Written by Bob Mersereau.
Martha Wainwright is still touring in what she calls the “record cycle”, which means in support of her latest album, Goodnight City, which came out last November. She heads to the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival as a sidebar to a set of U.S. and Western Canadian dates in October, a quick jaunt east from her home in Montreal to play Fredericton and two nights at a small club in P.E.I.
That means she won’t bother with her band for the trip, but she often plays solo, and lots of her fans prefer the openness that brings to her set. “It’s gonna be me and the guitar,” Wainwright says. “It’s so different, obviously it’s less about the record, and way more about the songs. When you’re playing it solo you have the freedom to divert somewhat. And the connection with the audience when you’re playing solo is a very different thing as well. I have a tendency to stop in the middle of songs and talk, I’m very chatty, so it creates a different vibe. Solo can also be a lonelier existence, so I would not want to do it all the time. I like the companionship of the musicians, but there’s also a great power in being up there on your own.”
It also means she doesn’t stick to the usual promotional duties for a new album.
“I’ll be doing songs from all of my records, and even some songs that aren’t on records, so more of a retrospective at this point,” she says. “It’s more interesting for me to do it that way.”
It’s pretty interesting for the audience as well. She says people shouldn’t expect a slick performance. “I show up with the guitar, sometimes I break a string and I’m scrambling around,” describes Wainwright. “There’s not much artifice. There’s a preparedness from the last 20 years of doing it, but what I’m showing is myself, or these days, a side of myself that’s on display. I enjoy it that way.”
Much of Wainwright’s career has been about honesty. She has laid a lot out there in her songs for people to see, and not much has to be read between the lines. Marriage, family, fears and feelings all are grist for the mill, but she points out it’s not about the facts, it’s the emotions that she explores.
“My most well-known song, which was about an argument that I had with my father (songwriter Loudon Wainwright III), I’m sure that was upsetting to him.” It was called Bloody Mother F***ing A**hole. “It was something where you’re really going for it, it was very beneficial for me, and I don’t take that lightly. I think that people really appreciated the rawness of it, even more than it being about somebody in particular. And I think that that’s sort of what I’m striving for, not so much talking about my marriage and my kids specifically, but more sort of about these feelings that we all share that sometimes don’t get spoken about in pop music.”
Although born in New York, Wainwright spent of much of her youth in Montreal, along with her brother Rufus. She’s been back in that city for four years, but still doesn’t quite know where she fits in the Canadian music scene.
“I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider,” she says, “although I’m very much an insider, being that my family are musicians and coming from this Canadiana tradition through my mother (Kate McGarrigle). When I was in the States as a singer-songwriter, although my music was folk-based, it was never particularly Americana, and I wouldn’t call it Canadiana either.
“My career really started in England, as happens to a lot of songwriters. It’s certainly what happened to my father. I also play a lot in Europe, and a lot in Australia, so there’s an international element to what I do, and certainly North American, but I don’t find that the songs are particularly placed, in a sense of place. I find that they are more living in a kind of emotional state more than anything, certainly more than political or topical. They’re a little borderless.”
Borders and boundaries, geographical and personal, will be happily ignored onstage at The Playhouse in Fredericton Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m., as Martha Wainwright plays the first show of the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival. Brent Mason and Jessica Rhaye open.