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Martha Wainwright
Photo by Ros O'Gorman

Martha Wainwright Talks Edith Piaf To Undercover

By Tim Cashmere
Wed, 15 Dec 2010 14:16:02 +1100

Martha Wainwright has had considerable success with a series of albums from dirty gritty singer/songwriter material to her polished second record ‘I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too’.

Her career seems almost inevitable with her immediate family being filled with musicians. Her folk singer father Loudon Wainwright III, her overdramatic musician brother Rufus Wainwright and her mother and aunt’s folk duo, Kate and Anna McGarrigle all undoubtedly had an influence on her but Martha has made her own sound and any comparisons to family members are abundant, but unfair.
In 2009 Wainwright release an album that paid tribute to the iconic French singer Edith Piaf, ‘Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris: Martha Wainwright's Piaf Record’. Far from alienating her English speaking audience, she managed to introduce them to a whole new world of music.
Martha spoke to Undercover’s Tim Cashmere on all things Edith Piaf and even dropped a hint at her upcoming work.
Tim Cashmere:  ‘Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris: Martha Wainwright's Piaf Record’ is your tribute to French singer Edith Piaf. What was it that attracted you to her music?
Martha Wainwright: Well, the idea of making the record was the idea of the producer Hal Willner. He came to me a few years back and at first I really wasn’t sure if it was a good idea because she’s so famous and she was one of my favourite singers as a kid, very early on. So I knew a lot of her songs and loved her as a singer and I was quite intimidated by the prospect of trying to recreate that in any way. He sent me hundreds of songs at first and as I listened I became intrigued with not only doing the tribute to her, but also to the songwriters and the era in which she sang. So I tried to pick songs that I felt I could interpret in some way that would bring something new to them without really trying to sound like Piaf because I have a different voice.
TC: Chopping down all of those songs must have been almost as difficult as recording the album itself?
MW: I don’t know if it was challenging. I took a long time with it. We did a couple of shows at a couple of very small venues just to see what songs could work and were working, which is also why I decided it’s best to do the record live because I felt like I was able to connect with the English speaking audience better in a live context because I could explain it and be more gestural or whatever. But in picking the songs, I played things in the background and if something caught my ear I would go back to it. That’s why there’s such a mix of songs. I stayed away from the most obvious ones because I just didn’t want the comparison of recordings. I also just picked the songs based on if I thought I could sing them because some of them are either too fast or something else.
TC: What do you think it is about her music that speaks to people who don’t necessarily speak French?
MW: I think it’s affected on a lot of different levels. Obviously her voice is really unique and it conjures up images and stereotypes of what we think the French represent and that’s exciting because French culture is something that people have always been interested in and are excited by. It’s very attractive. I also think that even if they don’t really understand exactly what she’s saying, she’s telling the story very well anyway and is able to bring people in because she lives the lyrics and lives the songs completely because she’s given herself fully to the artform and the material and she’s not afraid of almost martyring herself in a weird way for the sake of the song.
TC: In the past, aside from a song here and there, you have primarily recorded in English. Do you have to switch on a different part of your brain when you start singing in another language?
MW: I think so. It’s funny with French. I went to school in French in Quebec, graduated high school in Quebec, but we spoke English at home. It’s weird. At least not for me, it’s not free flowing. You have to remember how to string a sentence together and it takes a lot of thought. Once you’re in that and doing that every day, like if I travel to France or if I’m back in Montreal for a while it gets easier, it comes back, but it’s really a shifting over. Also, with this material, the language is so beautiful and it’s from a different era and a different French that I know, so it was also a real eye-opener to be able to sing in this really beautiful, beautiful language.
TC: Did Rufus’ tribute to Judy Garland have an influence on your choice to do this?
MW: I don’t know. Rufus and I have always sung songs from eras in the past. We like dead people [laughs]. Certainly because we both know that we can tackle that kind of thing because we listened to it as children and it appealed to us, so I think our general upbringing probably brought us to that, and I think also that I find it’s not so much telling of our similarity, but also telling of our differences as well because when Rufus did the Judy thing it was really a straight up tribute to Judy Garland and that 1951 record and he does the songs in that order and he does it in a very Rufus way in the sense that it’s a big production, but the Piaf record is a very different type of record.
TC: When you released ‘I Know You’re Married...’, it sounded more polished and was heading in a pop direction. Was recording an entire album of French covers a way of moving away from that?
MW: I don’t know. I don’t think that recording a more pop record turned me into more of a pop artist per se. I didn’t sell millions of copies, so I’m not really running away from the commercial thing. I wish I could say that I am, but I’m not. So this is one of the problems that my career has always had in that my taste is really eclectic and I’m a little bit all over the map in terms of how I like to sing and how I like to present myself as well, so it really goes from singer/songwriter folk to something a little rockier and then something a little poppier and even some standards in English, so perhaps people get confused by it, but I’m just interested in all these different things. It’s probably a bad marketing choice though, probably.
TC: I think a lot of people probably still know you from ‘Bloody Motherfucking Asshole’ too.
MW: Yeah, you’re right, but you can’t write too many songs like that or somebody is going to shoot you.
TC: Two years on from your French record, you must be starting to think about your next album?
MW: Yeah, the idea is to go into the studio and start working after the Australian tour. There is still a lot of writing to do and I’m not terribly prolific, so it takes me a while and this year it has been a bit difficult and totally different, so I’m sure once again it’ll be another type of album altogether!
TC: You became a mother this year, didn’t you? Is your next album going to be a whole bunch of songs about how wonderful your child is?
MW: No, I don’t think so. Hopefully that will find a way into it in an interesting way. I don’t know, I’ve always written depressing songs or sad songs so I probably would be more focused on the loss of my mother and I’ll have to save to children’s record for another time.
Martha Wainwright is heading to Australia early next year. Check her out at:
18 - Lizotte’s, Newcastle, NSW
24 - Opera House Concert Hall, Sydney, NSW
26 - A&I Hall, Bangalow, NSW
1 - The Tivoli, Brisbane, QLD
3 - Recital Hall, Melbourne, VIC
4 - Town Hall, Meeniyan, VIC
Follow the author Tim Cashmere on Twitter.
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