Lucy Wainwright Roche recalls being four or five years old when she first found herself being brought up on stage. The incident in question occurred at The Bottom Line Nightclub in New York City where her older half-siblings, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, were performing. Despite having a more than healthy dose of the performance gene (her father is renowned songwriter/actor Loudon Wainwright III, her mother is fellow singer/songwriter Suzzy Roche), the situation quickly turned ugly for the more introverted young girl.
“I just burst into tears and someone had to come and take me off-stage,” Roche recalls with a laugh. “I was really shy, painfully shy.”
Today, that petrified girl has now released her sophomore LP—a collection of 11 original compositions and one cover (a mournful interpretation of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”) entitled There’s a Last Time for Everything. The title’s melancholy, bittersweet nature perfectly augments the album’s content—tales of heartache and loss anchored by Roche’s distinctive voice. And what a voice it is. Boasting the power and crispness of a Neko Case with the heart-breaking vulnerability of a Patty Griffin, it’s the kind of vocal work capable of making even the most hardened musical aficionado stop in his tracks and think, “who is that?”
Jumping from the lushness of opening track “The Year Will End Again” to the more sparse sounds of “Last Time,” the album features vocal contributions from the likes of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Robby Hecht. Yet, it’s Roche and her angelic vocals that are the true stars. It makes it all the more difficult to believe then that Roche was, at one point, determined not to follow in her family’s footsteps.
Naturally, being the child of two working musicians, Roche grew up surrounded by the arts. While her parents divorced when she was two and she only saw her father sporadically over the years, Roche was given a more-than-proper musical education courtesy of her mother.
Ironically, this constant exposure to the world of music combined with the high-profile nature of her family proved a bit taxing for Roche as she hit her teen years. Upon graduating high school and entering Oberlin College, Roche had every intention of bucking her family’s traditions and going on a different path. While she still participated in the arts by booking artists for the campus coffee shop and organizing an annual film festival, she stayed away from performing.
“I kind of stepped out of the family fold in college, which I think a lot of people do,” she explains. “During high school was when my brother’s career really began and so he was starting to be in a lot of magazines and people knew who he was. [Martha] was coming up close behind him. I think, for me, it was just that I didn’t want to be compared to these people. I’d had enough. So I really stepped out of that for a while and really didn’t think music was something I was going to be working on.”
After college, Roche moved to New York City where she worked towards earning her masters in education, teaching a class of third-graders in the process. Despite her attempts to eschew the family business, however, destiny came calling when one summer, Rufus called and asked her to accompany him on his latest tour as a back-up singer.
“I don’t know what convinced him that he should try to make me do that. But he had an inkling that that would be good and he talked me into it,” she recalls. “I almost didn’t go, it was very last minute. He was like, ‘we’re leaving tonight, get on the bus, let’s go!’ I almost didn’t go. My friend Emily was like, ‘we’re going home, you’re packing your bags, you’re getting on the bus.’”
To hear Roche tell it, the experience opened a whole new world for her.
“I had a great time. It was fun to sing in front of big audiences. So all that was very attractive. But also I think it sparked a deeper, personal connection to being on the road and doing music that maybe I’d stepped away from.”
Returning to New York and her class, an invigorated Roche began turning her attention to writing songs. Many of these early attempts, she now admits, drew inspiration from an unrequited crush she had on one of her work colleagues.
“There’s a whole cluster of very early songs about that person. And also, I’d just been through a break-up, so there was a whole cluster of those.”
A year after her formative tour with Rufus, Roche quit her job to pursue music full time. As with anyone who has ever switched careers, however, there were some bumps along the way. She describes her first solo show as an absolute nightmare.
“The very first show I did alone was at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York and it was terrible,” she claims. “Oh God, it was so terrible! I was so terrible! I can’t think about it without shuddering.”
This disastrous set was subsequently countered by her second show, which took place a venue right around the corner from the Rockwood called The Living Room. Halfway through her set, Roche had an epiphany that she says she’s carried with her ever since.
“It suddenly occurred to me that the best thing I could possibly do was behave as my normal self. And that was the turning point. I was thinking I had to be some other way. Some people are really good at building [stage personas] and that’s their thing. They’re sort of aloof and mysterious. It turns out I’m not good at that. The best thing for me to do is act normally and talk to the audience.”
Inevitably, for anyone remotely familiar with the North-American music scene, the Wainwright name and its subsequent branches (including the Roches and McGarrigles) carry some serious artistic cache. Much like the Coppolas in the film community, another talented member tends to pop up every few years. While Roche was certainly aware of the attention and ink (positive or negative) that the name would bring, it’s a connection she claims has never proved overly burdensome.
“Of course, I’m sure it helped,” she explains. “Some people probably take an interest in giving my record a listen because they are a fan of someone else. On the flip side, people can be more critical of you. People can be tired of hearing from the Wainwrights because they’re a lot of us. So that can backfire. But, for the most part, it’s been a good thing. I feel proud to be a part of the family and it’s mostly helped me more than it’s hurt me.”
On top of that, performing as part of the Wainwright clan has allowed Roche to grow closer to both her siblings and her father.
“It’s rare that adults get to revisit those kinds of familial relationships in a long-term way. Plus, when you’re on tour together, there’s a common goal and usually you’re getting paid, so it’s a great way to take a family vacation.”
That being said, given the family’s reputation for penning lacerating, deeply personal compositions (see Loudon’s “Lullaby,” Rufus’ “Dinner at Eight” and Martha’s “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole”) Roche says she often finds herself and her family members at the receiving end of some less than flattering comments.
“People say such weird things to you about your family members when they’re in the public eye, things they would never say if they were regular people. Sort of like, ‘I think that member of your family is ugly.’ You would never do that normally! But sometimes when people see people on posters or on TV or hear their records, they feel like they can say that kind of stuff…There is a certain amount of honesty that we’re inviting for ourselves because we’re all going out and blabbing about stuff…People feel like they know you and I think that’s great…mostly.”
Of course, there are still parts of Roche that few either know or would guess, including that she’s a massive Eminem fan. Moreover, she knows every word to “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” and has even entertained the idea of performing it as cover. For now, she’s mostly focused on touring behind her latest record. Incidentally, her performances are now plagued with problems that surely no one who witnessed that tearful little girl being carried off-stage all those years ago could have foreseen.
“I’ve gotten so un-shy that sometimes I talk so much that have to cut songs from my set,” she says, laughing. “Now it’s the opposite problem.”