Martha Wainwright: 'Some personal songs have got me in trouble with loved ones over the years'
Ahead of her Belfast gig next week, part of a UK tour, singer Martha Wainwright tells Andy Welch why she has veered away from writing tracks about people she knows closely
Like most people in the post-Christmas fog, Martha Wainwright wants to get back to work, but is struggling to get motivated. It might be something to do with her surroundings - she's sitting looking out of a window onto the frozen landscapes of Montreal's outskirts, where she lives.
"We had a nice Christmas, very nice, a big family affair."
A big family affair is how Wainwright's career could be described.
She's the daughter of late singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, with whom she's had something of a rocky relationship. Her 2005 debut EP, for example, has an expletive-riddled title (Bloody Mother F****** A******, if you were wondering), aimed squarely at her old man's knack for writing songs about his family, rather than talking to them.
Her brother is fellow artist Rufus, and there's half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche and aunt Anna McGarrigle, too, another renowned songwriter.
Martha's career has seen her collaborate with her family and extended members, although she cast the net a little wider on recent album, Goodnight City, released in November.
That was for a number of reasons, mainly that, as the mother of two small children - sons Arcangelo (7) and Francis (2) - she says it would take her too long to write a whole album of new songs of suitable quality.
"It took me half as long as normal as I only wrote half the songs," she says. "I was going to do a complete record of other people's songs, but as it went on, I ended up writing a bunch of my own. I chose songs written for me that I felt I could've written myself, or that would fit with the songs I'd written." Another reason, she admits somewhat jokingly, is that by getting other artists to write songs for her, she might win a bigger audience.
"I wanted to take songwriters that are more successful than me and take their songs, and then I'd get all the credit.
"Of course, they get the songwriting credit, but I get to perform them, and sing songs that are more accessible. Glen Hansard, for example, he's written more accessible songs that have crossed over. And I guess my voice is probably what I am most known for."
She's correct in that Hansard has written successful songs. The Irish songwriter won an Oscar for his work on the Once soundtrack. Other contributors to the album include Beth Orton, Merrill Garbus, better known as Tune-Yards, and award-winning poet and author Michael Ondaatje, whose prose forms the lyrics of Piano Music.
All in all, it makes for a pretty stunning album. Musically, it veers from one style to another, from almost experimental electronica to a swooning ballad like Franci, written by her brother, but never sounds jarring or less than a coherent whole. Lyrically, it's less confessional, less navel-gazing than much of Wainwright's other work.
"Writing autobiographically was something I was always willing to do, and, of course, I come from a tradition of that," says the 40-year-old. Both she and her brother were the subject of songs written by their father, while Rufus has addressed many personal matters in his songs.
"My mum, although she wrote personal songs, they were much more subtle and I envy her for that," she says.
"My dad, he writes and puts it all out on the line, and uses his songs to explain his behaviour or what he thinks about things, and I think they end up touching people because the audience feel the same way. The audience appreciates it, although some find it cringey.
"Personal songs have certainly got me into trouble over the years, with loved ones and so on. People are always worried about ending up in a song. I'm trying to be creative now though and write in other ways. There's never been much persona in my songs."
She says, despite trying not to, she does write lyrics about her children, although it comes from a place of protection.
And she's nice about her kids, whereas previously, the people who've made it into Martha's songs have been targets, those who have wronged her or broken her heart.
"I guess it's because my kids are the new love, that's replaced a fanatical love, the desperate love I had in my youth. It's definitely still fanatical, desperate love, but so much more satisfying in many ways, and softer. Franci sounds like a love song to a teenage girl, but it's actually about a baby."
Although Wainwight says she was built for entertainment, and dropped out of university to pursue her career, she's slightly disillusioned with the way things have gone.
"Don't ask me how many records I've sold," she says. "I think if I thought about it, I'd crawl back into bed and stay there."
It's true her success and renown don't quite match her unique talent. There are certainly lesser songwriters making much better livings.
"I don't think sales are the most accurate way to judge someone's career any more, but I'm not sure what it's been replaced by.
"All I hope is that people will be at these upcoming shows I have in the UK.
"I have plans of other things that I could do, though.
"Near my house there's a nice supermarket that I've always fancied working in. I've always thought I'd be a good checkout person.
"My computer skills are pretty off, so it'd have to be manual labour, but nothing too heavy."
She says she's serious about the supermarket, but a career change might be premature. And in any case, she does have a few other irons in the fire.
Firstly, there's her memoir, which is all but finished, and will likely be published early next year.
Longer term, she has a brilliant idea for a TV show that she's recorded a couple of pilot episodes for already.
It involves her cooking in her apartment with another musician.
They chat, then when they're done, or waiting for their food to cook, they perform a few songs. She sees it as a relaxed format, and something she thinks people would love to watch.
"It'd be a real insight into the guests' personality. I hope that gets picked up for television. Until then, I just have to keep trying."
- Martha Wainwright's seventh album, Goodnight City (above), is out now. She will be appearing at Redeemer Church in Belfast on January 19. Visit www.martha wainwright.com