The past few years have been strange for quirky Canadian crooner Martha Wainwright. There were downs (she and her brother Rufus dealt with the passing of her mother, legendary folk singer Kate McGarrigle); ups (marrying her longtime producer Brad Albetta, the birth of her baby boy Arcangelo); and in-betweens (a backing-vocal stint on the last Hole album “Nobody’s Daughter”). But her toughest challenge was “Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, a Paris,” an album of Edith Piaf covers recorded over a three-night run at New York’s Dixon Place Theatre in 2009. She channels The Little Sparrow again tonight in The City.
Why do you appear so regal and grown-up in the family Christmas photo on your website? That’s not a real photo, it’s a Photoshopped composite! But yes, indeed, I grew up, and thank God. There have been a lot of things recently that have forced me to grow up, although things haven’t changed that much. But when you get married, have a child, buy a house — like we did in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn — you take on new responsibilities.
The death of a parent always changes things, too, right? Yes. And I’ve found that I no longer have someone to help me make decisions, someone that I would normally count on to do that. I was very close to my mother, and I really liked getting her advice. So even though I’ve started my own family, I’m actually much more alone now than I’m used to.
You recently covered Brecht/Weill in “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and now Piaf. Are you getting more into history, musically? Well, I’ve always listened to Piaf, always listened to Brecht and Weill. So Rufus and I always sang standards and old songs. But the Piaf project was the idea of the producer Hal Willner, who sent me hundreds of her songs. So I started trying them out in little venues around the city, and then I became interested in doing not only a tribute to Piaf, but also the songwriters of her era, using her catalog to draw from.
But it wasn’t easy, right? I can’t sing exactly like her — I’m not an actor. And she also sang much faster than me. And although my French is pretty good, it was still a pretty far reach for me to get that original phraseology, and get it out without my jaw falling off. But I wanted to nail every nuance, and all the poetry, of her songs, you know?
You’ve started writing songs for your next album. Are they mom songs? No. I would say they’re centered more on Kate’s passing than being a mother. That’s more my genre — sad songs. At least for the moment.
IF YOU GO
Where: Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. today
Contact: (415) 885-0750; www.gamhtickets.com