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For Martha Wainwright, It's Relative

April 12, 2001|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Big brothers are supposed to set a good example for their siblings. But in Martha Wainwright's case, her older brother Rufus got so much attention after releasing his 1998 debut album on DreamWorks Records that he might have inadvertently given her the wrong impression.

"He was really catapulted by that," says Wainwright, 24, who will perform several shows in the L.A. area this month, starting tonight at the Fold.

When she moved to New York from her native Montreal in 1999, she half-imagined having an experience like her brother's. Instead, she says, "My story is like the total opposite. I've been busting my ass playing gigs for two years!" She laughs. "It's been great. But there was no . . . DreamWorks that said, 'Sign here.' "

The daughter of singer-songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Wainwright has been almost as highly praised as her brother, despite a considerably lower profile.

Her self-released recordings, including a six-song 1999 EP ("Martha Wainwright," available from Amazon.com) and this year's four-song "Factory" EP, reveal a similarly adept and quirky songwriter, but Martha's literate pop is less enamored of opera and musicals, drawing more from folk, jazz and blues influences. Her languid, raspy-sweet singing voice reflects the thoughtfulness of her everyday speech.

She hopes to put out a full-length collection, but hasn't finished it yet. "I essentially work for my family, at this point," says Wainwright, who often performs with the McGarrigles--the veteran folk-pop duo of her mother and her aunt Anna McGarrigle. She also played a series of 1999 dates with her father, and plans to sing backup and play rhythm guitar on her brother's upcoming tour.

Her resigned tone suggests this situation is slightly bothersome, but perhaps it's more the frustration of a talented young artist who realizes she could release a four-star debut album and still find herself overshadowed. Ironically, although she harbored some ambivalence about following an almost predestined career arc, she became more certain about pursuing music after testing her own wings.

She and Rufus were raised by their mother after their parents' 1979 divorce. As kids they toured with the McGarrigles, and Martha started writing songs around age 17. She played some gigs while studying drama at Montreal's Concordia University, and has appeared on albums by the McGarrigles and her father.

But the real confidence boost came when she quit college and went on the road. "I got a broader perspective from talking with other musicians and I gained a little bit of independence from [my family]."

Yet she's pragmatic about her heritage and its attendant obligations.

"If I felt I'd been given a little less, then I might feel differently, but the genetic pool has been as kind to me as to my brother," she says. "You can kick and scream and go, 'I want to be more together and independent!' But I don't want to wait tables either."

Being on the road with the McGarrigles is a cozy scene, in which Martha often sings backup together with her cousin Lily Lanken, Anna's daughter, who also serves as a vocalist for Martha's solo gigs. "It's like we're all jamming, which is nice," she says.

Being around her dad is "a little more sensitive," she says. He can be "very critical." More than anything, she appreciates her family's achievements. "If I weren't related to the people I'm related to, I'd sort of be lost, because I don't have a record in stores. But I think someday he'll come along, you know--my record deal and my husband." She laughs. "I'm just rolling with the punches."

* Martha Wainwright, with Shoofly and Parlor, today at the Fold at Silverlake Lounge, 2906 Sunset Blvd., L.A., 9 p.m. $7. (323) 666-2407. Also April 27 with the McGarrigles at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., 9 p.m. $15. (323) 463-0204.

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