It is hard to imagine acclaimed singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright pursuing a career outside of music.
Early on, however, the lure of the theatre almost put the kibosh on what has proven to be a successful music career.
“As a young adult, when I was choosing what to do, I thought theatre would be a great option. It was very similar to music with respect to the fact that I would be on stage,” Martha says. “But it was something that I felt I was good at but was also something different from what my family was doing.”
Martha didn’t come from a regular 9-to-5 kind of family. Her brother Rufus Wainwright began his own career in the pop music world, releasing his highly touted self-titled debut record in 1998.
Their father is acclaimed folk hero Loudon Wainwright III, while their mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, performed with her sister Anna. The duo, understatedly known as Kate and Anna McGarrigle, released a number of acclaimed albums.
The New York City-born, Montreal-raised Martha took the first step in her own recording career in 1998 when her song “Year of the Dragon” was featured on her mother and aunt’s album The McGarrigle Hour. It was that same year that she began singing backup vocals for her brother Rufus, both live and on record.
It was really no shock then that Martha eventually reached a juncture in her life where she felt she was better be able to express herself through music than through acting.
“I eventually began writing songs at a time in my life when I was falling in and out of love and decided that instead of turning myself into a blank canvas, playing roles and different characters, I could write autobiographical songs.”
Asked if she harboured any concerns moving into music given her lineage, she concedes that she knew expectations would be high. Nonetheless, it did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm for the craft of songwriting.
“I grew up surrounded by music, but there was also an understanding of the ups and downs of the business and the realities that come along with them. Initially, I was somewhat afraid to write and sing my songs,” she says. “Everyone else in my family was good at it. But that also allowed me to absorb a lot of knowledge from my parents as well as my brother and turn that into something different.
Over the course of her four studio albums – 2005’s self-titled record, 2008’s I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, 2010’s Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris – Martha Wainwright’s Piaf Record, and 2012’s Come Home To Mama – Martha has never been shy about wearing her feelings on her sleeve or pursuing her muse.
Her career has been fuelled by a healthy dose of versatility: On her critically acclaimed debut album, she penned an open song to her father, the title of which, amusing as it may be, is not suitable for print in a family newspaper.
Sans Fusils, released in 2009, paid tribute to legendary vocalist Edith Piaf, while Come Home To Mama saw Martha dealing with a number of life events, including marriage, the birth of her first child and the unimaginable loss of her mother.
It is her mother’s spirit that helps move Martha forward, however. In mid-December, with shows in New York City and Montreal, Martha and Rufus will revive a holiday-themed show that began with their mother.
The shows are much more than an evening of music. They also serve as a fundraiser for the Kate McGarrigle Foundation, dedicated to the preservation and ongoing building of Kate’s artistic and philanthropic legacy.
“My mother was always really into Christmas songs. Not so much the traditional “Jingle Bells” type of songs but more the religious, sombre holiday songs or anti-Christmas songs,” Martha says. “The traditional holiday shows began just before or just after my mother and my aunt released The McGarrigle Christmas Hour in 2005. But after my mother became sick, the shows took on a whole other meaning.”
For her mother, the concerts were an opportunity to “gather her family, colleagues and friends in a wonderful context.”
Today, the holiday concert will be a way for Rufus and Martha to raise money for the foundation.
As Martha juggles her solo career with being a mother to a four-year-old and a seven-month old, her artistic pursuits continue. In addition to the upcoming holiday shows, she is currently working on a record of “creepy, scary lullabies” with her sister. On top of that, Martha is also amassing material for her next solo release.
“It is great to be able to keep busy doing other projects. It takes me a while to get material that I feel is solid enough for a record. I want the songs to be as good as possible, so taking on other projects is a way to keep the momentum moving forward without the pressure of releasing my own music,” she says.
What: Martha Wainwright
When: Thursday Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 811 Main St., Moncton
Tickets are $44 (plus service charges). Advance tickets are available at the Capitol Theatre Box Office, by phone at (506) 856-3479 and online at www.capitol.nb.ca