MARTHA Wainwright belongs to one of folk music’s great dynasties. Her father, Loudon Wainwright III, is a celebrated troubadour while her late mother, Anna McGarrigle, was one half of respected sibling duo the McGarrigle sisters. Her older brother Rufus is, for his part, a cult crooner whose fans include Elton John and Robbie Williams. All her life, family and music have been intimately intertwined.
She proudly builds on this tradition with her latest project, a collaboration with half sister Lucy Wainwright Roche. Styling themselves the Wainwright Sisters, the duo have just put out a dark and delicious covers record, Songs In The Dark, wherein they revisit life-changing tunes from their past.
“The idea came after the birth of my first son,” says Martha, 39, who has two boys, six-year-old Arcangelo and two-year-old Francis.
“I played it a lot and shared the songs with the baby. They had a lullaby quality which I think he appreciated at some level, even though lyrically they were quite dark.
“The melancholy agreed with me, I think. Six am is a melancholy time of the day — you’re tired and restless and are trying to get your baby to sleep. You’re not up for putting on happy music and bouncing around.”
As the sisters warmed to the idea of a covers collection, they added songs by their parents: Loudon’s ‘Lullaby’, Kate McGarrigle’s ‘Lullaby For A Doll’, and ‘Runs In The Family’ by The Roches, the all-sister trio with whom Lucy’s mother sang. An initially casual coming together had taken on a life of its own.
“As half-sisters Lucy and I are very much the product of modern families, with divorce and separation,” says Martha.
“But when we sing together it isn’t complicated at all. Musically, it just works. We’ve opened a can of worms — in the best sense possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if we do some more stuff.”
Martha’s parents divorced when she was a young child. Kate moved back to Montreal while Loudon went to New York where he began a relationship with Lucy’s mother.
Wainwright has several years on her sibling and they grew up hundreds of miles apart. For those reasons, they were not initially close.
“We only got to see her when we visited our dad. I regarded it as a special time. It was exciting to see each other. She lived with her mom in New York; me and Rufus lived in Montreal with my mom. I eventually ended up moving to New York. Then we DID see more of each other. To be honest, it wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I really appreciated her. She helped out a lot.”
Kate McGarrigle died from cancer in 2010. It means a great deal to Martha that she and her half-sister are carrying on where her mother and aunt left off.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision,” she says. “But us playing together has brought up a lot of history about the McGarrigles and The Roches. It was weird that our dad should have had kids with two singers. There are similarities, though I think the music we make is different.”
As a working parent, Martha occasionally takes her children on the road (they will stay at home when the Wainwright Sisters come to Cork for the Ballincollig Winter Music Festival next weekend).
She plans to make another solo record and tour heavily later in the year. The childcare implications are something she is still working out. With her eldest at school the picture is more complicated than previously.
“This is going to a busy 12 months,” she says. “It’s going to be a real test. I’ll have to figure out whether to take the kids out of school and bring them with me. When my eldest was smaller it was easier. School matters a bit more now. I’ll have to figure it out.”
Did she enjoy touring with her parents as a child?
“Actually, I didn’t go on the road that much. My father toured all the time. I mostly lived with my mother — and Kate and Anna didn’t really go hit the road as frequently as I do. They had the luxury of writing songs that other people wanted to sing. They were smart that way. When they started having children they stopped working. We would go to summer folk festivals and the like. But that was mostly it. I don’t have that option. For me, it’s all a little harder to juggle.”
By staying proudly independent, the County Meath band have slowly grown into one of the country’s most beloved alternative ensembles. Led by vocalist Niamh Farrell, pictured, they have crossed the divide between earnest indie rock and playful pop.
The totemic folk crew is joined by traditional singer Elaine Cormican. After a sabbatical of several years, the band returned in 2009 with an acclaimed new album, WonderWaltz, and have toured around the world ever since.
A Cork-Kerry one-two, with Dingle duo Eilis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon sharing a bill with local troubadour John Spillane.
Note: This is a 3pm show. The Wainwright Sisters headline in the evening.
The Cork singer-songwriter is supporting the Wainwright sisters with songs from his forthcoming album, and the EP that helped him to a very successful year in 2015.
The cult trad band upholster old-school folk trappings with an experimental side, with results that feel at once familiar and experimental. ‘Fusion’ is a much-abused term, yet it is entirely applicable here.