singing French Canadian carols, Christmas blues, seasonal songs. A Carnegie Hall holiday tradition of her mother and aunt’s, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, brought to London. A concert she knew would be her mother’s last. Tending to a baby, tending to Kate, tending the music, she made Christmas ache and shimmer.
A third image. Southbank Centre, London. June 2010. Martha and her brother, Rufus, her aunt Anna, and producer Joe Boyd at their tribute concert to Kate, who had died just five months earlier. Martha leads a group of singers—Emmylou Harris, Jenni Muldaur, Teddy Thompson, a whole troupe, in a searing rendition of the last song her mother wrote.
What is it about this woman? You can’t take your eyes off of her when she’s onstage. She breaks your heart. And then she kicks out the chair and forces you to dance.
This conversation took place in New York in January, the morning after Martha Wainwright test-drove a handful of new songs at a tiny club on the Lower East Side. I met her in the lobby of the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, where she was attending a meeting of the clan—Rufus, her aunts Anna and Janie McGarrigle and Teddy Wainwright, her husband (Brad Albetta), and their baby, Arcangelo.
—Davia Nelson of The Kitchen Sisters
I. “I’M CALLING TO INVITE HER INTO THIS NEW REALITY”
THE BELIEVER: I was wondering, watching you sing your new songs last night, what’s the first song you wrote?
MARTHA WAINWRIGHT: The first song I wrote was called “The Lexie Song.” Lexie is my half sister. I was eighteen, seventeen, somewhere in there; she was one or two. The subject of the song was meeting her for the first time and trying to explain to her the different members of the dysfunctional family that we live in, and the different mothers involved and strange aunts and difficult situations that were caused by divorce or separation, but that we all must try and love each other and that we are happy that she is here with us. So it was right away a song about a family member, which is what most of my first songs were about.
BLVR: What got you started writing?
MW: I had started watching Rufus write songs, and he was playing a weekly show at this small venue and had asked me to sing some backup, so I had been onstage with him. I enjoyed that so much that I then pushed myself to write my own songs, to see if I could, being surrounded by songwriters and knowing a few chords on the guitar. At first I didn’t plan on being a musician, but then through those first couple of songs I realized it was the easiest thing for me to do. And it’s good to do the thing that’s easiest and most natural, rather than fight it.
BLVR: Before you thought, OK, I’m a musician, what else were you considering?
MW: Well, I was kind of a ham anyway. I was in theater school, and I liked art history. And I was pretty good in school and I thought, Well, maybe I can be sort of an academic. But I was lazy. Music became the most natural thing for me to do, because it was a place where I wasn’t particularly lazy.
BLVR: And what’s the newest song you’ve written?
MW: I’ve been trying to write songs recently for a new record. The last record I made was a collection of Édith Piaf songs, French songs. It’s been three-plus years since my last record of my own songs. It’s been a long time, and I’ve been quite out of practice, having had a baby and having toured Piaf, and also losing my mother to cancer. I was afraid to pick up the guitar for a long time because it was just too morbid, what was coming out. There were no words to express my feelings. I was just traumatized and shocked. I’ve just started writing these last couple of months. The song that I’m writing right now is about my mother, Kate, and about the physical body being gone and the things that are left behind. It’s called “All Your Clothes.” It’s basically, “What to do with this stuff?” And it’s me sort of asking if I could talk to her, and talking to her, but then telling her that I’ll speak for her, and speaking to myself in her words, to help me to figure out what to do with all this stuff.
BLVR: Where are you writing while you’re writing this new record?
MW: I’m in my new house in Brooklyn that I moved into just under a year ago. It’s a place that, although my mother had seen it when I was thinking of buying it— the reality of living there, and all the furniture and the neighborhood are a completely new slate, and having the baby is a completely new thing, so it would have been something that she would not recognize. So it was in that location where I suppose I’m calling to invite her into this new reality.
BLVR: I wonder if you would mind talking about the last year or so of your life. I thought maybe we’d start when you were onstage in London, singing your Piaf show, from the beginning of that evening.
