It's hardly a surprise that Martha Wainwright grew up listening to music. As the daughter of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III - professional singer-songwriters who also inspired her brother Rufus to enter a career in music - music was both in her blood and in her home, growing up Montreal. "I was really attracted to my mother's record collection," she says. "We liked foraging through it to discover things."
That sense of history and discovery is a big part of her current project, Sans fusils, ni souliers, à Paris: Martha Wainwright's Piaf Record. A collection of 15 Édith Piaf chestnuts, recorded live in New York, the album is a surprisingly personal statement by a singer who, initially, wasn't entirely sure she wanted to make an album of someone else's songs - let alone perform them, which she'll do at concert dates across the country this week.
How did the album come about?
Well, it wasn't my idea at all. Although it spoke to me, because I have been a Piaf fan since I was about 7 or 8, I thought it was a bad idea when it was first proposed to me by the producer Hal Willner. We got to know each other, and when he realized that I could speak French, he approached me to do this project.
At first I thought, oh, no, that's terrible, me singing Je ne regrette rien or whatever. But then in listening, I became more interested in her choice of songs, because so many of them were written for her, specifically, by different types of writers, and they span a lot of styles and eras.
So I felt there was a huge palette there that I could somehow bully my way into as a singer, and do something with.
One of the things that struck me about the recording was that it sounded like you, not like a Piaf album
Well, I tried to approach the music as a singer, and build the songs from the bottom up, as if all we had was the sheet music, say.
And although I didn't want to do something completely modern, I thought it would be great to infuse the music with a different sound, which is why I wanted Doug Wieselman on the electric guitar. It was a way to modernize it without going all the way.
Some bits sound fairly punk, and it's not just the guitar.
Well [chuckles] Édith Piaf was sort of punk rock, and I say that only because in the end what this material required was singing on "10" all the time. There's such an intensity to it.
Also, the material's really hard. There are a lot of words, and French is not my first language. My accent's pretty good, my French is pretty good, but some of this stuff is really tongue-tying. It was very physically demanding.
You're doing Piaf through the summer. Are there more songs by Martha Wainwright on the horizon?
I hope to start working on that after the summer's over. I'd like to make another record, and have something out this time next year.
But I started to write something for a ballet last year, called Tears of St. Lawrence. It was a totally different format for me, because it was written for dancers, and a bit less focused on my own personal life and lyrics. It's more sort of an orchestral idea, because of the movement that was in the piece. So that's a springboard for the next thing. It'll have a slightly different sound, and be more evocative in a visual way.
Writing for ballet must be difficult, because you're composing for people who haven't decided what they're going to do yet.
It's true. But I was inspired by own mental choreography. [Laughs]I guess my inner ballerina was coming out.
Martha Wainright performs at the Salle André-Mathieu in Laval, Que., on Thursday , at the Great Hall in Toronto on Friday , at The Centre in Vancouver on Saturday , and at the Pantages Playhouse in Winnipeg on Sunday .
This interview has been condensed and edited.