A Fascinating Conversation with Martha Wainwright
When Martha Wainwright steps up to any stage to sing, she brings legacy, pathos and a surplus of unyielding truth with her. While many of her songs are known to be about the people she loves, they often explore the issues she has with loved ones. To some this may sound exploitive but any hardcore Wainwright fan knows that the Canadian singer-songwriter explores her troubles with the prowess of a poet. Her latest disc, Goodnight City—which is available to purchase now via Cadence Music—is a testament to her powers. In many ways, this album, her fourth solo effort, is Wainwright’s greatest recorded achievement so far. It beautifully blends the folk stylings of her early recordings (aka her self-titled debut of 2005), the pop sensibilities of her collaborations with folks like Snow Patrol (on the hit, “Set the Fire to the Third Bar”), the beguiling chanteuse-ry of her past Edith Piaf cover project (Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris), her love of bluesy rock (I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too) as well as the days when she was tempering her Prima Donna range as a background singer for her brother, Rufus Wainwright (who guest-sings on a new track called “Look Into My Eyes”). Days before she kicks off her Canadian tour in Toronto, Wainwright set aside the time to chat with FASHION’s features editor, Elio Iannacci, about her compelling new work, her dramatic past and her exhilarating future.
You are usually a lone wolf when it comes to writing songs but “Look Into My Eyes” has you teaming up with your Aunt and Lily Lanken. Tell me about the how that process changed your approach to crafting songs for Goodnight City.
I’ve never written songs with people so I was nervous. With Anna being my aunt that I could kind of push around, it was perfect. We weren’t bitchy about our opinions but we have no filter. I was so desperate to have Anna write a song for me. I also knew her contribution would be great. She wrote the lyric, “Look into my eyes/What do you see?/I see the sun, I see the sea” but he couldn’t really give me more so Lily [Lanken] added to the pot and then I added something as well. That song is secretly autobiographical. It’s a fun love song. There’s a Celine Dion French moment there in the chorus—which I think sounds so amazing.
Your brother is on the track as well. As you both mature, I feel like your voices blend with each other in such a comfortable way…
We’re finally accepting each other. In the past, there was only one way that Rufus was ever going to allow me to share some of the limelight. That was either that I was going to sell a gazillion records and he’d have to accept that… or I was going to have to put the time in and get better. I took the longer route but it paid off.
The lyrics of “One of Us” speak to that journey and the power of failure. What failures have led you to becoming a better artist?
I didn’t always listen to my instincts. I’m better at that now. I was very concerned with what other people thought. I always felt that I needed to make albums that had a real sound or theme. People in the industry or writers would say, “What genre is it?” and I’d shackle myself to that. Finally, I’m like “I don’t really care. I’ve been doing this for a long time.” If I want to play electric guitar and have it be really loud, that’s what I want to do. If I want to put out something where it’s just voice and piano, I’ll do that or if I want something that’s completely jazzy, I’ll do that too. In the past, I’d ask myself, “Will it have continuity? Will it be brandable?”
A new song like “So Down” is rocky and like nothing you have ever done. It sounds like Courtney Love should cover it.
It sounds kind of Sonic Youth-y. I did do backup for Hole’s album [ Nobody’s Daughter in 2010] so who knows?
Did you treat your vocals approach differently for this disc?
Yes, I’m definitely being more theatrical. I’m unleashing certain characters in me. I’m letting them show more…certainly with “So Down” because I have a New York accent when I sing it. It’s not earnestly Martha Wainwright. It’s not always autobiographical either. Things were so autobiographical in the past.
Is it tempting to go on the internet and see all these sources of creativity or are they just distractions?
I’m not a huge consumer of art online. Even art these days in general…I like to look at paintings and I like to listen to music that I’ve probably already heard before. I sometimes discover something on the radio and tune into NPR. I find the radio at nighttime has weird shit on it and I kind of like. I’m not listening on my computer. I don’t even tweet because I’m such a ding-dong. I’m really antiquated in that way.
You are a mom of two, a wife and you manage yourself to a certain extent. Is work life balance a big joke?
Yes. My days are sort of taken up with my own stuff and they blur into each other…especially with trying to get this career off the ground. I’m doing a lot of managerial stuff and logistical stuff. Then there’s the two children and my house is always a mess because I’m messy but I feel so guilty about that. I’ve also been working on an autobiography, too. It’s also hard to get everything done and feel balanced because I also like to eat! I like to cook. Then the day’s over.
What counts as the most memorable memoir you’ve read?
The one that moved me the most and the one I really loved was Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”. She’s a seriously good writer. It was so precise. She brings you right in there.
You’ve written so many songs about your family. The new-ish ones about your son, Arcangelo, are particularly moving. Why is he such a muse?
Well, I have because he’s probably the most interesting person I know. He’s particular for a lot of different reasons—maybe it’s because he was born a little early? I think he’s like that because of the weird family he lives in. He’s completely theatrical and odd and picks up on things we sing to him. The way I was brought up…there was not much room for Disney or Frozen-type music and it’s the same for him. I obviously can’t control it and he’s going to like some of that stuff but I try to get a little weirder with it. This record has several songs about my kids. It’s a big theme. The song “Window” is about Arcangelo and the importance of him keeping those eccentricities. I hope that those don’t get rubbed out of him by society. He’s this magical person.
