thu 23/05/2024

What I'm Reading: Musician Martha Wainwright | reviews, news & interviews

What I'm Reading: Musician Martha Wainwright

What I'm Reading: Musician Martha Wainwright

Canadian singer-songwriter goes for murder, music and militancy

Martha Wainwright: Eyes down for Capote

Next to tell us about her recent reading habits is singer and songwriter Martha Wainwright, who since the arrival of son Arcangelo last November has been juggling music with motherhood.

Born in Montreal in 1976, Wainwright is part of one of North America's greatest musical dynasties: her father is folk singer Loudon Wainwright III and her mother is the late Kate McGarrigle, who died early in 2010 having performed and recorded with her sister Anna as a revered duo for almost half a century.

Her brother, Rufus, is an acclaimed singer and composer, and her half-sister Lucy Wainwright-Roche has also embarked on a music career. Wainwright is no slouch either, and over three diverse, direct and challenging albums her music has showcased her inimitably emotive voice and unsparing lyrical reach. The most recent, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris, features Wainwright singing - in French - a collection of songs made famous by Edith Piaf, recorded live in New York in 2009.

I’m carrying loads of baby stuff around at the moment, so there’s only room for one book, and it’s Capote’s In Cold Blood. A really cheery late summer read! I was in a flea market and I just decided to pick it up after all this time. I’m adoring it, but it’s not going very quickly.

InColdBlood[Extract from In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Penguin Modern Classics]

Passing through the orchard, Mr Clutter proceeded along beside the river, which was shallow here and strewn with islands – midstream beaches of soft sand, to which, on Sundays gone by, hot-weather Sabbaths when Bonnie had still 'felt up to things', picnic baskets had been carted, family afternoons whiled away waiting for a twitch at the end of a fish-line.

Mr Clutter seldom encountered trespassers on his property; a mile and a half from the highway, and arrived at by obscure roads, it was not a place that strangers came upon by chance. Now, suddenly a whole party of them appeared, and Teddy, the dog, rushed forward roaring out a challenge. But it was odd about Teddy. Though he was a good sentry, alert, ever ready to raise Cain, his valour had one flaw: let him glimpse a gun, as he did now – for the intruders were armed – and his head dropped, his tail turned in. No one understood why, for no one knew his history, other than that he was a vagabond Kenyon had adopted years ago.

The visitors proved to be five pheasant hunters from Oklahoma. The pheasant season in Kansas, a famed November event, lures hordes of sportsmen from adjoining states, and during the past week plaid-hatted regiments had paraded across the autumnal expanses, flushing and felling with rounds of buckshot great coppery flights of the grain-fattened birds. By custom, the hunters, if they are not invited guests, are supposed to pay the landowner a fee for letting them pursue their quarry on his premises, but when the Oklahomans offered to hire hunting rights, Mr Clutter was amused. 'I'm not as poor as I look. Go ahead, get all you can,' he said. Then, touching the brim of his cap, he headed for home and the day's work, unaware that it would be his last.

2. What did you read in the summer?

I really liked Positively 4th Street. It’s a biography of Richard and Mimi Farina, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, a slice of the lives of the four of them in the early sixties in Greenwich Village, when they were all living on West 4th Street. It’s a fun read and very evocative.

Pos4st[Extract from Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina by David Hadju, Bloomsbury, 2002]

In Joan [Baez], Bob [Dylan] found unqualified support for his literary experimentation. Unlike Suze Rotolo, who had been early to recognize Dylan’s potential as a writer and played a mentor role by introducing him to the work of several masters, Joan thought of Bob as a fully formed great poet. She read little; “We used to joke, if somebody bought Joanie a book for a present, they didn’t know her”, said her friend Nancy Carlen, a musician and entrepreneur in the Big Sur area.


Moreover, Joan’s own experience in music had convinced her that creative expression is a natural gift – one doesn’t need training or experience to be brilliant and successful; one just needs to open one’s mouth or, say, start typing. With Joan, Bob never had to suffer comparison with Brecht or Lord Byron; all he had to do was write, and she told him he was “the modern Shakespeare”. When Dylan was out of the house, Baez would rifle through the trash and pull out his abandoned ideas, first drafts, sketches, and false stats. She would flatten them and hoard them without Bob’s knowledge.

3. What do you plan to read next?

My mother was an avid reader and a very smart lady. Since she died I’ve been confronted with all her books, and I’d like to take a crack at things in her house. I’d like to read History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac – 1851 by Francis Parkman, a nineteenth century historian that she really liked. It’s the story of [Chief] Pontiac’s rebellion against the British. I also want to read some Jose Saramago.

Pontiac_FParkman[Extract from History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac – 1851 by Francis Parkman, Standard Publications, 2006]

Of the Indian character, much has been written foolishly, and credulously believed. By the rhapsodies of poets, the cant of sentimentalists, and the extravagance of some who should have known better, a counterfeit image has been tricked out, which might seek in vain for its likeness through every corner of the habitable earth; an image bearing no more resemblance to its original than the monarch of the tragedy and the hero of the epic poem bear to their living prototypes in the palace and the camp.

The shadows of his wilderness home, and the darker mantle of his own inscrutable reserve, have made the Indian warrior a wonder and a mystery. Yet to the eye of rational observation there is nothing unintelligible in him. He is full, it is true, of contradiction. He deems himself the center of greatness and renown; his pride is proof against the fiercest torments of fire and steel; and yet the same man would beg for a dram of whiskey, or pick up a crust of bread thrown to him like a dog, from the tent door of the traveller. At one moment, he is wary and cautious to the verge of cowardice; at the next, he abandons himself to a very insanity of recklessness; and the habitual self-restraint which throws an impenetrable veil over emotion is joined to the wild, impetuous passions of a beast or a madman.

Such inconsistencies, strange as they seem in our eyes, when viewed under a novel aspect, are but the ordinary incidents of humanity. The qualities of the mind are not uniform in their action through all the relations of life. With different men, and different races of men, pride, valor, prudence, have different forms of manifestation, and where in one instance they lie dormant, in another they are keenly awake. The conjunction of greatness and littleness, meanness and pride, is older than the days of the patriarchs; and such antiquated phenomena, displayed under a new form in the unreflecting, undisciplined mind of a savage, call for no special wonder, but should rather be classed with the other enigmas of the fathomless human heart. The dissecting knife of a Rochefoucault might lay bare matters of no less curious observation in the breast of every man.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters