Martha Wainwright: 'Edith Piaf became the ghost behind all that I sang'
Martha Wainwright explains her passion for the tragic singer that inspired her to record an album of her songs
Edith Piaf was a favourite singer of mine when I was a kid. Aged 7 or
8, my brother Rufus and I would belt out her songs, particularly Milord, at the tops of our voices. I don’t know why — maybe it’s that
emotive singing voice of hers, that sense of complete vocal abandon. That’s very appealing to a child. It seemed so elemental and raw. My appreciation of her has remained a constant.
But when Hal Willner suggested that I do a record of her songs I wasn’t sure. He proposed the idea a few years ago and I was concerned about the popularity of a new film release, La vie en rose, which reintroduced Piaf to the world as well as gaining her many new fans. I didn’t want to seem redundant by doing an album of her songs. I also knew that the French might judge a record of her songs harshly, considering her stature as a national icon.
Then I realised nobody in France would notice anyway. I mean really, there are benefits to being below a lot of people’s radar, one of which is freedom. So I decided to go ahead, completely confident that Hal and I could enjoy this great experience of performing some of the most interesting songs I had ever come across.
Hal Willner is a very interesting and smart man. He has produced some of my favourite artists, such as Marianne Faithfull and Laurie Anderson, and made a couple of records that have stuck with me. The main one being his tribute to Nino Rota, Amarcord Nino Rota. That album and album cover transfixed me in that transient time between childhood and adulthood. I thought I could see myself behind those sunglasses. At least I hoped I was somewhat like that woman.
It was an introduction in many ways to the art of unconventional and brave album making. Too often as an artist who sits somewhere between pop and folk-rock art music I get lost in concerns of how I am to be portrayed or am viewed by the public. In doing this record, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris I feel unshackled, like the title, and free to simply interpret the songs. Of course it’s intimidating for me: she was a master, and it was a daunting prospect.
I didn’t do too much research into Piaf’s life before making the album. I don’t look like her and I’m not an actor. She became the ghost behind all that I sang and hopefully I conjure something of her. I have a great amount of respect for Piaf. The power of her music, the crackling emotion of it, is rooted in our knowledge that these songs of longing and pain are from her own life. Her story is told in those lyrics. That’s why, as an icon, she endures today.
We made this record over two days in a small venue in downtown New York called Dixon Place. Known primarily as an experimental theatre space, the setting allowed us to present the music in a very direct way and record it at the same time. We were wired to a recording studio upstairs run by an old family friend and we invited a small audience to the two performances a night. The focus was to make an album but also to capture the excitement of a live show. It was challenging because the vocals all had to be done in one take without stopping.
Often in a studio recording an engineer will compile a vocal from many vocal tracks; a trick of the trade which can often lead to pretty disappointing live television performances. I also had to read the words. There was no way in hell I could remember all of them. I surrounded myself with great musicians and away we went with no real knowledge or any idea where the show would take us. The core group, my husband Brad Albetta on bass, Thomas Bartlett on piano, Doug Wieselman on guitar, and myself had performed some of the material twice before in small settings to see if it could work as a show.
The strings and horns had only been added in rehearsals in the days before the recording. Everyone on that stage knew we had to get good performances without the opportunity to do them over and over. We leaned on the brilliance and power of the music, our ears and the chops we had gained over the years. Although this album is more a presentation of me singing Piaf songs than it is a tale of Edith Piaf, her complete abandon as a singer and person inspired me to put all of myself into these performances. Also when you are singing songs that have been so well sung and recorded there is a great want to rise to the occasion and honour the writers as well as Piaf as a performer. I wanted the way in which we recorded it to mirror Piaf’s off-the-cuff style. Rufus’s tribute to Judy [Garland] was on a grander scale.
I grew up in Montreal, Quebec, which is why my French is pretty OK. You can still hear a little accent on this record and a couple of mispronunciations. Hopefully it’s considered charming. Sometimes there were just too many words!I didn’t want to do a Piaf record at first. I thought: “Why, what’s the problem with hers?” But having been asked and then doing those first couple of shows, I realised that the material and the story that can be told by doing one artist’s songs are powerful. This record is not really a tribute to Edith, it is more of a tribute to, or simply renditions of, an eclectic group of songs sung by Piaf.
Hal Willner and I thought it would be best to stay away from her most famous songs, although there are still a bunch that can be recognised on the album. This fact of course has become a bit of an argument with the record label, but that is not new for me. My mother and I did do a quick and dirty version of La vie en rose at the end of the set so the audience could sing along. We sang it off mike. I think it will be released on iTunes, which is a bit embarrassing. My mother Kate is humming away as she finds the chords in the most beautiful way. I sound not great.
And then the old question comes back. People asking me if I was inspired by the film La vie en rose, or La môme as they call it in French. To be honest, I never saw it. I heard it’s really great but I never got around to going out or taking it in and I can’t say I love the idea of it. It’s depressing to think that the other person portraying Edith these days is such a great beauty. I never wanted to try and be Piaf for this record. I just liked the songs. Besides I don’t look anything like her ... or Marion Cotillard unfortunately. I’m blonde and as anyone who will be at the Barbican next month will notice, very pregnant. Something that is decidedly un-EP.
I read somewhere that Piaf means bird or sparrow, which I think makes a lot of sense for her. But not me. My voice isn’t very birdlike, more like man’s best friend. What I did do, like Edith, was take myself to the edge when I recorded it. I put myself under so much pressure in the recordings and scattered some of my own tormented fairydust over the lyrics. I wasn’t singing in my own language, I’m reading these lyrics in front of a live audience, we’ve had five days of rehearsal . . .
Next, I’d like to do a similar thing with Janis Joplin and her songs: another voice and character, totally intense and on the edge, that I have long admired. There are so few women celebrated for being strong and distinctive in music like Piaf and Joplin — we should celebrate them.
Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, a Paris. Martha Wainwright’s Piaf Record is released on Nov 9 on Republic of Music. Martha Wainwright sings Piaf at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), on Nov 11
Times members can see Martha Wainwright perform Piaf live on Sun, Nov 15, at the Pigalle Club, London.
Tickets are £75 for preshow dinner and show, or £40 for the show only. Both tickets include a signed limited-edition copy of her new album. To buy tickets, or enter our competition to win a pair of front-row seats, simply visit timesplus.co.uk
Flight of the sparrow: the life of Piaf
1915 Born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Paris, her mother was a café singer and her father a travelling acrobat. Abandoned by her parents, she was raised by her paternal grandmother, who ran a brothel in Normandy.
1929 Joins her father’s travelling troupe, where she first sings in public 1930 Begins singing on the streets of Paris 1933 Falls in love with Louis Dupont, a delivery boy, and has a daughter, Marcelle, who dies at the age of 2.
1935 Discovered by the nightclub owner Louis Leplée, who gives her the nickname la Môme Piaf (the Little Sparrow) 1936 Leplée is murdered soon after Piaf releases her first record; Piaf is accused of being an accessory but is acquitted 1940 Jean Cocteau writes Le Bel Indifferent with Piaf in mind as his lead 1945 Writes her most famous song, La vie en rose, and performs at German social gatherings during the Occupation 1946 Having become widely known in France, Piaf begins touring Europe and the United States. By 1963 she had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show eight times.
1949 Piaf’s great love, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, dies in a plane crash 1951 Seriously injured in a car crash, from which stemmed a later dependence on morphine and alcohol.
1952 Marries the singer Jacques Pills, whom she divorces in 1956 1962 Marries Théo Sarapo, a hairdresser-turned- singer 20 years her junior 1963 Records her last song, L’homme de Berlin, and soon after dies of liver cancer