Martha Wainwright is the daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle (of the McGarrigle Sisters) and the sister of Rufus Wainwright. While her music is often called “folk,” she's not a folk traditionalist, but more of a folk/pop performer. “If you listen to my songs, you'll hear that it doesn't sound like folk music,” Wainwright says from her home in New York City.
“I wanted to sing and dance and be theatrical since I was a girl. Growing up in my family, it seemed a natural thing to do. Part of the folk tradition is singing with your family, so when I started out, I spent a lot of time performing with my mother and aunt at folk festivals in the summertime. When Rufus and I went out on our own, my mom helped produce our records and she'd come on stage to sing with us. She felt responsible for getting us into [show business], and knew how difficult it can be [to build an audience].”
Wainwright said that having a famous name was a mixed blessing when she began her career. “At first, the comparisons [to my parents] were difficult to get through. When you're young, you want to push your parents away and go on your own path, which I did with difficulty. You get exhausted by the comparisons and want to be a star in your own right. Once you accept the gift of being part of a larger legacy, then you get freed up emotionally.”
Wainwright's emotional freedom is the cornerstone of her art. She writes songs with an intensity few singers can match and doesn't shy away from the difficult situations that are a part of human experience. On her last album, Come Home to Mama, she deals with issues of mortality, inspired in part by the death of her mother in 2010. She says that she's still coming to terms with her mother's passing, but the tribute concerts she's taken part in since her mother's death have helped her process her grief. She'll be leading an all-star cast in another tribute to her mom's music at 2:35 p.m. Sunday, on Hardly Strictly's Rooster Stage.
“It's always emotional to sing Kate's songs. [My brother Rufus, my sister Anna and I] have done several tribute concerts over the last three years, and the emotions have changed. It's more celebratory now, but little things always come up to haunt me at every show. Kate's songs and music are so personal and beautifully crafted. What I find remarkable about them is the way they describe a woman's life. They're deeply personal without being overly divulging. Hearing other people interpret them breathes new life into them, but also stirs up incredible feelings of loss.”
For the Hardly Strictly performance, her aunt Sloan, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller, and her father, Loudon Wainwright III, will join Wainwright on stage. Wainwright will also be playing a solo set at the festival that will probably include a few of her mother's songs. “I sang her songs when she was alive, but since her death, I include more of them in a set. I find her songs tie in beautifully with my own experiences. Maybe because I'm a mother now, her older songs resonate in a very powerful way. There's a selfish reason as well. I feel I have an ownership of the songs in a way. Singing them is an attempt to keep her with me and feel her around me as much as possible.”