Unrequited love and zucchini curry soup

Martha Wainwright (2008), photo by Peter Terzian

[Today’s post is a departure from this blog’s usual preoccupations and usual author: Peter Terzian interviews singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright.]

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.

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The Door is Open Wide

Peter wrote this essay last week, after hearing the news about the Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan:

Grant McLennan, who died of a heart attack May 6 at age 48, wrote my second favorite song of all time. The song is called “Bye Bye Pride,” and it came out in 1987 on “Tallulah,” the fifth album by his band, The Go-Betweens, although I didn’t hear it until 1991, after the group had broken up and put out a retrospective compilation. I did buy “Tallulah” upon its release. I was a sophomore in college, and I must have read something in the Boston Phoenix or one of the city’s free local music papers that said that if I liked jangly guitar pop, which I did, I would love The Go-Betweens. But I’ll confess that I sold the album not long after I bought it, and I’m not sure that I’d even listened to it all the way through. I think it was Gore Vidal who said that you have to be over 40 to fully appreciate Proust. You don’t have to be quite so mature to appreciate The Go-Betweens, but perhaps they were a bit too subtle for an easily distracted 19-year-old.

Three years later, I came across that compilation at the Tower Records on Newbury Street. Its title, “1978-1990,” read like the dates on a headstone. But the CD cover, a simple photo of ferny green leaves reaching up into a cerulean sky, held out nothing but promise: sunlight, growth, clarity. Still, I resisted, remembering the hocked “Tallulah.” I didn’t buy “1978-1990” for another year. I can’t explain what, in the end, prompted me to finally seek it out again. It did, in a sense, call to me. I was somewhere, doing something, and I thought, “I should really go buy that Go-Betweens compilation.”

As any fan with tell you, every Go-Betweens record is divided equally between the band’s two singer-songwriters, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. McLennan’s songs are often described as sweeter, lusher, more conventional, while Forster is the difficult one, his delivery eccentric and theatrical. (Not long after I became the owner of “1978-1990,” I bought a VHS tape of six of the band’s videos; in each, Forster vamps for the camera, doing everything he can to draw attention to himself. McLennan just stands and strums.) Secretly, every Go-Betweens fan has a preference, be it ever so slight, for one singer over the other. The McLennan songs on “1978-1990,” and the individual albums that I began to buy afterward, immediately became my favorites, but I learned that the roles the two frontmen were assigned by music critics weren’t exactly accurate, that they could actually be reversed. Forster’s songs were witty and arch, but they skimmed the surface. McLennan, at least in the band’s early years, had the darker vision. Only in his 20s, McLennan, like this listener, couldn’t get beyond the losses of childhood, found adulthood confusing and sometimes harrowing.

It is difficult to describe a song in a way that makes sense for someone who hasn’t heard it. It is even harder to communicate the song’s appeal. How can I tell you in words why “Bye Bye Pride” is my second favorite song? I could only play it for you, and the song’s greatness should be evident. I would like to think that is true, but I have played “Bye Bye Pride” and other Go-Betweens songs for my boyfriend, and he is immune to their charms. I have put the song on mix tapes for friends, and not one has singled out that song as being moving or life-altering or special in any way.

Perhaps the song has all of the elements that make up the quintessential Grant McLennan song. There are small, concrete details—mangroves, an electric fan, boats in a bay, a letter dated May 24—that seem to add up to a story, a story that never quite comes into focus. There is, as in most songs, bad romance. And there are lines that I swear are poetry: “In la Brisa de la Palma, a teenage Rasputin takes the sting from her gin.”

What got me, though, was something about the melody, and something about the chorus, that pointed toward release. I was 23, and floating. I loved music and books, and I found a job that allowed me to work for an hour or so a day and spend the rest of my time sitting at a desk reading and looking out the window. But I had no idea what to do next, whether to stay in Boston or to move to New York, whether to stay with my then-boyfriend or leave, whether to find another job or go to graduate school. I would listen to The Go-Betweens on my headphones on the bus ride home from work. I played “Bye Bye Pride” over and over, and the song’s melody mirrored the floating motion of my life. The verses hovered, like a skiff on the water. But then came the chorus, the part that I waited for, when Amanda Brown’s oboe line swooped high, a flourished bouquet of flowers. “Take your shoes and go outside,” sings Grant. “Walk to that tide because the door is open wide.” I couldn’t walk through that door, but it was something to know it was there. —Peter Terzian