Martha Wainwright on the concert for her mother that turned into a wake
As the concert for her mother that turned into a wake that turned into a film gets its Irish premiere, Canadian folk-rock marvel Martha Wainwright tells Tara Brady about her mum Kate McGarrigle, her brother Rufus – and performing through a veil of tears
Friedrich Nietzsche tells us that: “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.” Uh-huh.
Just try telling that to Martha Wainwright and her extended family as they write barbed songs about one another, squabble on stage and retain a fierce familial loyalty. As purveyors of the finest musical family-therapy for more than four decades, they’re rarely to be found cowering behind an avatar.
“We haven’t really delved into the world of the pop persona at all,” says Canadian folk-rock marvel Martha Wainwright. “All of us have a tendency to draw on our own lives. To find our inner voice, we look inwardly.”
That makes sense.
The Wainwright family simply don’t do polite fiction. Long before we had heard Rufus Wainwright’s distinctive baroque timbre, he had been introduced to the wider world, via one of his dad’s humorous ditties, as an infant “Tit Man”. Rufus, as an adult performer, contextualises each tenderly worded track with tales from the LGBT front line. You can reputedly hear tears hitting guitar strings when Kate McGarrigle, the late family matriarch, describes her husband Loudon Wainwright III running off with conceptual artist Penny Arcade in the song Go Leave.
Martha, the most fuck-you member of the clan, is more candid still. Rufus’s rangy-legged younger sister called her second album I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings Too and wrote the track Bloody Motherfucking Asshole in response to her father’s patronising description of her in I’d Rather Be Lonely: “Every time I see you cry you’re just a clone of every woman I’ve known”.
Do those confessional tendencies, paradoxically, have roots in folk music? Do the Wainwrights, like that musical form, belong to everybody?
“Well I think that makes a lot of sense,” says Martha, in the same slow, low drawl that characterises her most personal songs. “My mother and her sister were always around the piano in the living room. It wasn’t for show. It was a form of personal joy. It was a natural extension of daily life.
“We’d play music together and tell stories. That was a tradition for us and one that is alive and strong in Ireland. We’d sing about people’s trials and tribulations. By the time the family signed to Warner Brothers, it was different. They were then making music for consumption. They were very experimental with their music. It was rooted in the past, but they were still very innovative and personal. And that was the start of a family profession. We’ve been stumbling along in our own way ever since.”
Unsurprisingly, the second child of the Wainwright dynasty can’t remember a time before music. In 1997, aged 23, she independently released the cassette Ground Floor. In 1998, her song Year of the Dragon popped up The McGarrigle Hour, an album released by (mum) Kate and (aunt) Anna McGarrigle. Why did we have to wait until 2005 for that first official solo album, I wonder?