MW: Yeah, right, well… That evening I felt ill for the first time. I feel like a fool sometimes, because I had gotten on the plane to go on the road because the midwife and I thought I would be fine. Although, in retrospect, she was a little concerned because the baby was in an odd position, but that’s OK, because the baby has time for the head to drop, and all that stuff. So, I was in London and I had been on a promo tour for about two weeks, at about seven months pregnant. I had a show in the evening on Sunday, November 15—and I really didn’t want to do it. I had already done the big show in London and I felt sick and was really kind of dragging my feet about having to do this last one, which was for press and uberfans. During the show, I was onstage, and I reached for a chair a couple of times and the audience sort of gasped. And I made the joke “It’s fine, it’s just a Braxton Hicks,” which are these fake—not fake, but they’re contractions where your body is practicing for labor. And they felt different than the other Braxton Hickses that I had felt before. This pain was coming from a different place. But I wanted to reassure the audience that nothing bad was going to happen, although I was kind of worried. And then I got offstage and had to sign and I was very tired. But the show was good, and it was funny. And also, the thing with Piaf, it’s very physically demanding. The way that I sing, I sort of push myself, and it’s a tendency that I have—I’m stomping, and I’m sort of singing really loudly and pushing to hold the notes out for longer. It’s probably partially what caused something to happen with the baby, in some way. If there was something wrong, I probably didn’t help it by using all of these abdominal muscles. Anyway, I went to the hospital that night and was first hoping that this was going to be a wake-up call, and they were going to put me on a flight the next day, feet up for the next two months, take it easy, you know. I wasn’t nervous, and I was feeling fine about it. And things went south really quickly. The first person I called in the middle of the night was my mother. I told her what was happening, and, interestingly enough, she had been through a similar experience with her first baby in London. She had lost her first child at the same gestational period, in a hospital. The baby was born and lived for a day and then died. In the same neighborhood where I was. And we talked about it, and I said, “Isn’t it strange that this is fucking happening?” She was very, very worried. This was her first grandchild. She was on the plane within twenty-four hours. And there were questions whether the baby would not be fine, but the baby—Arcangelo, Arc—is totally fine. Kate came back to London a couple of times. We did a giant concert the second time.
II. “I KNOW YOU’RE MARRIED BUT I’VE GOT FEELINGS TOO”
BLVR: How long was Arc in the hospital after he was born?
MW: He was in the hospital for two months. Two months in the incubator. It was such a bad situation, because Kate was dying. Arc’s thing was the better of the two. I mean, he was getting better. Yes, there were holes in the heart and dilated kidneys and not eating, but the other option to think about was my mother, whom I’ve known my whole life, completely deteriorating. So I think I was able to be in the hospital with Arc with a pretty good attitude because it seemed very hopeful to me, and very positive, and where I was needed the most.
BLVR: What happened in the months after the baby was born?
MW: As the baby got better, Kate’s cancer got worse and worse. My goal was to get back to Canada with the baby safely, once the baby was ready to fly. That was the main person to take care of. I had the hope of getting in a room with the baby and Kate, so we could have, perhaps, a season or a spring or one last summer, or something. Because it was clear that Kate was getting worse and worse. And then the reality set in. That wasn’t going to happen. And then it was—one had to be abandoned for the other, which was fine, because I could: the baby was with his father in London. We put Arc back in the hospital, put him on a feeding tube, and I said, “I have to go.” I got to go see my mother in Montreal the day that she died and for a couple of days over the holidays. Kate died, and we moved, and the baby got home. And then we started a new year and a new life. Luckily, we had the baby to concentrate on. And I think that I was shocked that my mother wasn’t around and shocked also that, rather than good memories of her smiling or being happy or what we were doing together, it was just a violent reaction that I had to the sickness and the disease. I suppose because I wasn’t with her in the last two months of her life, where I could watch the deterioration, I was shocked by the deterioration when I did see her the day that she died. I was very kind of macabre and had a violent reaction to the whole thing. I don’t know. Maybe also being in the hospital with the baby and the incubator, there’s a lot of death, a lot of disease. I was very belittled by the extremity and the destruction that had occurred. By the loss. Then, starting in May, we hit the road, because I had to tour the Piaf record. We got the baby wrapped up; he was about four months old. We started in Turkey, we crossed Canada, we did ten countries in Europe, we did a tour of America. So the baby’s been on forty-five flights this summer. That was a great way to see the world, and Arc was a good traveler. And it was a good way to be able to express myself without singing about my own problems. Here was a tragic figure, Piaf, in the songs that she sang. And I could sing in the context of those songs, but of course my own feelings were tapped into it in order to do it. But it didn’t have to be all about my own loss. Rufus was certainly doing kind of the opposite, touring Songs for Lulu, which is a record that is a lot about Kate. Some of those songs are about losing Kate and the years of her illness. He also does a song of hers at the end.
