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Martha Wainwright Finds Her Voice

As far as audacious debuts go, calling your first single "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" is right up there. And authoring such a song about your father, no less, only adds to the audaciousness. Especially when your father is Loudon Wainwright III, the famous folkie last seen on the television playing the dorky dad on Judd Apatow's "Freaks & Geeks" follow-up, "Undeclared." But everywhere she turns, Martha Wainwright — the Canadian songstress behind such a song — is confronted by a family renowned for their frank candor as much as their astonishing musical talent, from Loudon to her brother, Rufus, to her mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

"There's a closeness amongst us that people have envied, because it's a closeness defined by a lot of honesty, and a lot of 'expression,' let's just say, in the relationships between us," offers Martha, the 29-year-old songwriter who's the younger of Loudon and Kate's two musical children. "Family are the most important thing to me, and so, singing about them, and being sung about by them, in the end that can't be that bad."

This "expression" comes in the form of songs. Rufus recently wrote an ode to her called "Little Sis," but Martha's life has long been charted by words and chords: Loudon rendering her as infant, with "Pretty Little Martha," then at "Five Years Old," then as a misbehaving child in "Hitting You," and, finally singing with the 19-year-old Martha, newly adult, on "Father/Daughter Dialogue." That song came from Loudon's album Grown Man, which was largely about, of course, the emotional troubles of the dysfunctional Wainwright clan. So "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" is merely Martha's riposte, her chapter in a family drama writ large in popular song, its final offering of "I will not pretend/ I will not put on a smile/ I will not say I'm all right for you/ For you, whoever you are" showing particularly touching personal qualities to go with its unrestrained rage.

On "Factory," the other standout song on her self-titled debut disc, she shows more signs of the sailor's mouth shown on that single, beginning by singing the self-effacing lines "These are not my people, I should never have come here/ Chick with a dick and the gift for the gab" in recollection of going to a hipster New Yorker party with Rufus. The song, like "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole," is another number that eschews verse/chorus to tumble over with escalating measures, both being marked by a remarkable vocal performances from Martha. The voice is an expressive instrument unto itself, and one that's found all sorts of misguided comparatives in the press, with predictable humans like PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, and Tori Amos used as off-the-mark measuring sticks. The obvious and perhaps only comparison, really, should be to Martha's fellow Canadian, Mary Margaret O'Hara, in terms of vocal approach and of music. The late-'80s songwriter championed as a lost treasure by humans like Patti Smith and Michael Stipe, O'Hara shows a rambling songwriterism of the same ilk as Martha's, with songs like "Factory" and "This Life" recalling the quietly intense passions of O'Hara songs like the truly great "Body's in Trouble."

Ask about her musical influences, though, and Martha Wainwright keeps things close to home, being honest enough to admit that the honest closeness of her family defines who she is, as artist and human being. "Without a doubt, the McGarrigles and Loudon Wainwright III are my greatest influences, even to today, both in wanting to be inspired by my parents, but also in not even being able to help it," she says. "Everyone is influenced by the people who their parents are, and my parents happen to be very wonderfully strange, and interesting, and complex, and then, also, on top of that, very talented artists and musicians. So, it was a big legacy to have to watch over the years, and to work out where my place in it was. To figure out what this legacy was to me, and what parts of me are from them, and what parts of me are truly myself."

In saying such, she isn't searching for pity — saying that the "burden" of living up to their family's fame is "so much better than hating your parents, and wanting to distance yourself from them" — but she does hope that, with her debut disc being delivered, this can be the time where the Wainwright/McGarrigle family focus is on her. Having started writing songs at 17 out of a "sense of competitiveness" with her brother (Rufus inspiring this by inviting her to sing backup vocals at his weekly shows in Montréal), even at that age Martha was coming late to the game; she believes that she "pushed singing away for far longer than any other young kids who like to sing would have" out of a desire to be different from the rest of her family. Even after starting to write her songs, on a guitar that Loudon had bought her when she was 12, Martha pursued studies in art history and acting before finally coming to the conclusion that that it would be best to embrace what she liked best and was, obviously, best at. Still, even that decision came over eight years ago; and, at 29, Martha is at an age by which most aspiring songwriters would've long ago made their debut.

"It seems like everyone thinks I've taken forever to make a record, but I don't know what the big deal is," says Wainwright, with the fieriness that comes across in her music. "I think, for the longest time, I really felt like the last thing the world needed was another CD in a jewel case. I was quite happy to live vicariously through those around me, watching them do all the work when promoting albums, and just enjoying myself performing with them. I didn't want to rush into making a record, because, when your family is as good at what they do as mine is, the bar is set quite high.

"And I was really quite caustic when it came to dealing with people in regards to my own music. I often wasn't interested at all in the people who came to me about putting out an album of mine, and I think I ended up burning a lot of bridges with people who wanted to work with me. Because I wasn't 21 when I started making this, I was 26, and I sure as hell wasn't going to release a record that wasn't the exact record that I wanted to make, and that didn't say the exact things that I wanted to say." — Anthony Carew [Wednesday, May 4, 2005]


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