We wretched showbiz proletarians, getting by on daydreams and air guitar, reserve special scrutiny for the well connected. And Martha Wainwright, with an entire nuclear family of musical legends to guide her, does seem suspicious. But as much as any beneficiary of someone else’s notoriety you’d care to name – her splashy brother Rufus included – she deserves the stray perks that accompany her last name. Martha’s knotty, gorgeous self-titled debut – finally released as she turns thirty – is proof enough of that.
“I was not really sure that I really wanted to be a musician,” Martha says of her twenties, chatting on the way to the Laundromat at a tour stop in Indianapolis. “I was also intimidated by where I come from. My family — I think that they’re all really talented, and I needed to take some time and have a relationship with music and the music business all my own, rather than feed off the nepotism that I could have maybe taken more advantage of.”
Martha did reap a few benefits we plebes will never enjoy, such as opening for a famous sibling. “I was living vicariously and happily through my brother,” she recalls. “I could go out on the road with them and play big places and have a great time on the tour bus and not have the responsibility that he had.” And even prior to that, she’d fielded plenty of unsolicited studio offers: “Producers had come around over the years and wanted to either make a folk record, or a rock record, or change some of the songs — ‘We don’t like this, we don’t like this’ — and I always sort of seemed to ruin our relationships intentionally at the last minute.”
Listening to Martha’s debut, it’s easy to see what might have made would-be mentors queasy. Call her the anti-Norah Jones. Crinkly-voiced, not particularly friendly (on record), and weighted by more maintenance issues than a thrift-store guitar, Wainwright is a rare example of the darker folk-inspired singer-songwriter. And occasionally, she even seems to take it too far, as when she saddles a great song with the refrain Ya bloody motherfuckin’ asshole (which, as a matter of fact, was the working title of the whole record). She has a beat poet’s impulse to lay it all out on the table at once, leaving the listener to negotiate more dizzy-in-the-city run-ons than anything since early Patti Smith or Bruce Springsteen.
But that bustle, more so than any album since Jesse Malin’s The Fine Art of Self Destruction, evokes the romance of New York City, where Wainwright has lived since leaving her hometown of Montreal at age 21. And it all comes together in a radiant cityscape, as on the “When the Day Is Short,” a rambling metaphor for failed love; the gorgeous “G.P.T.,” where she sings I’m yours and mine tonight; or “Ball and Chain,” in which she lets a deadbeat boyfriend have it in complex ways that should leave him more beguiled than insulted. The music, too, is hardly your typical coffeehouse fare — her tuneful acoustic guitar work powers a tough glam-rock bridge here, and pares down to a few brittle notes there. Despite the lyrical traffic and emotional exhaust that makes her album so dense, Wainwright is a breath of fresh air.
Produced with Brad Albetta, the album could be seen as a mutt of Wainwright’s family breeds — the frankness of her father Loudon “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” Wainwright III, the romantic yearning of brother Rufus, the spacious folk of her mother Kate McGarrigle. But her tough, passionate style is more indebted to Chrissie Hynde than any of her family members, and next to most current folk, rock, or folk-rock, she’s in her own class. And it can’t have hurt that Albetta was more or less unfamiliar with the music of Wainwright’s clan. “He was really someone who didn’t come to me with any ulterior motive,” she recalls. “And he wasn’t well versed in the McGarrigles or Loudon. I told him, ‘I want to do this with you, but we need to take the time necessary, because my family has made such good debut records that I have a lot of pressure.’ This wasn’t something I wanted to take two weeks to do. And he was willing to give me the time and the energy, with very few guarantees, as we went along.”
Years in the making, the album was fully cooked and ready to go when the right kind of opportunity came knocking last year. Rounder — your pipe-smoking, mandolin-plucking parents’ folk label — picked it up, glam guitars, profanity, and all (“I kind of enjoy being the bad girl on Rounder,” she admits). The result is not only a debut to match or surpass those of Rufus, Loudon, and McGarrigle, but the rare statement of unique identity a debut album is supposed to be, and rarely is.
Accordingly, the album has garnered head-detonating praise from publications ranging from the classy British tastemaker music mag Mojo (“This is special, many-layered stuff”) to Billboard and Entertainment Weekly. But critical acclaim is hardly the rock ‘n’ roll dream as we know it. “Sometimes I miss the idea of being signed to a major and being taken out for like a really fuckin’ good meal,” Martha says. “But it’s an upward battle, and you get tired of complaining.”
So here’s Martha Wainwright, schlepping her laundry through the streets of Indianapolis. Bloodline aside, she’s not so different from us after all, except she’s got talent.