BLVR: And now?
MW: And now we’re here, and now we’re ready to do the new thing of writing songs. I’m sure some of the songs will be about Kate, as the last one that I’ve written is, but I also think that there will be songs about other things, too. You know? I hope!
BLVR: Have you found yourself drifting toward songs about motherhood? Not only your mother, but about your own motherhood?
MW: Not as much as—I think that there’s also been a lot of strains on my own relationship with my husband, because I lost my mother and we’ve bought a house and we’ve been doing work on it, and we have a child. I would say that a new subject matter for me is how I’ve changed and become a different person, and you’re no longer the child, you know? You’re a parent. I would say rather than songs about being a mother, they’re more about my new role. But also, my instinct at this point is not to make a record that’s too childish-sounding, it’s to try and sort of [laughs] keep my, um… edgy side.
BLVR: You’re not going Raffi on us….
MW: I’ve written a couple of lullabies that I’ve recorded for different things, and there’s a place for that, but I think I’d like to make a successful pop album. [Laughs]
BLVR: What do you call this next project, this new record?
MW: I’m terrible with titles. I never title songs until I have to list them on an album, and it’s a total struggle. I have an idea of how I want to start it and who I want to be on it. I want to work on it in this new house that I bought, which I want to use as a productive place. There’s a lot of space there, so rather than spending money in recording studios, I want the investment to work for me. It was a really big step to buy it, so I need to have it be a productive place.
BLVR: “House Music.”
MW: “House Music.” There you go. [Laughs]
BLVR: It surprises me that you feel awkward with your titles, or that they’re hard fought, thinking about the titles of your previous songs.
MW: Well [laughs], they’re all completely disgusting, or some of them are. Whether it’s “Bleeding All Over You” or “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” “I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too.” That’s a phrase in a song that I couldn’t resist, and I thought it was funny. A lot of the songs are seemingly depressing on the surface, but hopefully there’s a few little funny lines that are poetic or lyrical.
BLVR: Are you recording as you’re writing?
MW: No, I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. I can’t stand listening back to it. I think it’s devastating. Once I think the song is coming together I’ll think, OK, let’s try it from the top. I perform it for myself, from beginning to end, to make sure that it makes sense, if it’s pleasing, or if it has an arc, or whatever. I’m performing it for myself, and I’m listening to myself do it in the room, to know whether it’s complete or not. But I don’t record it, because when I have recorded, I’ve listened back and been disappointed by what I’ve heard. It sounds worse than how I’m hearing it in my head [laughs], so it’s not a good idea!
BLVR: It doesn’t push the process forward.
MW: No, it doesn’t. It pushes it back. I end up forgetting a lot of things that I work on, because I don’t record stuff, but then I figure that if things are coming back and I’m just doing them over and over and over and over again, then that’s probably just the best idea at that time. So that’ll be the focus.
BLVR: It’s knocking the loudest.
MW: Yeah. Yeah.
BLVR: And what’s the medium that you write into? Or onto?
MW: A piece of paper, by hand, because there’s no time to type. Sometimes I’ll just practice a section of the guitar parts, and say the phrase of the verse over and over, and I’ll never write it down, and it’ll never be written down anywhere. But it’ll be in the song, and I’ll just remember those lyrics. So it’s learned by rote.
