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Martha Wainwright Makes Her Provincetown Debut

by Steve Desroches

It’s a family tree with roots that cross borders. Born in Montreal to American folk singer Loudon Wainwright III and Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, Martha Wainwright’s family legacy continues to grow as each individual member distinguishes themselves with their own musical career, intertwining the maple leaf with the stars and stripes. On this particular night, Wainwright is bringing some of Canada’s most beloved musical exports to New York City with Northern Stars, a show where she and her brother Rufus sing the works of such Canadian music icons as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen.

Much larger in geographic size, but dwarfed in population and influence by their neighbor to the south, Canada nevertheless has a musical culture that remains vibrant and distinct, something that Wainwright’s family has a larger role in. Her mother, along with her aunt Anna, comprised the famed McGarrigle folk duo, which blended the musical traditions of Quebec with larger English language folkways.  Spanning from the Pacific to the Atlantic and up to the Arctic, Canadian music reflects the multicultural country’s heritage. But what does Canada sound like?

“There’s a lack of self-consciousness in the songs,” says Wainwright. “America is famous for its culture. Much of the music is Americana. It’s about the story of America; like the music of Woody Guthrie or Paul Simon. In Canadian songs that culture is less defined. But it is defined by space and size because of the size of the country. Plus there are less people watching, less eyes watching what you do than in America. There’s less industry pressure in Canada. There’s a freedom with that.”

Wainwright has become a sensation on both sides of the border with her inimitable voice and songwriting, performing and recording in both English and French. This Saturday night she’ll make her Provincetown debut as she performs at the Hawthorne Barn as part of the 20 Summers programming at the historic spot on Miller Hill Road. Her show in Provincetown will be a solo performance. Just her and her guitar in the unique and intimate setting of the Hawthorne Barn, Wainwright will present much of her own work rather than that of other songwriters.

But speaking today, Canada is on her mind, despite being in New York. Growing up in Montreal, where the late Leonard Cohen has reached almost mythical proportions in his home city, Wainwright is well aware that the fabric of her music includes thread from both sides. It’s hard to think of another family of musicians where each has managed to so clearly distinguish themselves as individual artists, yet maintained a family tradition. Her American roots from her father also include her aunt Sloan Wainwright and, of course, her brother Rufus and sister Lucy Wainwright Roche. All of their music is really a family album as they are so influenced by one another, she says. As artists, their work is deeply personal. But the subtlety of cultures between the United States and Canada works itself in in an equally subtle way. And in other ways, it’s influenced by the business side of life as a musician.

“Certainly there is room for pop music,” says Wainwright of the music industry and community in Canada. “There are big famous artists like Shania Twain and Celine Dion. It’s a little bit more European, though. There’s money in Canada. Art and music is seen as a resource. There’s money for art, you can get money as an artist. It’s not as driven by record sales. It’s more about looking to see Canadian artists create and succeed. I definitely think it explains why artists create more freely.”

Being able to glide from country to country has provided Wainwright with the ability to both explore her music more fully as an artist and take risks that might not be available to those musicians rooted firmly in one culture. Her mother and aunt were some of the first artists to bring Quebecois music outside of the province as well as having big success as English-language singers in the French-speaking part of Canada. As such, Wainwright has not only released highly acclaimed English-language albums like I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too and Goodnight City, but also Sans fusils, ni souliers, а Paris: Martha Wainwright’s Piaf Record, a live album covering the work of Edith Piaf.

The variety of imagination and the pursuit of artistic freedom that Wainwright puts into her work has made her one of the most respected musicians of her genre, which she is constantly pushing, and of her generation, another hallmark of her family. As she now has her own family, it begs the question as to whether it will continue, or branch out in a different direction. The answer will come in time of course, but practicality has given way to passion in Wainwright’s mind.

“After I had kids people asked do I want them to play music,” says Wainwright. “I said no. It’s really a hard way to live and I wanted to protect them. There’s the tedium of worrying about money. And worrying about pushing yourself as an artist; are you growing, do something new. You can forget how great it is. Now, I wouldn’t mind.”

Twenty Summers presents Martha Wainwright in Concert at the Hawthorne Barn, 29 Miller Hill Road on Saturday, May 19 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets ($30) and information call 508.812.0278 or visit


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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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