Martha Wainwright has quite literally been bleeding for her art. The Montreal singer-songwriter’s fingers are needle raw after she customised her wearable merchandise with buttons and cross stitchings back stage.
It’s an apt metaphor for her approach to composition. These are songs that don’t flinch from the autobiographical, from the urban angst of ‘G.P.T.’ through to the tender meditation on her young son on ‘Franci’ (“I wanted to name you Valentine”).
They also place her family dynasty centre stage. There are anecdotes about touring with her father Loudon, tracks written by brother Rufus (the theatrical ‘Francis’), mother Kate McGarrigle (the haunting, elegiac ‘Proserpina’), and co-penned with aunt Anna McGarrigle (the electro-ripple of ‘Look Into My Eyes’).
This honesty and dry humour should make the memoir she’s currently writing (“I needed the money,” she jokes) one of the most revealing and entertaining in modern pop.
Yet away from the family connections and lyrical confessionals, she stands as one of the more arresting entries on the folk rock scene.
Her musical palette runs deeper than the term implies, with her forceful vocals equally at home with torch songs as they are country. The decision to hire electro-jazz outfit Bernice as her backing band, meanwhile, draws out the jazz inflections on the smoky ‘Year Of The Dragon’ and Edith Piaf styled ‘Before The Children Came Along’.
A gifted interpreter of musical standards, half of the tracks on her current album Goodnight City are (co-) written by close collaborators. It’s nonetheless when she draws on much of this material that the set slumps, with the groove based closer ‘Take The Reins’ (authored by tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus) being a particular low.
It’s a downbeat end to a set that’s otherwise marked with powerful emotions, humour, and reflection as she marks two decades since she the release of her debut album.