Martha following a family tradition

EMMA LEE Her parents are the renowned folk musicians Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, and her brother Rufus is a favourite among music critics. Now Martha Wainwright, who plays Norwich this Wednesday, is following in their footsteps and making a name for herself as a singer-songwriter. But, as she tells EMMA LEE, she’s doing it her own way.


I think there was a time when I tried to do something different,” laughs Martha Wainwright. “I did some theatre and I'm interested in art history. But when my brother Rufus started playing out in Montreal he asked me to be on stage with him. He was getting all the attention and I thought, 'Hang on, I want some of the attention'.”

The 28-year-old singer-songwriter, who has a gig coming up at Norwich's Waterfront on Wednesday, is talking about her decision to follow her mother, father and brother into the music business.

It was a natural career path for the daughter of folk legends Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle to choose. She was born in New York and grew up in Montreal with her mother and brother. Wainwright grew up immersed in music and performed alongside her family from a young age.

“When I tried it I realised I could sound a little different from everyone in the family,” she says, speaking from her home in Montreal.

She contributed a song, Year Of The Dragon, to the McGarrigle Hour, released in 1998, and has been singing backing vocals for her brother, both live and on record, since his recording career started in the same year.

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As she wryly jokes: “I had no classical training, but I had angst and heartbreak and fantastic music all around me. What more could I need?”

After leaving college early, Wainwright moved back to New York and distinguished herself almost immediately, developing a devoted following within the New York singer-songwriter scene.

“When everything started off for Rufus, things went a bit crazy in Montreal and I wanted to get away from that,” she says.

Keen to keep her individuality, Wainwright does things on her own terms, with her own sense of style, creating her own kind of music. The resulting sound meshes elements of rock, folk, country and chanson singing. She describes songwriting as “flying without a safety net”.

“I have a tendency to write songs about big feelings. I will go and write a song and try to define what I am upset about, like specific things that have happened to me. I'm very connected to the words. I have been in therapy and songwriting is very satisfying - like work can be, like if you turn in a good piece for the newspaper on time,” she says. “I call myself a singer-songwriter so I have to show up on stage with the songs.

“I keep the lyrics evasive and illusive and they can have several different meanings,” she adds.

“If I take a long time to make a record I want to make sure that it's the record I want to make.”

Wainwright's self-titled debut album was released on independent label Drowned In Sound and has been acclaimed everywhere from the quality press, such as the Independent and Guardian, through to the Evening Standard and the Sun.

“It's very eclectic and my voice is a common thread,” Wainwright says.

“I am influenced by other songwriters, those who write classic songs, and women who sing with feeling - Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton - big singers who sound like they're about to throw themselves off a cliff. I've never picked a certain artist to drool over, though. I'm not into the cult of personality.”

She says that Montreal now has a thriving music scene of its own, thanks to bands like the Arcade Fire, whose live shows have sent British music critics into raptures, and the Dears, who played a storming set at this year's Glastonbury Festival.

As well as her music career, she also won a cameo role in Martin Scorsese's biopic The Aviator, about the life of Howard Hughes.

“It was nepotism,” she jokes.

“Rufus was in it - he was on the set and they needed a woman who could sing a song from the 1940s.

“The next thing I knew I was on the set. It was incredibly exciting. He's a cinematic genius.

“I was really lucky. I didn't have to play a role. As I had to sing I was essentially playing myself.

“Marty [Scorsese] is a workaholic, completely and utterly focused on work. I love the movie,” she says.

She says she's looking forward to the tour.

“I'm bringing my musician friends out on this tour. There will be six of us on stage.

“It's going to be fun - unless we all fall out and end up wanting to kill each other,” she says.

She says the songs have a new dimension when played live - although not by design.

“I cannot remember what the record sounds like. I improvise, but don't realise.

“I always think I play the same. I'm not a virtuoso,” she says.

Martha Wainwright plays Norwich Waterfront on Wednesday, November 2. Tickets cost £12.50. Box office: 01603 508050 or visit The album Martha Wainwright is out now.

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