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Martha Wainwright - "It's a very honest thing"
The American Interview
We caught Martha in New York busy putting the finishing touches to her next album (to be released in January 2008) and rehearsing for her recent short tour of Britain, and asked her about playing in Britain – are there differences in the audiences here?
Martha Wainwright: Singer songwriters are more embraced in England, across the generations. It’s a great place for live music. It’s a generalization but festivals in the US, particularly folk festivals, seem to be a dying breed. But there has always been an interest in American songwriters in England. There’s an appreciation of the language in the UK, maybe because there are so many great publications there, people read papers and magazines more, they’re a little more on the pulse of things.
The American: And audiences here appreciate someone with an individual voice more quickly?
MW: Absolutely, and radio has really done a number to music in the US – it’s better in England for people like me who aren’t selling millions of records or playing straight-up pop music.
TA: You’ve been playing a lot of live dates solo, are you planning more with the band?
MW: I’m coming over in August. It’s a weird time to do a tour because I’m not promoting a record, but last year I canceled a few dates because my mom [folk singer Kate McGarrigle] got sick, so I wanted to make those up. I’m doing some festivals solo then some dates like the V Festival and my big show at Shepherd’s Bush with the band. I think solo works well at festivals. It’s funny, but with the bigger space and audience the voice somehow cuts through.
TA: You live in Brooklyn, but you were brought up in Montreal – where do you feel most at home now?
MW: Neither place! Maybe that’s how I like it. I guess when I feel independent and strong I come back to NY – my life as an artist is here. But when I need my mother, to go home and be taken care of I go back to Montreal. I guess that’s really… my true home. My Dad [Loudon Wainwright III] lived in London for 12 years and we always went over as kids. I go over six or seven times a year now so it’s a home away from home. I have a lot of friends in London and the countryside. Especially with these summer festivals, you get to see some of it – and the English love the outdoors.
TA: So do Americans – and you’ve got more of it.
MW: Yeah, [laughs] but we’re not so used to it.
TA: What do you like about Britain?
MW: The people. The kinship and what I recognize in them from back home. The culture and the striving for a ‘jolly time’ [laughs]. I always find myself on Hampstead Heath and hanging out in North London. I know a lot of people there and I find it very peaceful. I always enjoy my time at Glastonbury and make a point of staying over and camping. It’s a very beautiful part of the country. There’s something about Newcastle I love, that northern thing, and that sculpture, the Angel of the North, is beautiful.
TA: It’s been three years between your first album and the new one, why the gap?
MW: I was working with my brother Rufus, cutting my teeth slowly and arduously and painfully. And no-one would sign me! I think I had a reputation of being a bit of a problem, of wanting to do it my way. And maybe I was a little unsure of my ambition. Record companies want to hear an artist say “I’m the greatest singer in the world, I want to sell a million records” and there was a time at the beginning when I wasn’t sure I could do that. Maybe I was a bit afraid. And I’m not as afraid any more! I had to go about it in a grass-roots fashion, find people who would work for practically nothing and make the records slowly with a lot more artistic control and work more with the producer.
TA: You co-produce with Brad Albetta.
MW: I produced the first record with Brad. And we’re getting married in September. Actually that’s what I’ve really been doing – wedding planning, which is a nightmare!
TA: What does Brad bring to the recording process – a lot more than the average producer, obviously.
MW: He brings a certain amount of structure and common sense, and ‘outside ears’. So much of my music is me navel gazing and having an objective person is helpful.
TA: As you’ve become closer in your personal life with Brad, has that led to a reduction in that objectivity?
MW: No, he’s a musician and he’ll never feel how I feel as a songwriter – or as self obsessed as I can be about myself. I think it just helps us want to help each other more. I was wonderfully distracted from the record for a few months because I was in London doing something with the Royal Ballet – the Seven Deadly Sins. That allowed me to get completely torn into something else and become a fake ballet dancer and actor and classical singer. It was a role I felt completely confident acting in [laughs]. It was challenging. Being on that stage as someone who isn’t an dancer or a classical singer or a dancer. You have nothing to fall back on, but what you can bring to it. But it was Kurt Weill and they weren’t asking me to do it operatically.
TA: Could you see yourself doing more like this – or even straight acting.
MW: Yes and no. During rehearsals I went to see John Martyn, I’m a friend of his daughter, and that reminded me of how much I like the freedom of being a songwriter, and not an actor or just a singer, because you’re there and it’s up to you and the voice and the songwriting. Hopefully it’s a very honest thing.