Mike Atkinson

Interview: Martha Wainwright

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 31, 2008

Your second album has been out for a few months now, and it’s still selling well. Have you been pleased with its reception?

I’ve been happy with the response in the UK, definitely. I’m more concerned about the States, because it has always been a difficult territory for me. Maybe it’s an odd time to be making records, as fewer people are buying albums – but considering there’s no pop or radio hit on there, it’s a totally respectable amount. I’m absolutely glad for any attention I might receive! (Laughs)

It’s not an obvious sounding record, and the songs aren’t particularly straightforward. Do you think your audience has got where you’re coming from?

I think that my audience are generally musophiles, who are deeply interested in music. So of course they’re going to get it, because music is obvious, if you open your mind and your heart to it. I certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. It’s quite exposed emotionally, and you have to like that kind of element. If you’re a very serious jazzo, who likes things that are not particularly emotional, then I don’t know if you’re going to love Martha Wainwright. It takes all kinds.

Although this seems to be another very personal, confessional collection of songs, I sense that maybe we shouldn’t always take the lyrics as directly autobiographical, even when they feel that way.

I think that’s right. I think that there’s a power to poetry, and to meaning. If I take things a little far, it may not be exactly autobiographical – and that’s because it’s to make a point. And as a singer, if I have to sing the same songs over and over again, sometimes it’s better that they’re not exactly autobiographical! (Laughs) Otherwise it becomes quite indulgent and scary.

One of the things that I try to do as a songwriter is to allow the songs to have several possible meanings. So as a singer, you are just there to serve the song – so that the song becomes the focal point, and not me as the singer.

In that way, the personal element can become more universal, and people can identify themselves within it. And also as a singer, it becomes more interesting for me to sing if there are different ways that I can interpret it, night after night.

The album sets up an interesting conundrum for me. When I listen to your music – and I think the same applies to a lot of singer-songwriters – the distance between the singer and the song can become blurred, giving the illusion that there’s no distance between the singer and the song. It strikes me that maybe that’s something you’re consciously playing with: that you’re effectively setting up a hall of mirrors, which deliberately leaves us puzzling as to where you are.

I know… it’s very odd, because when I listen to myself singing the song, sometimes I’m more interested in the song, rather than the fact I’m singing it. But I could see that, especially with the way that I sing, that people think it’s only about…. (pause)

Because you have that dramatic delivery in your voice…

All I can say is: yes, it has this feeling that I’m alone on the earth and these terrible things are happening to me – but I’ve noticed from the standpoint of an audience that a lot of them seem to identify, and feel as though I am perhaps singing their experiences in their own voices.

And I think that’s the point of being a singer-songwriter: as a minstrel or a troubadour, just to tell the story of the people of your town, or whatever. And I get the sense that people seem to understand what I’m saying, and to feel as though it’s their story as well. So maybe the way to do that is to be quite internalised in the style; I’m not sure.

There’s the troubadour aspect, and there’s also maybe a theatrical aspect. I gather you’ve had acting experience, so is there any process by which you might consciously step into different characters for different songs? I spoke to Liza Minnelli a few months ago, and she said that when she sings her songs, she does a whole method acting breakdown; she thinks about the character that narrates each separate song. Is there a sense in which you do that, or do you approach them more as different facets of your own character?

I think I have the tendency to be a bit of a chameleon – in a good way and a bad way – throughout my whole life. Certainly in my songs, and in my life, I straddle between a very strong willed person and someone who’s quite damaged and vulnerable. There’s always that duality there. So a lot of these songs can be sung differently, depending on how strongly you want to go either way: whether you want to give them from the point of view of the victim, or from the point of view of the victor.

But I think a certain amount of acting becomes necessary. The songs are kind of theatrical, and you don’t want to lose control on stage emotionally. And I used to do that more. I used to be very affected by things, perhaps because I was younger. I made the mistake of actually losing a certain amount of control, whether it’s to the point of crying on stage or something else. And then I realised that I didn’t really want to do that any more.

Well, there’s a sense in which that’s age-appropriate. Maybe that’s what you’d expect from a younger performer. 

Yeah, exactly. And then at a certain point professionally, you have to get better at what you do, and also be in more control – and that feels good. That being said, it’s sometimes really nice to just open yourself up and allow the music to take you somewhere. And have that fear perhaps after the show, or in a moment where no-one can notice.

There must be a combination of emotional states to deal with, once the show is over. You might feel mentally drained, because you’ve had to dig so deep. Or does the audience gives you something more valuable in return?

I think that does happen. I’ve noticed that the more you give, the more you get back. And it’s true that if you’re singing to the point where your kidneys are hurting or whatever (laughter), and you’re trying to be sincere, you can look out at people’s faces, and at their lips moving to your words… and it’s an incredible return. It’s an exchange.

