INTERVIEW BY Rachael Clegg
bloody mother fucking asshole...from the very wainwright dynasty that brought us loudon, rufus and the mcgarringles, martha is an altogether different kettle of fish. mention of leonard cohen and feminism and not being 21, all crop up in rachel cleggs interview with one of 2005's rising stars
Interview with Martha Wainwright
Night and Day Cafť
February 28th 2005
When I join Martha Wainwright she's casually smoking, drinking and chatting away to her entourage, in the relatively dingy confines of the back room at the Night and Day Cafť. She's wearing battered basketball boots, a denim skirt, and old t-shirt Ė an outfit that seems to reflect her demeanour perfectly: a relaxed and very down-to-earth woman with what seems like an infinite catalogue of experiences. We sit round a table talking as Martha smoked away chatted animatedly about the meaning of her songs, her life, and the perception of women in music. Extremely warm and open during the interview, with a real Ďbeen thereí aura, this is all somehow mapped in her eyes and face. Her humility regarding song writing is striking, considering that during her set, she undeniably and naturally, had complete command of the audience.
RC: When I was watching you perform it seems that the content of your songs are a little too heartfelt to be merely hypothetical situations.
MW: Thatís because theyíre not [laughs almost recollecting each and every one ]. There isnít one line in any of those songs that isnít actually true. It makes for very un-prolific song writing.
RC: Some of the lyrics seem a little too close for comfort, which relates to my question, do you always write directly from experience?
MW: Oh yes, a lot of the songs were written years ago; they took a long time. Iím not a very good guitar player or a very prolific musician who writes about everything they see and who sees everything as a song. [Itís all from my experience and] itíll continue to be that way for a while. I think eventually Iím going to have to resort to crap song writing to churn them out because no one can have that many life experiences. [Laughs] And now Iím finally with someone and we do all our shit together, which is what I wanted [and] I wonder what I will write about.
RC: I was going to ask that actually, if you did have your dog and two kids what would be your subject matter?
MW: Well you know my mother and my auntie [the McGarringle sisters], both wrote all their songs when we were kids and they were at home.
RC: In terms of the content of your songs, as a woman I could relate to them very strongly and I am sure other women could as well. Is there a dominant element of womanhood in your writing?
MW: Well, you know, I think about what it all means to have this body and to be a woman. There is a lot of that and there are a lot of self-conscious feelings as a woman [in my songs].
RC: The music industry is arguably male-dominated with significantly fewer women involved than men; in almost every area of the business. Do you find it empowering to be a woman working in this context?
MW: Definitely. You know itís interesting, my Mom always used to talk about this manís world and because I was born in a matriarchal family I donít even think about it. I went to dinner with Jonathon Rice and he said something that really made me angry, although I didnít say anything. He said: ĎI think this is the best thing that a woman has done since [Joni Mitchellís] BlueíÖYou know, I was shocked by it. Itís true that women areÖconsidered as a thing that you can process into a sentence. That makes no fucking sense.
RC: It does appear sometimes that women in music are subject to a different set of critical criteria than that of men.
MW: MmmÖ They do [with critical acclaim] but they are still as criticised as the guys. People love music whether itís from a womanís mouth or a manís mouth so it should be an even playing field [but] clearly itís not.
RC: I remember a male friend of mine commented that I knew lot about music for a girl, the comment didnít bother me but his girlfriend raised the question as to why it was important he stressed Ďfor a girlíÖ
MW: When you think about how many girls are music fans I mean for me definitely most of my passionate fans are women. Weíre more than 50% of the population. I mean letís get real here; women are starting to make money. We as women are going to have to figure out how to deal with being independent but also wanting love and wanting to be taken care of. Itís a real changing time. The feminist movement happened in the sixties and the seventies but right now weíre living it. Weíre figuring out how it works.
RC: It seems like in the songs there is a toss-up between the wanting of love and commitment and a womanís indulgence in freedom and solace such as when you sing about being alone driving your car.
MW: Yes because you have to find solace in the things that you have, you know I spend a lot of time alone, I didnít have a boyfriend the time that most women do, which is their early to mid-twenties, for five or six years [I didnít have a boyfriend] and you know everyone around you is finding love.
RC: During their early to mid-twenties it seems that everyone is settling down and with certain women the fear of 'being-on-the-shelf' can kick in, but then there is also this element of all the incredible things outside of love that a woman can do with her life, particularly during her twenties.
MW: Yes, but the funny thing about men is that they can love a powerful woman. Itís going to be harder [as a Ďpowerfulí woman] to have a Ďnormalí relationship [and] to get married and have kids and find someone [that you can do that with], but men do love women who are like that and all you need in life is to go through it with someone, so you know, itís OK. Itís better than being in the corner.
