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(Photo by Gaelle Leroyer)

IT’S TRUE THAT Martha Wainwright is always having to deal with the past – principally her family’s as we saw last month in part one of this interview – and it can be a chore. Or a bore. And like most artists she is wont to say things like I’m always looking forward, my new/next work (or in Australia in May, my next tour) will be my best. But the past has caught up with her recently, and she’s liking it.

“I recently was going back and listening to, because we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of my first record – we are going reissue that on vinyl because it was never available on vinyl – and there were all these other EPs that came out before that because for 10 years I made music but I didn’t have a deal,” the Canadian/American singer/songwriter, mother/business owner, sister/daughter-of, who at 47 is probably past the age to be counted as a social media age slashie, but who cares?

“I made four EPs in New York City and I found this tape that was damaged but I had it baked and digitised and was listening to it through ProTools. It’s more memory lane, and I feel like I live in memory lane and I hate memory lane, but it’s also been a reminder of that time and a bunch of songs that I had forgotten about.”

It’s not over either. Prior to our conversation she’d received a call while at her Montreal café/venue, Ursa – “I had to run up there because there was a beer delivery and someone had forgotten leave the keys,” she sighs, not exactly enjoying all the details of owning a venue. “Oh God, this shit” – from a driver who regularly makes the trip from New York. He was carrying, on behalf of her first manager, Nick Hill, a box of ADATs and cassettes from those early days of her career.

Hill, who had a stroke a while back and can’t speak anymore, is following them soon to help her listen and choose tracks for later release. But already this “memory lane” jaunt has borne fruit in a batch of new songs that hark to that young Martha: more raw, stripped back, nothing but the essence.

“All my songs are written on voice and guitar and I think this next record is just going to be voice and guitar. I think there’s a return,” says Wainwright. “I’m gonna bring musicians to Australia because I want to do stuff from the last few records, but I think the period after that – and I hope to come back to Australia more often – is going to be very much a stripped-down period. And probably pretty folky. And that makes sense.”

Notwithstanding her explorations in more rock-sounding, more elaborately-structured songs, or for that matter ones steeped in the chanson tradition of France, for Australian who first saw her alone, voice and guitar, 20 or so years ago, this promise is going to be exciting. But enough about us, what did she think when she listened to herself in those early recordings?

“It was 1998, I came down to New York and Nick introduced me to musicians who were kinda jazz. Some of my early songs were pretty jazzy, but there were also some great players and it was all done on tape, at Sorcerer Sound, which was a pretty well-known studio, and everything is cut live, and it’s all there. And the vocals are really good. I was kinda impressed.”

She’ d forgotten she was that good that early?

“Absolutely,” says Wainwright. “I think I’d been beaten down by myself and this concern that my career wasn’t what it should be or could be, or that I had made mistakes and sabotaged, or the type of music was not quite right, or I don’t work hard enough, or the choices I make are wrong.

“It’s not that I think those are true but I think they’ve written themselves into my perception of my career. And then when you go back and listen to just a three minute song for four or five people playing in a room, and I’m 22 years old, you go, you know that’s pretty good. My pitch is perfect, or close to it; my voice sounds good; I’m playing the guitar very well. Musically speaking, it’s solid; the poetry is weird, which I kinda like.”

Those who saw the young Wainwright, at the Sydney Opera House in the Leonard Cohen tribute show, Came So Far For Beauty; or with the Wainwright/McGarrigle family shows; or her early small club shows in Australia, knew immediately there was something compelling and excitingly not controlled about her. But those who interviewed her in those early years also knew there was a degree of scepticism, if not actual full-on doubt in her about the appropriateness of that praise, and the likelihood that she’d be talking about her music in five years, let alone 20.

“Was it music that people were signing at the time? No. Did I want it as much as other people who became more successful? No. Were there reasons why I wasn’t signed? Yes,” she says now, running through some of those issues.

Consequently, these old tapes revive a constant issue in her career, which was always gnawing away at her confidence, not just from voices-off in record companies or media as she mentioned earlier, but inside her own head.

Sometimes it was about her place in contemporary pop, sometimes about her value at all, and fuelled always by thoughts of those who had preceded her as significant musical figures: her mother Kate McGarrigle; her father Loudon Wainwright III; her brother Rufus Wainwright; any number of other relatives or associates she watched from the corner of the room growing up.

“Yeah, that has been a total thought process and fear. And I keep doing it to myself. I keep doing it to myself. And I don’t know why I keep comparing,” Wainwright says. “I think all musicians compare but I guess maybe I wished, maybe I thought I deserved more, and thought that maybe I should have made it more.

"I don’t know why, and I know that seems like a lame answer, but I want to measure up and it’s hard to measure up to things that are really superb. There’s a confidence perhaps lacking, and I don’t know why that is.”

So today this is a different M. Wainwright. Mostly.

“At the same time I must’ve had enough confidence and ego to keep going. I go to the show and I get up in front of people and I do it and I make fun of people, and I offend people, and I do it with a certain amount of chutzpah. So there’s something there that I believe in,” she says.

“But it’s almost like I don’t want to see it, I just want to do it. And when I have to see it and reflect on it and watch it, I have trouble. I have trouble looking at myself, watching myself in any way, reading anything that I say. Some. people who are very successful, generally watch themselves a lot and they adjust. They really do.”

There must be benefits to the internal voices and what some hardheads would say was a wilful refusal to do what had worked – was working! – for other people.

“Maybe it’s a gift, I don’t know, but people seem – not always – to appreciate: ‘oh Martha, you’re so open, you’re so spontaneous, you just get up and do it’, and they laugh and think that’s so great. Well, maybe that’s the ticket. Maybe that’s what it is: it’s because I don’t want to watch it and I don’t want to adjust,” Wainwright says.

“And you know what else has happened which is interesting? I think my first impressions are pretty bad. I’ve watched myself on television or whatever and a first it’s just, urgh, cringe, and then I’ve thought I should go back and look at that and was it as bad as I thought?”

She laughs as she says this, inviting the rest of us to join in, but she isn’t any longer beating up on herself and inviting us to join in on that.

“If that was as bad as I thought it was, should I find a way to get rid of it? What are we gonna do about it? And then, nine times out of 10 I go back and I watched again and I think, no it’s much better than I thought.”




Martha Wainwright plays:

May 8, Princess Theatre, Brisbane

May 9, Anita’s Theatre, Thirroul

May 10, City Recital Hall, Sydney

May 11, Newcastle City Hall

May 12, Blue Mountains Theatre

May 14, The Gov, Adelaide

May 16, Odeon Theatre, Hobart

May 17, Recital Centre, Melbourne

May 18, Capital Theatre, Bendigo



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