The next Wainwright

Singer Martha takes a different path from her parents and brother

April 06, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT IS ON THE TOILET.

"Closed seat," she says with a giggle. "I'm in my bathroom in my place in Brooklyn. I usually do my interviews in here."

Besides, the phone reception is better, she explains. "Hey, whatever works."

When it comes to making music, the folkish singer-songwriter subscribes to the same attitude: Whatever works. On her critically acclaimed self-titled debut, released a year ago by Zoe/Rounder Records, Wainwright sidesteps pop conventions to deliver unblinkingly honest songs mostly about love's roller coaster.

"I had trouble getting signed," says the artist, who plays a sold-out show at Washington's 9:30 Club on Sunday night. "People didn't know how to market the songs. They wanted to make them pop, but I resisted."

Good thing. The resulting album is a deeply affecting, intimate set that recalls early Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones but with a seething, acidic punk streak. The music is awash with hazy rock guitar chords and Wainwright's expressive, elastic vocals. Cuts like "Far Away," "Factory" and "G.P.T" nicely illustrate the singer's evocative vocal style, daring lyricism and skillful melodic touch.

It's little surprise that the artist's musical vision is so kaleidoscopic, her approach so individualistic. Adventurous music runs in the blood. Her father is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III; her older brother is pop romanticist Rufus. And her mother is Kate McGarrigle, half of the McGarrigle Sisters, the widely respected Canadian folk duo that includes Wainwright's aunt Anna.

"I was intimidated by my family," says the performer, 28. "It wasn't easy to just make a [freaking] record."

For years, Wainwright shunned music. She had been singing and performing since before kindergarten. So after high school, she decided to study drama at Montreal's Concordia University. But while in college, Wainwright couldn't resist the desire to write songs and perform. With her guitar, she haunted small clubs and coffeehouses. In 1997, she independently released Ground Floor, a recording of her songs available only on cassette. Around the same time, she toured with Rufus, singing background.

"Watching him work so hard gave me a guided way in," Wainwright says. "I spent a lot of time being jealous of him because he was doing what I wanted to do. But in retrospect, I think he was my greatest mentor."

After touring, she moved to New York and performed in a stage musical called Largo. In 2004, she issued an EP called BMFA (whose full title isn't suitable for print in this paper), garnering enthusiastic nods from alternative music press. Last April, Rounder released the EP as a full album under the safer title, Martha Wainwright.

"Part of the struggle is to know where you come from and find your own voice," she says. "I know I needed to sound different from my family to survive."

Wainwright is a straightforward vocalist like her mother and brother, but she's breathier and subtly dramatic. The performer is a left-of-center songwriter like her father, but generous splashes of vinegar sharpen her lyrics.

"They were never huge successes," Wainwright says of her musical relatives, "but their music was connected to that inner truth, and the songs were completely universal. I always liked that."

Now that she's come into her own as an artist, Wainwright says she has nothing to hide in her music.

"I'm not trying to promote an image. It may be smart; I don't know. I'm too lazy to think of one," she says, laughing. "It's all about the music for me at this point."

Martha Wainwright's show with Neko Case at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington, is sold out.rashod.

ollison@baltsun.com

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