RC: Does this idea of a powerful woman appear much in the songs?
MW: I donít know, I mean, thereís a power to it and I got up tonight and I was very aggressive but when you really listen to a lot of the lyrics itís all about love and vulnerability and sort of a wanting of someone is isnít going to leave me.
RC: Moving on from the woman thing anywayÖ
RC: With your Father being a folk singer [Loudon Wainwright], your mother a folk song writer [Kate McGarringle, one half of the celebrated McGarringle sisters] and your brother [Rufus Wainwright], there must have been a point at which you departed from this folk background and developed your own style. Was there a defining album that marked this departure from what you had previously experienced in music?
MW: Itís interestingÖ First of all, I grew up with my mom, [who] had a lot of really interesting records; I always [heard] music that was very different [to what most people listened to], whether it would be [classical], Edith Piaf, old blues [or] country music. So I did have some objectivity but the first thing I found independent of them, and that was new at the time when I was twelve or thirteen, [was a tape] I discovered of ĎI am Your Maní by Leonard Cohen. Although some people compare my family to him [that] was my first understanding that music is not really about music; itís about words. It was the first time I was like Ďwhat does that meaní; I finally got my head around poetry [which] I never had. It was Leonard Cohen.
RC: You mentioned that you had been brought up listening to the blues. Is it merely coincidental that the structure of your songs is blues-based; particularly in the manner you sing the same line twice?
MW: Thatís probably just laziness.
RC: You mean ĎCanít be arsed with this, Iím haviní it twiceí. !?
MW: [Laughs] I would hope it was the blues.
RC: What other influences feed into your music?
MW: Well, you know, just a general concern about my standing on the planet. In many ways I think like a teenager because I donít have a regular job and Iím not stuck in the rut but I think many people are. That allows me [time] to think about [things] and get sad about them or worry about them.
RC: Do you think the song writing experience then, is actual life itself as much as picking up a pen or guitar?
MW: I feel very close to the person on-stage singing so that is my experience. Waking up every morning and being in reality, breathing the air that everyone else breathes, being next to the person that you want to be with; I would hope that they [and song-writing] are one-and-the-same. That would be great.
RC: In terms of your next project, what are your ideas?
MW: To be perfectly honest because I made a very artistic type of record, because no one would sign me essentially [swigs a drink]. I almost think that itís kind of that thing where you make the odd record and then if it does [work and] people are interested that maybe you could go for something a little bit more poppy the second-time round. You do that and then as you continue you can go back to more arty stuff but why not try and make a bigger-sounding poppy record? I think itís good that I didnít do that for my first record as I would have had to duplicate it.
RC: You donít feel you have any ties, musically, of course?
MW: No, I mean, I think I know what I like, and I think if I went into the studio and a producer [started] doing something that [I didnít like] I would go and stop it. Thatís the beauty of not being 21 anymore. In many ways I thought I wanted to make a record when I was that young; and itís taken me along time and Iíve wondered why but now, in retrospect, being here itís sort of like Ďwell, Iím old enough to make my own decisionsí.
RC: The pressure of the first album must be immense.
MW: Yeah, but it goes [away]. I was worried went we sent it up to press because there would be no one else to blame but me because it is kind of self-produced with someone who let me do what I wanted to do. I was worried about people shitting on itÖ[but] thereís been a lot of really nice things said, so I feel a lot calmer about it.
RC: How do you build a skin to protect yourself from being shat on?
MW: You donít. You are totally insecure, completely insecure. I mean, you get good at having a photo taken and saying witty things and get a conversation moving if you have to because people have paid to get in. I donít know where my skin is. I havenít grown that thick skin yet.
RC: Do you think anyone can really grow it?
MW: Maybe but I think in the folk world when youíre doing music thatís really about how you feel itís harder and I think thatís good because you want to keep a bit of a soft edge.
RC: When you are playing you seem to have quite good command of the audience; I was surprised at how quiet it was during particular moments in the set. How do you achieve that?
MW: Well, when youíre standing alone on stage with a guitar you do automatically demand some attention. You have to address the audience and make them feel like they are part of whatís going on. I think you also have to feel that you are interesting enough for them to be interested. Itís like an ego boost that you have to give yourself: ĎI am actually going to intrigue these peopleí.
RC: You seem really possessed on stage, is this how you literally feel ?
MW: Yes, because itís hard - itís physically painful - itís like running a marathon - itís easier if you get yourself into it.....
Rachael Clegg Feb-05
(c) Martha Wainwright / Artist Website
(c)(p) 2005 - mbm 4 msuicdash