By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III has made a career of family albums. For nearly four decades, the singer-songwriter has churned out sometimes bitter, sometimes brutal, often hilarious folk songs about his marriage to Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle and their two children: Gen-X piano man Rufus Wainwright and emerging talent Martha Wainwright.
Everyone has had his or her moment, willingly or not, in Loudon's spotlight — songs about his and Kate's divorce, songs about explaining it to the kids, songs about family vacations, songs about his own parents, even "Rufus Is a Tit Man," a song about watching young Rufus breastfeed (and only slightly ironic, given that his son, now an acclaimed composer, turned out to be gay). Loudon and Martha even sang a duet, "Father/Daughter Dialogue," on one of Loudon's '90s discs, in which they addressed the irresistible peril of making dirty laundry tuneful and rhymed.
But turnabout, as they say, is fair play. So thought Martha, anyway, when she wrote and recorded her first single, "BMFA." It's not actually called by that acronym; we couldn't print the full title in a wholesome, family newspaper. The first two words are "Bloody Mother," and the other two are the popular "Deadwood" f-word adjective and an anatomical noun.
And it's directed at her dad.
"My father's made a career out of singing about family members — some kind, some not so kind. So we Wainwrights have carte blanche to return the favor," Martha said recently from a tour stop in Bristol, England. "I think he understands. He's never said anything about it outright. It's not designed to hurt his feelings. It's just a funny thing to say about somebody. I didn't intend to say those four words when I was writing it. They just came out, and I thought it was hilarious, quite frankly. Mostly young women seem to identify with it, not necessarily about their dads — but everyone has that person they want to say that about in their lives."
That title, and her insistent repetition of it toward the end of her acoustic-driven wail, earned her self-titled debut disc a parental-advisory sticker, a rare badge for a folk singer, when it was released last month. "We live in such conservative times," she said with a sigh.
Martha, 28, has been active in the Wainwright family way since childhood — singing with her mother from an early age and backing up Rufus since his successful debut in the late '90s — but for years, she resisted the temptations and requests to record her own debut. "In a way, I wasn't champing at the bit to make a record," she said. "There was so much pressure to make a good first record in a family like mine. So there was definitely a conscious delay."
Plus, about the time she started thinking seriously about her own music, Rufus' career took off. As his performance schedule thickened, he brought Martha along to sing backup. Their duets, often on French chansons, were the highlight of many concerts. But while the steady work helped spread her name around, it also hampered Martha's own ambitions, ambivalent though they sometimes were.
"I got to live vicariously through my brother, the experiences he had as an up-and-coming artist. I wouldn't say that it satisfied my want of those experiences, but I got exposed to it. It taught me the amount of work required if you want to succeed," she said. "It taught me to sing better, too. Rufus wrote parts for me that were very unnatural and different."
This is when Martha began discussing her voice, both literally and figuratively, as the major cause for her late bloom. The Wainwright family is crowded with distinctive physical and lyrical voices — Kate's measured control and traditional dignity, Loudon's tongue-in-cheek wit and naked admissions, Rufus' warm murmuring and allusions of grandeur — so Martha had intense competition before she even left the house. Before stepping out with the family name on her product, she wanted to make sure listeners would hear the Martha more than the Wainwright.
"I've always had a very defined singing voice," she said in a sandy speaking tone, just faintly hoarse. "The cigarettes don't help. Or maybe they do. You can usually pick me out of a chorus. ... So I always had this voice, and the interest in the songs I was writing. I've written basically the same way since I was 18. In the last six years, living a full life in New York City and on the road with Rufus, I think I've gotten better. The way I do it didn't change much at heart, it just got better. And I realized this might really be what I want to do, where maybe before I wasn't sure. I always felt this was handed to me as the youngest, and I think once I felt secure in my voice, I made the time to let it be heard."
There were moments when she wasn't sure about this career choice, certainly. She studied French theater in school and thought that perhaps the best way to distance herself from the Wainwright musical legacy was to pursue something other than music. But in the end, she said, music felt the most natural, and she caved in to the destiny of her DNA.
"I mean, there was a time when that was how I was going to rebel — by not being a musician," she said. "That would have hurt the family most, I think. When people ask about 'BMFA,' they say, 'How could you write such a thing?' But in our family, the real way to hurt someone would be to not write the song about it. That's the particular Wainwright dynamic, I guess."
Given that song's particular invective, does she get along with Dad?
"That's a good question, actually," she said. "We've always had a lot of similarities. We both see that, I think. We recognize each other in each other. And, really, that's a good feeling. It causes problems sometimes, but there are not many people on the planet you have that with. We like to spend time together, taking long walks or out on the sailboat. We're able to take our mind off the music and just sort of live."
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Phone: (312) 559-1212
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.