BLVR: Do you keep, are things kind of—
MW: No, it’s a total mess. It’s chicken scratches. One verse is on one piece of paper in one marker, and then on another piece of paper is the verse that was written on a different day in another marker, and I’m scrambling around, trying to connect them, and the third verse is written on top of the second verse, and that line’s scratched out, and I’ve replaced a word that’s intermixed with grocery lists, with people to call, with a drawing. I mean, it’s not aesthetically pleasing. It’s not even like a mad artist scribbling. There’s empty pages in between, there’s receipts, it’s pretty funny. It’s kind of like not really taking it seriously. When I do take it seriously is when I perform the songs. I try very hard in those moments—you’re up there in front of people. And then, also, all this stuff about insecurities and being small—not physically small, obviously, but small in some ways—is totally counteracted by the strong performance of knocking my leg and yelling really loudly.
III. LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR LEG
BLVR: Let’s talk about your leg.
MW: Yeah. [Laughs] Well, my father did that, and he also sticks out his tongue, which I do. So people think it’s from that, which probably makes some sense. And, I think, also to egg myself on. To create a rhythm, I play the guitar more violently than most women play the guitar—that’s a total generalization—but it’s true when you see a lot of girls, a lot of women have a softer feel, and I have a tendency on some songs to really knock it quite hard. And I think it makes more sense if you have the sound of a heel on wood or something. It works together, and it takes away some of the harshness of the guitar instrument sound, because you’re sort of filling it out a little bit more. So it’s another instrument… masking my mediocre guitar-playing. [Laughs]
BLVR: Describe it—if someone had never seen you perform—describe your physical presentation. What’s happening with your body during your music?
MW: Well, it kinda looks uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. I’m sort of making myself neckless. My shoulders are kind of scrunched up and my face looks like—I mean, the amount of bad photographs of me with my mouth open and my eyes closed and my cheeks completely squinting, it’s pretty bad. It looks kind of aggressive. There’s a lot of tension in it, but I think at the same time there’s a lot of flow that happens through it, because it really isn’t that tense, actually. It’s just a lot of energy… and hopefully it’s going into the guitar or into the voice and into the song and not getting blocked anywhere. That’s what you want, just not to get blocked up somewhere.
BLVR: What about dancing?
MW: I love to dance. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a dancer, and I write about that sometimes in my songs. But because I play guitar, I can’t strut around onstage holding a microphone, shaking my booty, because basically I don’t do funk or rock music, or pop music where it’s, like, dance-y. It’s the opposite. You have to stand in front of the mic stand, because you’re playing an instrument, so there’s not much choice. So I’m really constrained in the style of what I can do. But at the same time, my secret penchant for dancing comes out in these weird erratic movements. So sometimes I’ll gyrate my hips in a very kind of sexual way. Like if you were just to look plainly at it you’d think, Why is she doing that? It’s just a way to help me sing the song, to perform the song. It’s like a little dance act, in a very constrained setting, with this piece of wood that covers most of my body (which is great about the guitar, by the way). I think a lot of women, and men, too, are very self-conscious about what they look like when they sing, ’cause they think, I’m onstage. I want to be a famous artist. People are taking my picture, I’ve put this outfit on, I’m putting myself out there, I want to look great. You can see that a lot of women are singing a song and their lips aren’t moving too much, and they’re looking over here, and their eyes are closed, and they’re very aware that they’re cutting a nice line. Because it’s a really important part of the music business. But I didn’t think that I was ever going to cut a particularly gorgeous line, so I just scrapped that concept and I allow it to be more natural or aggressive.
BLVR: So few people are moving like you do: you’ve got your own thing. But last night, watching you, I suddenly thought, This is Bruce Springsteen meets Édith Piaf meets Dusty Springfield.
