Rychard Carrington interviews Martha Wainwright

Rychard Carrington interviews Martha Wainwright
Moving Tone
martha wainwright1237.jpg
Cambridge Folk Festival, 2 August 2008


Rychard: You have a busy schedule at the moment, haven't you? You did the Big Chill: was that good?

Martha: Big Chill last night, I thought it was a very good show, I think I did a good job; I think that it was nice to have the people get off their butts and stop chilling, and start listening.

R: Do you prefer standing audiences or seated audiences?

M: I think that any audience is fine. I thought that the Big Chill was good, but it was less about the music than it was about the hang [modern term for ‘atmosphere', I think - RC], I felt. So it was nice to go in there and I think we made it about the music. There was a real connection with the audience and that was really fun.

R: There's a great feeling when there's a large crowd but everyone is listening.

M: Exactly.

R: How do you get your ideas for your songs?

M: Generally what happens is that I'm haunted or overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness or desperation or happiness or something - something gnawing away - and if I pick up my guitar and play a melody that I'm working on, maybe a phrase will come out. And then once that phrase is there I can identify what it is that's bothering me, and I then write the song around trying to describe that feeling, generally based on true things that have happened to me in reality. I try to turn those experiences into a poem, to say them in a very poetic way, to embellish the sound of words, and then hopefully to try and express this overwhelming feeling.

R: I think people assume that the narrator of your songs is you. Is that correct?

M: Mostly correct. I think that on this new album there's a little bit less of that, in the sense of having to flex the songsmithing muscle a bit more, to look outside myself for subject-matter and try and talk about larger subjects that affect humanity in general. Tower Song on the new album is in the first person, certainly not my experience, she is perhaps a female civilian victim of war.

R: So you take something which is which is political, perhaps, and then do a very personal take on it.

M: Exactly. I guess what happens when I see people dying on television I just get very sad and so if I can just reflect those images then I can hopefully develop their story that needs to be told.

R: The new album has an interesting title [I know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too]. I know it's a quote from the first song [Bleeding All Over You], but why did you select that line as a title for the album?

M: I think it's funny. A lot of these songs are very intense but I don't want it to seem ‘woe is me'; the music and the poppier elements of the record are a nice juxtaposition to some of the serious subject-matter and so I wanted to have a sense a humour and be a bit tongue-in-cheek, and I think the phrase is provocative. It's been a whole three years since I made an album and I didn't want to have an earnest cover with me holding my guitar.

R: Do you think the album has quite a different feel to the first one?

M: Yes and no. I think what's happened is that an evolution has occurred and that's exciting, because that makes me excited about what will come next, and the differences on the songs on the next record. I think that both were very good representations of the time in which they were made, and it's nice to have records to reflect myself; so there's obviously a line between the two but it's very much a different chapter for me.

R: Do you identify yourself as a folk musician?

M: Yes, I prefer to say that to singer-songwriter, but I don't know if folk is true, or pop-folk, rock-folk, I don't know. I think I'm a folk musician in the true sense of writing songs about what happens to people, and myself; and by writing love songs and writing songs about death and things that are personal I think that makes them very universal and I think that's what folk music is about. I feel with a lot of other people and I think that that's what folk music is about. Whether I'm as much a purist as other folk musicians - I suppose not.

R: Do you listen to traditional music a lot, or have you done?

M: Yes, I have done, absolutely. The way I was brought up listening to music was a combination of Prince and Norwegian folk songs, and I think I'm somewhere in the middle.

R: The first time I heard you was on Father/Daughter Dialogue [song from father Loudon Wainwright's 1995 album Grown Man]. That's a very intriguing song. Did you write the words that you sang?

M: No.

R: How did you feel about those words?

M: He wrote the words that I sang. I was very glad to sing it, and I felt that it was a well-constructed song. It was based on an argument that I had with Loudon as a young person, in which essentially I was complaining that he had the opportunity to stand up on stage and tell his side of the story, and I felt left aside, as many teenagers do. And so in true keeping with how I've lived my life I feel like I've been able to present myself on a stage in a very open way, but I think that in all that openness, in songs like Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, are actually very honest and true feelings that people have, and so they're no longer about me or who I wrote the song about, the minute they come out of my mouth they're about what the listener wants them to be about.

R: How did Loudon respond to Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole?

M: I think it hurt his feelings, and I think that's probably the right reaction. But I think that I wrote that song when I was twenty-one or twenty-two and I don't think that it was a nice thing to do, but I don't feel bad about it at all. It very quickly became about whoever you need that song to be about, and so it no longer has anything to do with Loudon.

R: Do you like the Pretty Little Martha song [on Loudon's 1978 album Final Exam, about Martha as a baby]?

M: Yes. That's the other thing: I write songs about people because people write songs about me! To me it all seems quite normal to do that! But I think that the most important thing is to do that, but to do that in a way where there is craft and poetry and that it's well-sung and that it's interesting for the listeners, because that's who its for.

R: One thing that's a bit different on your new album is See Emily Play [cover of Pink Floyd hit from 1967]. What gave you the idea to do that one?

M: That was actually my mother [singer Kate McGarrigle]'s idea to cover that song. We'd been asked to do a Syd Barrett tribute about a year ago at the Barbican, and Joe Boyd [early Pink Floyd producer] asked us to learn that song. Neither one of us really knew it: I'd heard it a couple of times before and so had she. She came up with the arrangement very quickly - we only had about an hour, and I thought it was a very refreshing change from the rest of the record, and I wanted to do someone else's song, because it didn't want to get bogged down with Martha Wainwright and yelling and expressing...; I thought it would be great to have a real breath of fresh air.

R: Syd only lived about a quarter of a mile down the road from here.

M: Yes, I know.

R: Which songwriters do you most admire?

M: I guess there are the obvious ones. As a songwriter Bob Dylan, who I think is probably a pretty weird person who has probably put all of his goodness into his songwriting, which is great! My mother and my aunt [Anna McGarrigle]'s songwriting, because they take the ego out of it and are still sexy and cool and true. I find myself whiney in comparison. I think Dolly Parton's a great songwriter, in terms of writing a truthful pop ballad, and that's a hard thing to do.

R: Thank you very much for your time, Martha; I look forward to your set tonight.

Wryter: Richard Carrington

Photo: Claire Borley