Brooklyn's best bits with Martha Wainwright

The acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter starts a world tour next month. But first she takes Elizabeth Day on a mini-tour of her favourite places in the bohemian New York suburb she's made her home.

It is an unseasonably sunny September morning in Brooklyn and Martha Wainwright is not wearing any pants. 'I kind of forgot to put any on,' she says, straightforwardly, as if it is something I should be aware of.

Wainwright, 32, is clearly as open in conversation as she is in her music. Since the release of her first album three years ago, she has accrued a loyal following for her blisteringly confessional lyrics and raw, sensual vocals. This, after all, is the woman who wrote a song dedicated to her father, the folk-singer Loudon Wainwright III, entitled 'Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole'.

Her second album, I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too, released earlier this year, includes collaborations with Pete Townshend and Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen. Sam Taylor-Wood took one of the sleeve photographs and the Booker Prize-winning author Michael Ondaatje once sent her a letter of admiration. 'Handwritten,' she says, proudly. 'On the most beautiful paper.'

It is an impressive fan-base. Coolness seems to attach itself to her like burrs on a pullover, so that perfectly ordinary things seem suddenly exotic simply by association. Her favourite drink, for instance, is a gin and tonic, which Wainwright makes sound almost poetic: 'I battle with juniper,' she says, her voice all smoke-crackled huskiness.

Born in Montreal, Wainwright moved 10 years ago to Brooklyn, New York, a place she values for its ragged-round-the-edges charm. It is a bohemian neighbourhood of brownstones and second-hand bookshops. Even the graffiti looks like a Jean-Michel Basquiat. 'I'm not recognised here and it's useful in that I don't have to worry about how I look,' she says as she takes me round a selection of her favourite local haunts. 'Even if they did recognise me, they are too cool for school to say so.'

In many ways, Wainwright embodies the same languid ease and mussed-up style. Today, she is wearing gladiator sandals and an off-the-shoulder red dress made out of floral material that looks like something out of the 1978 Laura Ashley catalogue. Naturally, it is vintage. 'Do you like it?' she asks. 'I got it for £5 at the Big Chill festival.'

Part of the reason she moved away from Canada, a land more often associated with singers of near impossible awfulness such as Celine Dion or Shania Twain, was to escape the long shadow of her musical family. 'I wanted a bit of anonymity,' she says, and it is true that the Wainwrights' shared back catalogue makes the Von Trapps look, well, a bit amateurish.

Loudon has recorded more than 20 albums and been nominated for two Grammys. Her mother, Kate McGarrigle, forms one part of a French-Canadian folk duo with her aunt, Anna. Her older brother, Rufus, has been touted as the most extraordinary singer-songwriter of his generation. And when Wainwright got married last year to Brad Albetta, her bass player and producer, Emmylou Harris and Ed Harcourt played at their wedding. That's quite a lot of reputation to live up to.

'My family is a defining element of my story,' she admits. 'Sometimes I wish I could escape from it but then I'm sure I'd feel very lonely. It's so weird having parents who do the same thing because they don't have to pass my inspection. They were doing their thing before I was alive so it's a strange thing that I feel I have to try and impress them.'

Her mother recently underwent treatment for cancer - Wainwright does not want to give details beyond saying it was 'a very rare' form of the disease - and many of the songs on I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too are infused with intimations of mortality. She is un-afraid of self-examination. 'I wish I'd had a [religious] faith,' she says, 'to have that peaceful bliss and stupidity. I didn't want to use the details of my mother's illness but, at the same time, there was this big elephant in the room. I mean, it's kind of selfish of me but I went ahead and spoke about death and fear of death. She's OK now. Having someone in the family with cancer makes you realise how many people live with it. At first you think, "Oh my God, she's going to die". Then you realise that medical treatment can ensure you live as long as possible.'

Wainwright insists there is no competitiveness with her brother because their musical styles are so vastly different - Rufus, three years older, revels in a certain kind of operatic pop, lush with strings and crescendo. Martha's music is a far more pared-down folk-rock, her voice a blend of honey and grit.

'When we were growing up we needed to be separated all the time. He tortured me because I was his younger sister. We had physical fights. He tried to suffocate me with a pillow.

'Once we started playing music together and I was his back-up singer for a while, that gave us something to focus our attention on. He's kind of ahead of me [musically] in some ways; he's my mentor.'

