Martha Wainwright

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Martha Wainwright


Martha Wainwright didn’t imagine herself touring an album of Edith Piaf songs. “It wasn’t my idea, it was the producer’s idea,” says Wainwright. She had always wanted to work with Hal Willner, and he proposed she sing Piaf’s songs.

Martha Wainwright didn’t imagine herself touring an album of Edith Piaf songs. “It wasn’t my idea, it was the producer’s idea,” says Wainwright. She had always wanted to work with Hal Willner, and he proposed she sing Piaf’s songs.

“My initial reaction was to not want to do it because she’s so well-known,” the singer says. “But then he convinced me by sending me hundreds and hundreds of songs of hers. Then [it became] not only a tribute to Piaf but also a tribute to the songwriters and the era of music.”

Martha’s parents are (singer and actor) Loudon Wainwright III and (singer/songwriter) Kate McGarrigle. “I have always enjoyed covering songs,” she says. “I have quite a bit of experience with singing older songs: my brother and I grew up listening to standards and older music from a different era. We have been doing this for years, singing standards and old French songs, so for us, we feel comfortable in that genre of music you know. For us it’s sort of a bit normal rather than a gimmick.”

Wainwright eventually reviewed the hundreds of songs Willner provided. “I just listened through and whatever piqued my interest, that I thought, ‘Oh I could sing this,’ I would jot down or make a mental note. I wanted to stay away from the really famous ones, but of course there are some pretty famous ones that got in there, because they’re so great. I wanted to span the eras because although she died young, she sang for a long time.”

The collection spans eras and subject matter. For Wainwright, who usually performs her own songs in English, singing another songwriter’s pieces in French has its challenges. “When you’re singing in French, you’re losing somewhat of a connection, and they’re covers as well, so it’s a little bit more removed. You have to find different things in it so sometimes it requires me to get very involved in the story of the song. I’m forced to act out the song a little bit more because no one understands what I’m singing. I become much more gestural, so it’s a different type of performance than perhaps I was used to before.” Humbly, she surmises, “I think it works, we’ve been doing it quite a bit now and people seem to like it.”

In finding a connection with Piaf’s subject matter, it becomes even more apparent that the songs are from a different era. “The subject matter is specific in certain songs – street life and war time – so in that way they don’t resonate specifically with me because I don’t think we live in the same type of era,” says Wainwright. The perspective is refreshing though: “The spirit is very different. I really enjoy singing some of these songs where really there is no judgement. She sings upbeat songs about prostitution. There’s a lightness, even within the tragedy of it, which I think is really refreshing because nowadays, just generally speaking, we’re much more politically correct or conscious of saying the right thing or doing the right thing and there is a freedom of spirit that is lost in some ways.”

Despite enjoying performing Piaf’s work, you get the feeling Wainwright will be happy to get back to her own songwriting. She’s unsure how the experience will impact on her work. We ponder the idea of adopting Piaf’s non-judgemental approach. “I always write from a very personal standpoint so I don’t really ever take an approach per se. I wish I had the discipline to say, ‘I would like to write a song like this’. In fact I should probably try and do that. What I would hope is that the melodies that I’ve been singing and perhaps the poetry that I‘ve been singing, which is so beautiful in French, I was hoping that that might rub off: that sort command of the language.”

The album takes Piaf’s songs and delivers them with Wainwright’s vocals and although the arrangements are very similar, instrumentally they are different, with the addition of an electric guitar in some pieces. For live performance in Australia, we’ll be treated to a stripped back ensemble. Wainwright shares, “It will just be the piano player and the base player, kind of like how you would imagine it in a small bar in France. It really makes it quite raw.” If you’re a Piaf or Wainwright fan, or just (like us) love hearing the French language, this performance at Melbourne’s beautiful Recital Hall is for you.

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT brings Edith Piaf songs to Melbourne on Thursday March 3 at Recital Hall, Melbourne. For tickets head to or call (03) 9699 3333.