Martha Wainwright made her recording debut in 1998 on The McGarrigle Hour, a collaborative family album featuring her brother, Rufus; her father, Loudon Wainwright III; and her mother and aunt, the Canadian folk duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Set among straight-arrow American standards—“Gentle Annie,” “Johnny’s Gone to Hilo,” and such—Martha’s “Year of the Dragon” was sexy and shape-shifting. A full-length debut, however, was years in the making; Martha Wainwright didn’t appear until 2005. Wainwright’s songs traffic in big, messy emotions. Her now-famous “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” is addressed to her dad; “When the Day is Short” is a dreamy paean to one-night stands.
“My heart was made for bleeding all over you,” she sings on her new album, I Know You’re Married But I Have Feelings Too. Wainwright’s voice is breathtakingly elastic—sometimes soaring and theatrical; other times kittenish; occasionally goofy.
I interviewed her a few weeks ago, on a sweltering Tuesday at Monkeyboy Studios, the Williamsburg recording studio of her husband, producer Brad Albetta.
PETER TERZIAN: How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
MARTHA WAINWRIGHT: Almost ten years, I think. I lived in Williamsburg early on. I lived in the East Village for a while and then moved back to Williamsburg.
How do you find that Williamsburg has changed over the years?
The other day, I guess it was on a weekend, I was walking down Bedford Street and I thought, it’s sort of like a commercial Haight-Ashbury—that feel but with more monetary interest. But I suppose it’s refreshing compared to what’s happening in Manhattan, in some ways, just in terms of young people. There seem to be bands and music coming out of Brooklyn again. Luckily for me, I live on the south side. I live with the Hasids. Not being on the north side saves me having to get into an incredible outfit every time I want to go to the store.
Do you spend much time going out around here?
I used to. But now, being on the road, when I’m here I take advantage of having an apartment. When I first moved here I would go see a lot of musicians and go out locally. I have a song on my first record called “G.P.T.,” which is the Green Point Tavern, which has sort of become famous. I don’t want to date myself, but when I was there, there weren’t a lot of young people in there.
What’s your typical Brooklyn day like?
I get up and I make very strong coffee, which I’ve been doing for years. My mother used to bring me coffee in bed when I was twelve and I can’t get out of the habit, so sometimes Brad will bring me coffee in bed. I walk everywhere when I’m here, so if I have errands to run in the city, I’ll take my backpack and walk into town, generally on the Williamsburg Bridge. If I have to go see my accountant or something on the West Side, I’ll walk all the way there, or even if I have to go up five or six miles into Manhattan I might walk the whole way and walk back. It’s an opportunity for me to clear my head. You see things that can potentially inspire songs.
And then I like to take advantage of the fact that I have a kitchen, just because I like to cook, so I’ll shop for food. Basically my whole day revolves around meals.
Do you get most of your recipes from magazines or cookbooks?
I make things up. I’m not very good at following recipes. And I also lean on my mother a lot. There are a lot of things that she’s made over the years that I try to recreate, just for my own feelings of comfort. And so I’ll call her and ask her to read me the recipe or tell me how to do it.
Such as …
Well, last night I made two cold soups. I made a gazpacho, which I don’t generally like in a restaurant, because I find it too tomatoey. But hers is much more cucumber-based and quite spicy. Then I made one of my favorite things that she does, which is a cold zucchini curry soup with cream at the end, so it’s like a vichyssoise but not quite as thick.
Do you mind being on the road?
No, I like it. I’m not that much of a homebody. I don’t have my creature comforts that I need, so I like to bunk on the bus. I like the schedule. I like being told when I need to get up to go to sound check, you’re meeting this journalist, you’re doing this or that. When you’re an artist and you don’t have a boss and you have to make up your schedule, sometimes it’s really hard to motivate yourself to not turn on daytime television and lounge around in your underwear, which is something else I like to do.
How did you and Brad meet?
Apparently we had met before, but I don’t remember. We met through a mutual friend. I was looking for a replacement for my bass player, and his name came up. Then I met him and I thought he was very attractive so I hired him [laughs]—which is not normal. But then he turned out to be a great bass player, which is really wonderful. I had started to make the first record, and then we fused together and he helped me to produce it.