MW: Oh, wow! And that’s sort of what I sound like in some ways, in a weird way. ’Cause Springsteen’s got that yelly thing that he does, and that real Americana thing, which I kind of do a bit. And then Piaf is my “European self.” Because she sort of stands there with all this tension, and I have that, but it’s not as intense, ’cause I let it go a little bit more—I move more. Dusty Springfield, that’s nice, that brings in a love that I have for a type of song that I don’t write and that I can’t write, but that I love to do, which is a bigger-than-life type of music, and that torch singing that those big American and British singers of a certain era were able to do. That would be a dream of mine, to be able to be considered on all of these levels, alongside these artists that you’re talking about. I definitely have the lesbian thing going—well, it’s a roughness that’s sort of a tomboyishness or something. [Laughs]
BLVR: Can you paint a picture of music in your family through the years as you were growing up?
MW: To be honest, a lot of the music-making came from having to do it professionally. In some ways, I find that Kate and Anna’s upbringing with music was perhaps more romantic, because they learned songs off the radio and were listening to Blind Willie Johnson or something, or the nuns taught them to play the piano, or their parents had these old standards, and there was singing around the house, and it was a very natural musical upbringing that led them into this relationship with instruments and musicality that was completely fresh and open. But in the case of Rufus and I, we really played music a lot of the time because we had to do a gig. Or, “Let’s get the kids on this song….” So it was beautiful in itself, but it was oftentimes “OK, we have to learn this song because we have to present it and not make total fools out of ourselves.” An interesting time was when we were doing The McGarrigle Hour about thirteen years ago, when, for the first time, Rufus and I and Kate and Anna and their peripheral artists—my father and Emmylou Harris— were all in a working situation. Joe Boyd produced it. But it’s also completely a family situation. And it’s Stephen Foster’s songs, and our songs, and other folk songs—it was all sort of the oil that was making us tick. And all this experience came out of it, and it was all beautiful. It became a living-room situation, but in a studio.
BLVR: Talk about the song of yours “Year of the Dragon.”
MW: I think that song is one of the best I’ve ever written. Kate and Anna love that song, and it’s really because of that song that I was able to be on the record at all as more than just a backup singer, which was really meaningful to me. That song was about being twenty-one and trying to make a name for myself. Rufus and everyone around me had already started recording and performing, and were artists and becoming successful, and I hadn’t really done anything. It was about trying to push my way into something, to find out what it is about me that was going to separate me from everybody else.
IV. “WHILE I’M STIRRING THIS, WHY DON’T YOU PERFORM A SONG?”
BLVR: Let’s move to another big part of your life: cooking and food.
MW: I was talking about this house that I bought to be a place of productivity and to generate things that will help me in life, and one of the reasons for getting it was this concept of a cooking music show. The idea of the cooking show came out of a play on the other Martha. I like to cook and entertain, but not in a sort of Martha Stewart pulled-together kind of way. We’ve shot two pilots that I’m editing right now. The idea came up because I used to have these little dinner parties in this tiny little bohemian apartment, with friends coming over—I’d be stirring the pot with a glass of wine and a cigarette hanging out of my mouth, back in the day. And someone would be at the piano doing a song, and then an artist comes over who’s a great songwriter, and while I was making the salad, people were playing music in the living room. And I thought, This would be a good show. It’s getting to see artists in an area where they’re comfortable, rather than going into a television-studio setting and performing their new single. We design a menu the week before, based on what they want to cook, whether it’s something their mother made as a child or something they make. We start the preparation, chop and brown the onions, add the vegetables, and it’s “While I’m stirring this, why don’t you perform a song for us?” So then we move into the living room and have a beautifully recorded song of whatever the artist wants to do. And then we go back to baste the bird, braise the meat….
BLVR: Which artists have been on the show?
MW: Our first guest was Norah Jones, and another artist named St. Vincent, who I think is great. Norah did fried chicken—really great. It was a recipe that she got on the road when she was traveling through Memphis. She really knows how to cook. I don’t normally cook Southern food, so I did a makeshift Southern combination of collard greens with black-eyed peas and squash in this vegetarian cassoulet style, with a bit of hamhock. Also, purple cabbage coleslaw that my mother used to make.
