“Yes, hello. This is Martha’s phone,” a woman says sweetly, her voice chiming a bit—like small bells in the wind.
“Um, ah … is Martha Wainwright there?”
“Yes she is. May I say who’s calling?” the small bells chime again.
“This is her interview.”
“Oh.” The chimes are disappointed for a second, then, “OK, yes, I’ll get her.” There’s muffled talking for a second. That’s followed by the sound of people shuffling in a small space, like they’re dancing with each other for a few seconds in order to actually trade places. Then another voice comes on the phone.
“Sorry about that,” Wainwright says both into the receiver and across the room, before adding “my mother is here with me.”
Which, if Wainwright was from a normal family, that wouldn’t mean much. But she’s not. She’s from the closest thing to a musical dynasty since the Carter Family. Her dad Loudon Wainwright III is the king of quirk folk. Her mom Kate McGarrigle is a folk legend in her own right, partially because of that chiming voice. And her brother: Well, Rufus always seems to be finding a way to stretch the possibilities of pop, recently reprising the entire song list from Judy Garland’s 1961 run at Carnegie Hall for his own batch of shows.
But Martha: She was the late bloomer. While she spent her formative years onstage with the family and got her first album credit when she was only 9—she sang on one of her mom’s records—Wainwright didn’t jump right into the family business. She wanted to act. She studied it at school. She struggled in New York for a while. But eventually she realized, “I lacked the discipline to be a good actor.” It was only Wainwright’s first epiphany.
“One day, I just decided to try to write a song,” she says. “Things started happening to me. I fell in and out of love. I had my heart broken. I had something to finally say, something to write about. I figured that, if I was surrounded by all these songwriters, then I thought I’d see if I could write a song too.”
What she came up with that day was something more: She defined her whole career. There was the gentle, mixed-up guitar, trying desperately to decide if it wants to strum along or break out some finger-numbing jazz chords. There was Wainwright’s buzz-addled voice, humming with the sound of hundreds of packs of cigarettes. And there was the confession lyrics directed right at her family. Like her father—who wrote infamous songs like, “Rufus Is a Tit Man,” about her brother breast feeding—Wainwright decided to chronicle her life in her songs, barely disguising family events and raw emotions. That resulted in some harsh tracks, of course: Wainwright penned her most famous song, “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” when she was 21 and more than a bit pissed at her dad.
Even her new material, though more subtle and thoughtful, is still taken right from her life. Her new disc I Know You’re Married But I Have Feelings Too is crammed with tracks about bad love affairs and personal moments. There’s an affair gone wrong behind the quiet and rootsy “Bleeding All Over You,” another on the more simmering and strum-soaked “You Cheated Me.” She duets with brother Rufus on “In the Middle of the Night,” a woozy and dark track that delves into McGarrigle’s battle with cancer. And while most of Wainwright’s songs tend toward the more moody, “Niger River” ventures into positive territory—at least sort of. While the lyrics are aimed right at her producer and new husband Brad Albetta, the eerie picked guitar and moaning strings make the song sound like you’re gliding through the kind of fogged-in swamp Scooby-Doo and the gang would even avoid.
“I guess I just tend to pick up the guitar when I’m feeling overwhelmed or unsure,” Wainwright admits. “That usually becomes the inspiration for something to write about, though I do feel like I’ve pulled my eyes up from my own belly button with this record and written about the world around me for once—and that’s a good thing. It adds perspective.”
Though, right now Wainwright would like nothing better than to add a keyboard to her stage set up. The fact that McGarrigle is answering the phone means that she’s not there just for support. She’ll be on stage, though she needs something to play. “She was hoping you were someone with a keyboard,” Wainwright says. “You think it would be fairly easy to find one that would work, but we can’t scrounge one up.”
CW: Your mom seems to perform with you a lot.
MW: “Yeah, it’s fun. But it’s also an opportunity to spend some time together because that doesn’t always happen with everyone’s schedules. It’s a chance to communicate through music, which is something we tend to do a lot.”
Maybe more than anyone cares to admit.
MARTHA WAINWRIGHT w/ KT Tunstall
Red Butte Garden, 300 Wakara Way
Wednesday, Aug. 20, 7 p.m.