Interview: Martha Wainwright Talks Music, Rufus, Oprah, and More

Martha introduced herself and discussed, among other things, acting, feminism, and Oprah’s influence on her new song “TV Show.”

Interview: Martha Wainwright Talks Music, Rufus, Oprah, and More

After a series of EPs, including last winter’s Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, and several years of sharpening her performance skills on stage (she’s currently flying back and forth between North America and Europe), Martha Wainwright finally unveiled her long-awaited full-length debut in April. Daughter of folkies Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and back-up vocalist for her far-showier cabaret-pop singer-songwriter brother Rufus, Martha has proven to be not just a worthy pupil of such domestic tutelage, but a musician of equal caliber. Martha took a break just before heading back to Europe for some more tour dates to introduce herself and discuss, among other things, acting, feminism, and Oprah’s influence on her new song “TV Show.”

You’ve been doing your thing for quite a while now, recording music and performing around the world. Why did the so-called “incubating period” leading up to your first commercial LP take so long?

I guess I was a bit distracted. I also spent a long time on the road with my brother singing back up. I must admit too, I think I was a little intimidated. Afraid to fail. The process of making the record took a long time too because no one would really sign me. Thank God for [producer] Brad Albetta. I really think it was a good match for me because he let me do what I wanted musically and made the record at his studio on spec. It could have been longer.

You’re heavily featured on your brother Rufus’s last album, Want Two, and he returns the favor on your song “The Maker.” What’s the collaboration process like between the two of you? Is it different from working and performing with musicians you didn’t grow up with?

It’s very natural for us in the studio. We know what we are there to do. Our mom taught us that. The difference is that I don’t tell Rufus what to sing. I call him in when I need him to take the song somewhere that I wouldn’t think to take it. He’s a very useful tool and I’m sure I will always call on him for help.

Rather than follow in the footsteps of your parents, you went to study drama at Concordia University in Montreal. Was it a conscious decision to move away from the family trade?

Well, not really. My dad actually studied drama. Acting was something I really wanted to do. But then I started writing songs and that became more important. I had something I wanted to express in song. After that it was hard to stay focused on school.

You took part in the stage musical Largo here in New York a few years back and you recently had a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. Is acting something you plan on pursuing in the future?

I always have an interest in acting. I feel, though, that it requires a lot of work and focus—especially if you want to do a good job—and I certainly wouldn’t want to go into something ill prepared or thinking about a record. But I’ll take any excuse to be on stage. That’s really what’s going on.

There are lots of different instruments featured on your new album, but the piano melodies in particular seem to follow and/or guide your voice throughout. If guitar is your main instrument, what explains this specter-like presence?

Well, the guitar is certainly the main instrument of accompaniment. I just happen to know a great piano player who is an incredible talent! He can certainly do more on his instrument than I can on mine. Also, in these days of indie rock bands that are so guitar-based, I find it more interesting to have a classically trained piano player. His name is Tom Mennier by the way. There is also a guy who plays on the record named Jo McGinty, as well as my mom, and Garth Hudson on organ.

The song “Factory” includes the biting lyric, “These are not my people/I should never have come here/The chick with a dick and the gift for the gab.” What inspired this seemingly atypical artist-on-the-road song?

This song was written when I happened to be in the presence of some pretty sleazy record industry types and producers. Sleazy is not necessarily [the right word] but just people who were different. That song was also written in Oxnard, California, which is a particularly crappy part of the country. The coast is lined with factories, which is never right.

Songs like “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” seem to address self-worth from a distinctly female perspective. How does the lyric, “I wish I was born a man/So I could learn how to stand up for myself” relate to your experience in the music world?

The thing I’ve noticed about male singer-songwriters is that they seem to get laid more often and that they have this incredible amount of self-confidence and ego, even when sometimes it’s not that warranted. I understand it’s attractive. I wish I could feel like that.

Are you a feminist?

Yes, I think getting up on stage and driving across the country and being my own boss and writing songs and playing an instrument and not playing the sex card is my feminist act. I also think that women are pushed down and always at a disadvantage. Always.

What have you learned from Oprah?

I’ve learned that she always plays all sides, which is why she is popular. I’ve learned that I am as vulnerable as the next person to her spin. And that I should love myself more, because she obviously does.

Sal Cinquemani

Sal Cinquemani is the co-founder and co-editor of Slant Magazine. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, The Village Voice, and others. He is also an award-winning screenwriter/director and festival programmer.

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