BLVR: We have a saying at The Kitchen Sisters that food is the new music.
MW: Well, cooking shows are certainly very popular, but I felt that there were no good music shows coming out of this country. There are a few in England, like Later… With Jools Holland, where you can really see the artist, and it sounds good, and the artist can do what they want to do.
V. FOREVER PUNI
BLVR: What was your nickname growing up?
MW: Puni. It’s a made-up name. I had a babysitter who called me la petite pun-pun, which means “little doll” in French, and my father couldn’t say pun-pun, so it’s an anglicism of that. I think he made it up. Everyone who still knows me from childhood still calls me that. If they knew me as a child, I’m forever Puni in their minds. [Laughs]
BLVR: How did you and Pete Townshend get connected musically?
MW: I got a call from his daughter, who works in his management circle. Pete and his girlfriend, Rachel Fuller, were doing an online TV show called In the Attic that they do in their studio in Richmond, outside of London on the Thames. It’s a rant. Pete is very political, and Rachel is hilarious; she sits there chain-smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, she’s usually in her pajamas, and she’s ranting on, swearing like you wouldn’t believe, like “the fucking Queen mother” or something. And Pete walks in, “Oh, yes, that bloody fucker,” and he starts talking about his many philosophies of the world. And he’ll play a song on the keyboard, and they invite friends on, mostly unknowns, because I think Pete is really interested in promoting young artists, giving them the opportunity that he had. So I got a call when I was in London. And they said, “If we send a car over, can you be on this show?” And I said, “Of course.” I didn’t know anything about the show, I didn’t know how they got my phone number. Within an hour, I was sitting in a pair of pajamas they had given to me with Pete Townshend and Rachel, performing songs with Pete accompanying me. And he knew all these songs from my past and my first record. It was totally surreal, and was the beginning of a love affair that I have with them. After that first television performance, he came up onstage and performed with me a couple of times. Of course, you would never announce it, because it would be a media circus, so I would call him up the day before the show and ask him to come down. Not even for the sound check, but just to walk onstage, and everyone would go, “What the hell?” So it was very nice. He was interested in having more people know who I am, and it was really just to promote me and help me.
BLVR: That also takes some guts on your part, to hold the stage with Pete Townshend playing your music.
MW: There were a couple of good ones that he really liked, so I said, “Let’s just do that.” He liked to play on a song called “This Life,” which was probably one of my strongest songs. Because the guitar part was so complicated and there were so many chords, it gave him an opportunity to do some amazing stuff. If you think I have a lot of energy onstage coming out of my body, if you have Pete Townshend jumping around behind you, it’s a tornado.
BLVR: One thing I was thinking last night, as I was watching you experiment with your new work and mix it with your old work, was that you are a part of a troupe, part of a community, your own little family, but this bigger thing as well. And how few people in life have that, and what that really means….
MW: Well, I imagine that a lot of people have that in their work, though. Whether it’s people in the office, or the people they talk with on the phone on a regular basis who understand what they’re talking about when they’re talking about whatever it is that they’re working on. Because it’s a very individualistic thing to do, to stand up with an instrument, especially alone, and sing about your life and personal feelings. But it has to feel like it’s in some context of a movement. I like to think that, having done shows with Rufus, and in New York with Antony, Joan Wasser, and with artists from Montreal, I’m part of some type of sound or music, even though it’s hard to pin down. I’m pretty insecure about songwriting. You know, my parents are such great songwriters, and I’m very sort of self-conscious about my own.
BLVR: When you talk about not having that confidence in your songs, I feel like saying back to you, your songs are so great….
MW: I think there’s been some really good songs. There’s a certain amount of them, but I hope to keep writing good ones. I think it’s hard, and I think there is a reason why some people’s best songs were written at the beginning of their careers. It’s like a burst occurs at that time, and it’s all new at that point, and life is very open at that time. That’s all a constant struggle. Of course we all want to be happy: happy in our marriages and in our home lives and in our work life, but that doesn’t make for very interesting songs, unfortunately. I want to write songs that are truthful about big things in life, that people can identify with.