What’s been the most ridiculous advice about your career that you’re glad you didn’t take?
Nothing too crazy. A lot of people tried to help me throughout my life and had good intentions. They were people who’d had some successes. I used to work with a guy named Rick Chertoff who did Cyndi Lauper’s record and Joan Osborne’s record. Obviously I wanted to work with him because he’s made hits for those women. Those women are both kind of quirky and weird and he was able to put them into a place where they sold millions of records. What ended up happening to both of those people is that because all their songs are written for them or overly written…their records were so famous. Then, they never were able to make another record that could top that. Cyndi has obviously gone on to do great things. She’s famous for Kinky Boots and all that stuff. It was probably very hard to have an album as popular as [She’s So Unusual] and then to try and do it again. I think I did the right thing by not staying with Rick. I don’t know if I’d be able to sustain that commercial appeal.
What kind of experiences were necessary to get to that choruses and verses of a song like “Around The Bend”?
I approached that song as if I were somebody else. I was looking out my window outside my house in New York and there was a crack ho. I wrote it from her point of view. I thought I’d just try it. I never go outside of myself. I found that very quickly, I steered right back to me in the writing. I had to make it more exaggerated to really find what it was I that was identifying with this woman who was taking a lot of drugs and seeing her pimp.
What are the benefits to having an actor’s sensibility when it comes to performing or recording a song?
I do think it’s acting that can drive certain songs. I can really be more free when I do act out lyrics because I’m not constrained by the fact that I wrote the lyrics. I did pick a few songs written by other artists because I thought I could have written them and I needed to pick the ones that made sense and reflected me in some way. “Francie”, where I’m writing to my other son [Francis Valentine]…it’s all about him.
What differentiates this album from your past recordings?
The whole record has this sort of outward-looking tone to it versus inward-looking. It’s more hopeful than records of mine from the past. There’s a little more of a lightness. I think that’s because I don’t want to be…first of all, I can’t be as self-destructive or as pained because I have two young children who need me. I need to at least pretend like I’m strong. I think I’ve also gained some strength by having the responsibility of motherhood. It’s helped me to pull my head out of my own ass a bit and focus on other people, which is a relief.
I read an interview you did with The Telegraph where you said something like, “I was 14, which is a disaster for anyone, and I got into smoking, drinking, and boys. My dad was 45 and going into a crisis.” What songs from that time period capture that experience the most?
I think I was totally destroyed by the experience of living with my family in a way. On my first cassette…there are three songs about Rufus. I just had to deal with who this person was. A song called “Gone to Sea” and another called “Laurel & Hardy” captures that. There were a lot of songs about my dad that were very honest. I didn’t have a lot of songs about my mother because I didn’t have that much of a problem with her. There were songs about my dad up until my record, “I’ve Got Feelings Too”. I’m obviously still trying to get over the anger or jealousy I have towards these people. It’s this inferiority complex.
Do you see yourself parenting in the same way that your mother has?
I think there’s an element of that. There’s an element of total looseness that my mother had with Rufus and I. A perfect example is when I was in LA a few years ago…I had the little one with me, Francis. He less than six months old. I had to do some shows and he was with me and I didn’t hire a babysitter because I’m his mother. I walked into the gig…which had around 50 people there. I had to ask people in the audience to watch the baby while I did the show. Everybody was shocked. I was like, “What am I going to do?” If 80 people in this room can’t help me get through a 90-minute set with a baby that can’t even walk then come on!
You must be perplexed by the way people try to explain your music in the press.
I don’t read any of my press anymore. I think the easiest way to explain what I do is just to say I’m a singer/songwriter. It puts it into that frame. Is Neil Young a folk singer? No! He did rock music as well as quieter music. He’s a singer/songwriter.
Out of all the relationships in your life, who has changed your work the most?
Rufus. My parents’ influence was already there when I started. My attempt to try different chords out, go a little further, or try different things musically is probably inspired by the way that he works. For a long time, I didn’t want to believe it. In many ways, he is a mentor to me.
You’re definitely one of our national treasures. There are few people who’ve contributed to the arts the way you have in this country. We have had many issues with our Juno, Grammy, and Polaris award committees who have yet to acknowledge your work properly. Does winning any of those awards matter?
Yes, it matters! It fucking matters. First of all, one record company only wanted to put me up for best songwriter. I was like, “What about album of the fucking year?” They were like, “Maybe adult alternative…” I was like, “Fine.” It does matter. I’m the opposite of a darling, you know? I’ve never been the darling of anything except for the people who love me and my family. I just knew I wanted to show my personality and it’s probably a mistake I’ve made.
None of the real artists are darlings. They experiment and they convey hard truth. What has been the biggest experimental moment for you?
Slowing down and allowing myself to play the electric guitar because I never do that. That’s just me singing and playing the guitar at the same time as the drummer and the bass player. Lyrically, I really let myself just go…right now I’m in having a really New York, downtown sound moment. I’m letting myself be a kind of Patti Smith or be the person I really am but could never get to really show.
See an exclusive performance with Martha Wainwright here: