The Non-Fatal Attractions of Martha Wainwright

Wry tales of ill-advised crushes from a singer-songwriter as blunt as she is funny

It's not a flattering line on someone's relationship résumé: the Other Woman. With the moral issues surrounding extramarital affairs, those involved are rarely sympathetic characters (and not to get all grand-sweepy here, but frequently it's the seductress who bears the brunt of society's judgment). It's one reason why women who've fallen in love with married men (yes, present company included) usually just keep pretty mum on the subject, suffering silently but at least largely judgment-free.

Luckily, keeping mum has never been one of Martha Wainwright's strong suits. Her second full-length effort is titled I Know You're Married, But I've Got Feelings, Too. And yeah, she means it. The name comes from a line in the lead-off track, "Bleeding All Over You," about the struggles of caring for someone who already also cares for someone else—a lot of someone elses, actually, what with the kids and all. "I can only talk about her for so very long/Then my mind turns into my heart/And whispers into that dark cave that I've been wrong," she sings. "My heart was made for bleeding all over you/And I know you're married/But I've got feelings, too/And I still love you." (Just so you know, the album doesn't get a helluva lot happier after this. From "You Cheated Me": "When all the bills have been unrolled/And your story has been untold/Tell me if it was worth it/To see the whole damn thing unfold." And from "Hearts Club Band": "You look better underwater/Where I can't see/The details in the face of who you pretend to be.")

"Yes, the title is autobiographical," Wainwright admits in that gravelly voice of hers. "But it's not a song about getting the guy, it's about not getting the guy, you know?"

This is the woman who penned a song to her father titled "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole."
Mark Squires
This is the woman who penned a song to her father titled "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole."

She's also careful to draw distinctions, though. "It's not like I'm attracted to married men—I'm not a homewrecker," notes the singer, who wed producer Brad Albetta less than a year ago. "It's a song about past obsessions that go unrequited. You never really get over that stuff, you know. It stays with you. Those things don't go away. But it's also just a funny, provocative line—and that's my style."

It's vital, being honest and earnest but without losing perspective and—more importantly—your sense of humor. Wainwright has clearly managed this, as evidenced even by Married's cover, in which she's splayed upside-down on a loveseat, eyes closed, bare legs thrown over the back, hair tumbling toward the floor. It's sexy, sure, but also laughable—doubly so when you open her website and the image comes spiraling at you like an advertisement for a 1950s horror flick. This is the woman, after all, who penned a song to her father titled "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole." She doesn't actually believe she's a helpless victim—she just knows she looks good playing one.

We discuss the differences between this latest, more heavily produced album and her self-titled 2005 debut, which is when critics first took notice of her throaty, confessional style—and realized that she oughtn't be defined solely by her familial connections (daughter of Loudon, sister of Rufus). Married continues to mine betrayal and heartbreak, but it also seems more optimistic, I tell her: a little more grown-up than the last one. She agrees. "There's a lightness that exists in this album," she explains. "It's partly from being more produced, which I like—I like a sad song with a happy beat, and it's an artistic departure for me. . . . But, yeah, I also think I'm evolving—I think my songs have become a little less self-indulgent, a little less navel-gazing. It's also just part of getting older: lifting your eyes upward to see other people's problems, to see the state of the world. And there's some relief in that, but there's also fear—fear of the bigger picture."

As for how wedded bliss will affect her dark, brutally honest lyrics—well, no worries there. "I've been with my husband for a while now, and marriage—it's serious stuff, seems to me," she says. "There is plenty of room for struggle."

Right now, though, she's dealing with the struggles of touring. When we spoke last week, she was on her tour bus in England, heading to the Latitude Festival—and while funny and engaging, she also seems a little worn-out by the travel demands. After playing a sold-out Joe's Pub appearance last June, she's been performing steadily: shows in California, then over to Europe, back through Canada, another quick jaunt to the U.K., an opening set for Leonard Cohen in Bruges, and now a return to New York for a show on Thursday at the Highline Ballroom. She'll spend all of August touring the U.S.

"It's a lot of coming in and out of different countries, a lot of traveling," she says. "Not really anywhere new, but I have been playing some pretty big stages in the UK, which has been fun."

She's looking forward to the Highline, though, too. "Playing New York is such an important gig," Wainwright says. "We're doing all-new songs with an all-new band—we've been getting tighter and tighter in the last few months, and I feel good about it." And for a musician who's made no apologies for her myriad collaborations with artists with varying degrees of hipster cred (Antony Hegarty, yes; Snow Patrol, less so), should we expect any particular special guests? "Maaaybe," she teases. "No, yeah, of course we'll have some surprises up there. And Justin Bond is opening, that should be fun. . . . If I can impress a New York audience, I can do anything," she jokes. "I mean, in no way am I a cutting-edge singer/songwriter, but I like to think I'm not just regurgitating all this stuff that's been done before."

Martha Wainwright plays the Highline Ballroom July 23 with Justin Bond

 
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