And when did it become love?
Through the whole thing, but in a very tumultuous way. He was actually living with someone then. But it all worked out fine, I think, for the best.
Do you think of yourselves as collaborators, or . . . ?
What you do is very separate from him.
I mean, I write all the songs, and it’s very much the Martha Wainwright Show. But I would say that I realize more and more the role that he’s played for me. It’s not only as someone to help me to produce some of these songs and to do it well. For a long time, I was in many ways crippled by a certain amount of loneliness and lack of confidence, and I think having someone say that they loved me really helped me in an obvious way. I always felt that I needed that recognition. Especially in a field or a situation like mine where nothing is secure—where I’m going to live is not secure, the record industry is not secure. It’s nice to have someone there who’s very responsible in opposition to that.
It must be nice to have someone to travel with. I imagine a lot of musicians have to leave someone behind.
Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of male musicians, who do what I do, maybe they like to get laid every night, because of their egos. But I think they like to do it with someone different. And I don’t think that women are the same way.
Well, I don’t know. But for me I think it’s nice to just be with someone who you know. And to have that intimacy that you don’t have to say good-bye to every morning.
Has being married changed your songwriting?
No, it hasn’t yet. Although I haven’t been writing a lot since I got married, just because I’ve been finishing up this record. But I think my writing has changed a bit in the last few years anyway, just in terms of lifting my eyes from my own navel and looking outside of myself to see that the world has much bigger problems than my own. I think this is a realization that you come to when you get a little bit older, and things happen around you that put you into the context of a larger scheme somehow. I’ve started to write songs that are my personal—but not always autobiographical—story, which is exciting to me because it means that there’s been an evolution between the first and the second record and that the writing is changing a bit, and will continue to do so. Certainly there won’t be as many songs about unrequited love. On this record there are, though, in some ways. For me, love is a subject that isn’t always about a couple. It can represent itself as friendship and family and yearning for other things.
The sound on your new album is bigger, more intricate than on your first one.
It was one of the only conscious decisions I made. I wanted to have more fun with this record. Brad and I were so constrained on the first one—there was no record company, there was no budget, we had to use the studio when it was available. With this one, I was like, let’s spend a little bit more money, not that much, but let’s have some strings here. I wanted to try out different things, and I wanted it to be more produced. I’ve been enjoying myself the last few years on the road. There’s been more joy. There’s been more exposure to a rockier sound just by virtue of touring for three years with a band and having to sing over a drummer. Also, having three producers, two are whom are essentially pop producers, I was aware of the potential.
I thought it was interesting that you used . . . I don’t know how to pronounce his name.
I know him from producing the Cardigans and Saint Etienne . . .
And Franz Ferdinand.
Did you seek out that sound?
No, I was very ignorant about things. I met up with about eight different producers. I thought, OK, I’m not going to make this record with Brad, because we did the first one together. I’m going to go find some big shot producer. And then I realized, in meeting a lot of these guys and demo-ing, I didn’t want one older guy to sort of ejaculate all over my record. I’m a bit of a control freak without really knowing what I want.
You know it when you hear it.
Exactly. So then I realized, I don’t want one of these guys to do the whole thing. I would have had Tore do it but he wasn’t available. He was certainly my first choice in many ways, because what he did with “Tower Song”—which is a demo version, it’s an mp3 version that we mastered on the record because we lost all the original tracks—what he did on that was so brilliant. But I think I like records that really vary. Especially nowadays when records are so long. I don’t know if it’s impatience or if it’s just very much my taste, but to have that kind of eclecticism is exciting for me on a record.
You have two cover songs on the album, Syd Barrett’s “See Emily Play” and Eurythmics’ “Love is a Stranger.” Can you tell me about how and why you selected them?
I wanted my mother on the record and she suggested that we do “See Emily Play,” because we had learned it for a Syd Barrett tribute about a year ago. She listened to the song a couple of times and came up with what I think is a really fun arrangement, very different from the original obviously, and more female. The song is kind of misogynistic, and so it’s nice to have what’s perhaps more Emily’s point of view. And we sat here in this spot and Brad was on drums—he’s not a drummer, so it has a kind of very bam-bam feel to it—and Kate played the Wurlitzer. It was a nice family day. I made sandwiches.