Her relationship with her father, however, is more chequered. Wainwright's parents divorced after a three-year marriage when she was one and Loudon decamped to America shortly afterwards, pitching up occasionally in Montreal for the summer holidays. For a long time, she felt he did not believe in her. When Wainwright first moved to Brooklyn to try her hand at performing in a string of tucked-away whisky bars, Loudon did not support her financially and kept asking why she didn't get a proper job.

'He did not take me seriously,' she says now. Has that changed? 'Yeah, well he recently got remarried [to his third wife in 2005] so we're both newlyweds and have newlywed conversations. He was saying that he thought my minister was a lot better than his, he was impressed with our choice of prayers...' She breaks off, laughing. 'I'd always been a bit of a wild child and I think that, in a sense, since I've "settled down" - quote unquote - he sees that as a good thing. I think it calms him.'

Is he proud of her? Wainwright looks intently at her bright-red painted fingernails. 'I hope so,' she says, after several seconds. 'I think so, on certain days.'

There is something intensely likable about this guileless honesty. It is unusual to find someone so unaffected by fame and so apparently unconcerned with how they might be portrayed. She does not spin myths about herself. When I ask her what she has on her backstage concert rider for her forthcoming UK tour, I half-expect her to recite a rock-star list of demands incorporating crates of Jack Daniel's and packets of Marlboro reds. 'I think there's some tomato juice,' she says, after a moment's thought. 'Porridge oats. Local postcards with local stamps. Oh, and underwear.' Underwear? 'Yeah. People run out of it. It's useful to have a spare set.'

• Martha Wainwright's UK tour starts in Portsmouth on October 18;

Martha's favourite haunts

Marlow Sons

Marlow Sons is Wainwright's favourite place for morning coffee or an evening meal of oysters and Muscadet. 'Or they do great steak here I take it medium rare. I like anything that bleeds.' The sign above the door is written in white copperplate and the green-and-white striped awning gives the place a spick and span old-world feel. Inside, it resembles a Victorian village shop. The dark wooden shelves are lined with green glass bottles and an old-fashioned meat slicer sits on the counter. 'This restaurant opened the year I got here and the food is very good,' says Wainwright, sitting at a corner table, her eyes adjusting to the dimly lit gloom. 'They get good local produce from a farm upstate. It's a total hipster place: the waiters here are probably more successful than you are.
Marlow Sons, 81 Broadway

Bedford Cheese Shop

Nestled between shoe stores and pavement cafes, the Bedford Cheese Shop stocks a panoply of tempting delicacies wheels of cheddar, wild boar sausages and the sort of English foodstuffs that edgy Brooklyners would no doubt find ironic, such as packets of PG Tips. The Village Voice awarded it best cheese shop in New York City in 2003 and its website gives every single product a stinkyness rating. 'I come here when I really want to impress the in-laws,' says Wainwright. 'They are Italian-American so when I want to get approval, I come here for parmesan. Brad [her husband of a year] has a twin brother who looks identical but has a totally different life. He is a schoolteacher married to a nurse so Brad and I are the bohemians.'
Bedford Cheese Shop, 229 Bedford Avenue

Williamsburg Bridge

Williamsburg Bridge stretches across the East River, connecting the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the edge of Brooklyn. A pedestrianised pathway runs along one side, with priority given to cyclists. 'You have to keep to the left to let them past,' says Wainwright as she poses for photographs, eyes skimming the distance anxiously in case any bicycles are coming up behind us. The suspended iron girders are covered in peeling pink paint, set against bright blue sky. 'It was red but the colour has totally faded,' says Wainwright, who walks over the bridge every day. I like the subway line that runs alongside it. I like how rundown it is. I live in a Hassidic neighbourhood and often you see all these Hassidic women pushing prams up and down like its an exercise class.'


Bonita is a preserved 1927 Brooklyn diner, located on the ground floor of an expansive brownstone building. The interior features many original touches chrome bar stools, mosaic tiled walls and spherical light fixtures that hang from the ceiling.

Wainwright comes here for the simple Mexican food, including braised beef enchiladas, fish tacos and delicious vegetable burritos. 'I love Mexican food,' she says, scanning the lunch menu. 'I recommend the lime soup and the guacamole, although it's kind of hot.' She orders the soup and it comes as a steaming bowl of vivid green liquid with a piece of chicken floating in the middle.

'It's good, she says. This is kind of Mexican food for white people and that's totally fine with me.'
Bonita, 338 Bedford Avenue


Elizabeth Day

The GuardianTramp

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