Great Lyricists: Martha Wainwright

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Leo Tolstoy

As part of an established and prodigious musical family with a penchant for gloomy prognostications and delivering interfamily emotional torpedoes via their music, Martha Wainwright has some deep and wide reservoirs of experience to tap into with her song-writing.

At a concert at the Open Air Theatre in London in 2010, Wainwright admitted on stage to not being terribly prolific since releasing her self-titled debut album in 2005, but her reasoning was sound enough. In that time she’d had a baby, dealt with the death of her mother, and then there was the fact that her music is depressing – all enervating to be sure.

The casual allusion to writing ‘depressing’ songs gives the sense that her music is more craft than art, a type of occupational slog, but you don’t just stumble upon the type of songs that crowd out Martha Wainwright’s musical career by studied measurement and by gluing disparate bits and pieces together.  That type of distanced approach to song writing smacks to the listener of inauthenticity and has led many a song-writer to produce top 40 songs on the US charts.

The wellsprings of Wainwright’s affecting and powerful songs reside not out there in the world as other people’s discarded half stories and lyrical flotsam to be meshed together, but inside her own family history.  Writing barbed songs for loved ones is sort of a family tradition amongst the Wainwrights with father Loudon penning the song ‘I’d rather be Lonely’ – the subject matter a 14 year old Martha who was then living with him at the time.  In return she sent her father back a musical missive of her own in the form of the pithy song ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’.

To carve out a space in this world is difficult enough but when you’re the youngest member of a family who are all accomplished musicians, how do you not feel like you aren’t just painting by numbers and slavishly following a tradition? You could try acting for two years as she did, or you can write some brilliant fucking songs.

Although her lyrics deal with dysfunction and a war against the visage of the healthy self and healthy relationships, she’s like Kate Bush in the sense of being constantly tethered to the sensual and emotional world, even if this one is a lot more smoke filled.

Anyway, without further ado, my top 10 Martha Wainwright songs:


  1. Four Black Sheep (Come Home to Mama – 2012)


Lyrics: Jesse’s been drinkin’ again and again he won’t believe, he can’t believe/We can see right through his soul


  1. Comin’ tonight (I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too – 2008)

Lyrics: I spend my time, trying to forget you/With booze and smoke from cigarettes and dope/I only seem to forget myself


  1. Factory (Martha Wainwright – 2005)

Lyrics: These are not my people, I should never have come here/The chick with the dick and the gift for the gab/I know a place I’ve seen the face/And I’ll take the coast from factory to factory


  1. Everything Wrong (Come Home to Mama – 2012)

Lyrics: I do most everything wrong/Even on the day you were born/My husband’s been lying and cheating/And I turn my cheek and reason/I change my tune everyday


  1. Bring Back my Heart (Martha Wainwright – 2005)

Lyrics: So find it amongst/All the other broken ones/It’s probably somewhere near the top/When we last hooked up


  1. Around the bend (Goodnight City – 2016)

Lyrics: I never get laid/people like to refrain/watch out for my lies/ watch out for my creative take


  1. These Flowers (Martha Wainwright – 2005)

Lyrics: You are like a flower/You rise & rise to the sun/You do not look back at where you came from/I want to be like that/That


  1. This Life (Martha Wainwright – 2005)

Lyrics: This life is boring/This life right now is snoring/But that’s alright it’s okay/It’s still worth living


  1. Far Away (Martha Wainwright – 2005)

Lyrics: Is someone here keeping the score?/Is there only dying at your door?/Taking me down off this cross/Lay me down, down, down in the dust


  1. When the day is short (Martha Wainwright – 2005)

Lyrics: I don’t care if you/If you love me tomorrow just/love me tonight and I/I will be alright/I’ll be alright/I’ll be alright/Until tomorrow night

*originally appeared in In Review