With an album of Edith Piaf songs just released under producer Hal Wilner, Montreal’s Martha Wainwright made her way to the Sydney Opera House for a bilingual night of music both her own and that of the French luminary. Soulshine’s Max Easton was present at the Concert Hall for the resulting performance.
Any conversation about Martha Wainwright inevitably makes mention of the Wainwright family ties, where brother Rufus, father Loudon and mother Kate McGarrigle make up the brood of the Montreal songstress. As overdone as it may be to highlight the tremendous success of her roots, Martha has a tendency to involve herself almost completely in her personal life during her performance and songwriting to the point where it becomes almost impossible to ignore. At the Sydney Opera House, this much was true, as she played three songs written by her recently departed mother, one blaspheming her father…and about fifteen by the pint-sized French genius of Edith Piaf. The last of which, by her own admission on the night, is about as disparate a relation as they come. With her legs two feet longer, her hair six shades blonder and her voice three times bigger, Wainwright’s figure and sonics were in no way reminiscent of the scratchings that litter Piaf’s short-lived and prolific songwriting career, but that made it no less of a stunning evening.
Under the cavernous ceiling of the Sydney Opera House, Wainwright yelps and wavers through her selections of Piaf’s work, expressing each unintelligible French sentence with jerked knees and active eyes. She introduces each song with her take on its themes, summing up Piaf’s catalogue with tongue in cheek as songs of either drunks or hookers, varying only in the age of the subject in question. It’s a guiding hand through a songwriter who exists as one of France’s most quintessential musicians; universally lauded and recognised, adored and largely misunderstood. It wasn’t so much a night of covers as it was a night of translations, bringing stories imprinted on the French musical consciousness to life with her inimitable gestures and wit.
Cutting her set in two, she pardoned the French, unholstered her guitar and played Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, the song that displays the lows of her relationship with her father and unfailingly sends chills down the spine. It’s in these personal moments where the most attractive aspect of Wainwright’s songbook comes to life. Whilst the Piaf versions are interesting, they seem almost like a ploy to distance herself from the deeply personal expressions of feeling that her albums covered. She plays I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings Too with such conviction that it’s almost uncomfortable when the realization is made that it’s her husband dutifully plucking the double bass behind her. She makes mention of her mother’s death, discussing Kate McGarrigle in intimate detail, their last visit to Circular Quay and her last performance at Carnegie Hall before playing the last song she ever wrote. The song is Proserpina, an interpretation of the fleeing of the daughter of Persephone, the Greek Goddess of the Underworld. Wainwright cries her mother’s repeating chorus, ‘Prosperpina, come home to mother’ with an assured passion and emotion that cuts through the crisp air of the Concert Hall, leaving it dazed and silent as she completes the song – written by McGarrigle for her – smiling, and leaving the stage.
Martha Wainwright has earned her accolades. Whether it’s via the depths of her own songwriting, in tribute to her mother, or in tribute to Edith Piaf, she succeeds in finding the essence of a story and amplifying it with an unparalleled sense of intimacy. Martha Wainwright is more than just stunning, she is unforgettable. Her broken screeches, yelps and wails litter the stunning core of her voice, resulting in a gorgeous sense of song craft that transcends the subject of the song. After all, who else could give so much meaning to a song sung in French to people listening in English?