Wainwright, Martha (Profile)

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT would like a drink, but the waiter has other business in mind. "Are you Martha?" he asks. "Martha Wainwright?" When she nods yes, he continues: "It's me, Blue. God, I haven't seen you in ages." Wainwright's reaction is less than enthusiastic - this definitely is not a long-lost friend. He asks her a few questions about life back in New York before getting to the point - "So, how's Rufus?" Wainwright takes it in stride. "He's good," she says of her famous older brother. "Really good. He's sober." Martha, on the other hand, is in need of a margarita.

The 28-year-old daughter of U.S. singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and folk legend Kate McGarrigle (of Canadian sister duo Kate and Anna MCGARRIGLE) is at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, to create some buzz for her self-titled full-length debut (out this week). Her sound is folk with attitude, with nods to cabaret, country and rock. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a backing band, she plays two gigs at the festival, amid a little partying and a lot of media.

Wainwright readily acknowledges that being from a famous family garners her extra attention. She considers herself lucky, and isn't about to pull a Jakob Dylan, refusing to talk about her folks. Instead, she pops an Excedrin and dives right in. "My parents were really on the rocks when she got pregnant, but they were going to have me anyway. They didn't suit the married life."

When Martha was three months old, her mother took her and Rufus from New York State to Montreal. Summers, the siblings would tour folk festivals with their dad or their moms (Wainwright uses the term for Aunt Anna, too). "I remember it being a fun time," she says. "It's not like we were the von Trapp family and forced to sing on every song. We would get up and sing on a couple, and then spent the rest of the day running around the hippies in the grass."

One festival stands out. At the Newport folk gathering, when she was eight, Martha and Rufus got called up on stage to sing their father's hit Dead Skunk along with him. "There's actually a snapshot of it. I have a giant smile on my face and look very happy, very relaxed, and I remember that feeling of, 'I really like this. I'm feeling very comfortable.' Since then I've probably become much more insecure and nervous."

Insecurity comes up a lot when Wainwright talks about music and family, especially Rufus. She admits she was jealous of the attention he got early in his career. It took a long time for Martha to commit to the family business - there was a 10-year gap between writing her first song, at 18, and her first full album. "I was very tempted to do something other than become a singer-songwriter. I didn't think I had a chance, because Rufus was such a strong force - in a great way. I didn't think there was necessarily room for me. I didn't want to be the one who couldn't do it - to be torn apart by the press."

So far, so good. An EP she released in January prompted Rolling Stone to muse, "the next shit-hot songwriter?" And U.K. critics have been fawning over the new record, especially a diatribe about her father called Bloody Mother F---- Asshole. Still, not all the songs are that memorable. And the confessional-woman-with-guitar genre is not currently in vogue. But Wainwright contends she doesn't crave instant success - "I can live vicariously through my brother." She already has. Martha has toured with Rufus as opening act, backup singer and drinking buddy. "I was right behind him in that rock 'n' roll sense. And his whole experience with drugs and alcohol has been an eye-opener: you cannot be a total dribbling f----up in this situation, because people are watching."

When Wainwright finishes her margarita, she looks around for Blue, the waiter. He arrives and gives her a piece of paper with his phone number and a message that reads, "Hi to R." Wainwright is polite, but what she was really looking for was the check.

Maclean's April 18, 2005