July/August 2011

Martha Wainwright

[Musician]

“To create a rhythm, I play the guitar more violently than most women play the guitar.… I have a tendency on some songs to really knock it quite hard.”
Ways to avoid getting blocked up somewhere:
Scrap the idea of cutting a gorgeous line
Squint your eyes and scrunch your shoulders until you’re neckless
Make weird, erratic, potentially sexual movements

The first thing I noticed about her was her leg—pumping, beating, propelling her music onstage at the Roundhouse in London. And that voice. One moment, tiny, held back, then, in a whiplash, fierce and exploding. Cascading. Mesmerizing. And those lyrics. Cutting, wrenching, funny.  

A year later, gathered with her extended family, Boy George, and other friends onstage at Royal Albert Hall, singing French Canadian carols, Christmas blues, seasonal songs. A Carnegie Hall holiday tradition of her mother and aunt’s,  Kate and Anna McGarrigle, brought to London. A concert she knew would be her mother’s last. Tending to a baby, tending to Kate, tending the music, she made Christmas ache and shimmer.  

A third image. Southbank Centre, London. June 2010. Martha and her brother, Rufus, her aunt Anna, and producer Joe Boyd at their tribute concert to Kate, who had died just five months earlier. Martha leads a group of singers—Emmylou Harris, Jenni Muldaur, Teddy Thompson, a whole troupe, in a searing rendition of the last song her mother wrote.

What is it about this woman? You can’t take your eyes off of her when she’s onstage. She breaks your heart. And then she kicks out the chair and forces you to dance. 

This conversation took place in New York in January, the morning after Martha Wainwright test-drove a handful of new songs at a tiny club on the Lower East Side. I met her in the lobby of the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, where she was attending a meeting of the clan—Rufus, her aunts Anna and Janie McGarrigle and Teddy Wainwright, her husband (Brad Albetta), and their baby, Arcangelo. 

—Davia Nelson of The Kitchen Sisters

*

THE BELIEVER: What got you started writing?

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT: I had started watching Rufus write songs, and he was playing a weekly show at this small venue and had asked me to sing some backup, so I had been onstage with him. I enjoyed that so much that I then pushed myself to write my own songs, to see if I could, being surrounded by songwriters and knowing a few chords on the guitar. At first I didn’t plan on being a musician, but then through those first couple of songs I realized it was the easiest thing for me to do. And it’s good to do the thing that’s easiest and most natural, rather than fight it.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Davia Nelson is one half of The Kitchen Sisters, producers of the NPR series Hidden Kitchens, Lost & Found Sound, and the Sonic Memorial Project. Their current NPR series is The Hidden World of Girls.

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