There are certain nights where you get off stage, and you sit down, and you do need to put your head in your hands for a moment, but that doesn’t last. Generally there’s just enough time to have a nice glass of wine and go and have some dinner in a good restaurant! (Laughs)

Is there a particular state of mind which you have to get into, in order to write a song?

Well, I like to be on the edge. Maybe that’s not a good idea all the time, but I have a tendency to write songs when I’ve been heavily affected by something, or something is grating at me. I think that can sometimes at least open the gates of poetry and ideas, and you can jot things down. Then if you jot down a lot of different ideas, or phrases, or things like that, they can be useful later on – when feel like you need to try and write something, even though you’re emotionally OK.

That’s interesting. So the process would begin in the heat of the moment, when you’re experiencing that emotion – and then you might return later, in a calmer, more contemplative state of mind, and order the thoughts?

That’s right. You might start with something that’s got some kind of real abandon, but it takes time. I’m not very fast – and I’m also very lazy, in the sense that I do it in a condensed sort of way. I won’t write for hours and hours and hours at a time, because I’m not very virtuosic on my instrument. So it takes weeks, sometimes months, to finish a song.

Sometimes I’ll just sit down and be like: OK, I’ve got to get this second verse. You’ve got to spend three or four hours just to try and finish something, and you might not be completely and utterly feeling what you initially felt when you started writing the song, but you’ll try and sort of get back there, or bring something into it.

In terms of songwriting, are there any aspects of your character, or of your life, which you quite clearly identify as being off-limits?

From experience, I’ve learnt that it’s not a great idea to write songs about people that put them in a bad light.

Even when you think you’ve disguised their identity?

Yeah, exactly. That’s something that I’ve learned, and it’s good to know. And it’s good to couch things. If you need to talk about someone, then find a way not to have them be able to identify themselves completely.

That being said, I think that some of my songs are about people who would recognise themselves fully, such as Bleeding All Over You. The people who that song is about would know who they are.

So I care a certain amount about it, but at the same time I think there’s poetic licence, and I think it’s also important not to be afraid. Because oftentimes music becomes so dull, if everyone’s so conscious of hurting anyone’s feelings.

You’ve been married for just over a year now. Is there a risk that your natural source of inspiration might dry up, because you’re just so darned happy all the time?

Well, from what I’ve experienced of it, marriage is not all bliss. It’s a very serious institution. I’m also married to someone whom I work with, so it’s very intertwined with work and music, and it’s very helpful to my career! (Laughs) So if I were to get rid of the husband, then maybe I’d write another bunch of songs about unrequited love – but I don’t know if I’d ever get them made into a record. If I become really, really happy and I need to make a living, then I’ll just sing other people’s sad songs!

Your one cover on this album is See Emily Play. I’m curious to know why you covered it, as it seems to come from quite a different place to the other self-composed songs on there. 

When I was making the record, I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough songs. I was really conscious that every song had to be record-worthy, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to write them in time, because I really wanted to get a record out. So I was thinking about different covers. It was a song that my mother Kate had suggested, because Joe Boyd had asked us to learn it for the Syd Barrett tribute at the Barbican the year before. I wanted her to be on the record, and it was a perfect opportunity.

It forms a nice counterpoint to the other emotions; there’s almost a sense of childhood nostalgia in there.

It’s a breath of fresh air, after all of the overly emotional gloomy singing that I do.

You’ve performed a number of songs by Leonard Cohen over the years. Have you had the chance to see him live this year?

Yeah, I opened up for him in Bruges. I’d wanted to open up for him for a long time. When I got there, I was worried that his audience wouldn’t care, because they’d waited twenty years to see him. But they were a really great audience, because they’re so interested in lyrics – so I was very satisfied with myself. Then I watched the show, and I realised that he really doesn’t need an opening act at all! It was a stupid idea!

He was on stage for three hours when I saw him at Manchester. It was an amazing show. It was like he’d learnt to sing all over again, and I felt he was singing for posterity – as if it might be his last chance, and so he was going to give the performance of a lifetime.

Exactly, exactly. That’s exactly the feeling that I had. It was really and truly and utterly a farewell, on an epic scale, from one of the greatest songwriters ever. Then I sort of felt stupid for pushing so hard to open up! (Laughs)

One last question. I’ve avoided asking you all the standard questions about your famous musical family, but do you have any relatives with no aptitude or interest for music at all? Are there any cloth-eared cousins who only buy two CDs a year?

No, unfortunately. My sister’s a singer too – Loudon’s other daughter – so it’s crazy. It’s a drag! No, it’s amazing.

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