Obviously I’m a real child of the 80s, and you can hear that on the record too. When I was nine, ten, eleven years old, I wanted to be Annie Lennox. I found that “Love is a Stranger” had an interesting sound if I played it on the guitar, with an almost rock-country feel. Which is totally different from the Dave Stewart synthesizer vibe. I didn’t want to try and come close to the original stylistically, because you can’t touch that shit. It’s more interesting to just have fun with it and be silly. It sounds like something I would say: “Love is a stranger.” Singing that song you can really see the brilliance of them as pop musicians. It’s so simple—it’s two chords, every phrase is perfect. It’s so tightly done, it’s like every bow is tied.
Does that often happen to you—that you learn something about making music by covering someone else’s songs?
I hope so. Doing the Kurt Weill thing at Covent Garden or singing with Snow Patrol, any of those kind of things, I hope to God that that’s rubbing off on me in some way, to teach me to expand my horizons. Musically I don’t have much of a persona, or much artifice, which is not a good thing or a bad thing, but allows me to do a lot of different things in a believable way. It means that I can sing Judy Garland, or be on stage and have people believe that I’m in character. If someone has too much of a thing, then they can’t really go outside of that, because people aren’t going to buy it. So I like having that openness to music, and as a singer it keeps things more interesting to me.
So you listened to things like Eurythmics growing up. I guess I had a preconceived idea that you would have listened to a lot of traditional music.
Oh yeah, we listened to that too. I mean, it was a real hodgepodge. The concept of “Anything goes as long as it’s interesting” was really there with Kate and Anna, and with my dad as well. Although they’re very much folk singers, they’re very original with it. It’s not like Peter, Paul, and Mary—that wasn’t really liked [laughs], that over-the-top folkie thing wasn’t really the focal point. It was really just about what is probably a little bit weirder than that, or more aggressive than that. So it could be anything from records of Swedish folk songs followed by Prince. Edith Piaf paired with zydeco. Cream with Paul Robeson. Those are the kinds of records we used to listen to.
It sounds like you didn’t have to react against your parents’ musical tastes.
No, I fully embraced it. There was enough space there, and there was even punk rock there. They’re quite original and quite bohemian, Kate and Anna, and a lot of people came to the house who weren’t just straight-up folk musicians. It was pretty open, stylistically.
Does it both you that everything written about you mentions your parents and your brother?
I think that it makes sense. It’s a part of who I am, and these songs make reference to them. It would be silly of me to talk about my family in song and then not want to talk about them at all in an interview. Obviously I’m still in the process of getting out from underneath that shadow, which is why I don’t have a lot of Rufus on this record. It’s still my prerogative to solidify myself as my own artist. But if a journalist didn’t ask me, I would bring it up anyways. I think one of the reasons my family is of interest to people is not so much because they’re interesting or strange, but because they’re very much like every other family, if you take out the singing bit. It’s sort of like watching a sitcom. People identify with characters in a sitcom. They’re like, “Oh, I’m like Rufus, the focused older brother who always knew what he wanted,” or “I’m like Martha, the misunderstood victim,” or “I’m like Kate, the good mother.” I think people can see themselves and recognize themselves in the story, because it’s really a common story, whether it’s children of divorce or people who are finding themselves.
Do you think of yourself as part of a community of musicians? You’ve played with not only Rufus but . . .
Joan as Policewoman, Linda and Teddy Thompson. I’ve worked a little bit with Antony. Yeah, I hope so. When I do big shows, I have people come up on stage with me, especially in England, where I have a lot of friends. I figure if we’re all hanging out drinking and smoking cigarettes, why aren’t we just playing on stage? We did a show three weeks ago at the Royal Festival Hall, and I had Beth Orton up, I had Ed Harcourt up, I had the Magic Numbers come up. So that’s where the folk stuff comes in.
That sounds like a fun way to do a show.
It’s more like a special event. And also if I bill it that way, people might think that Rufus will show up.