I must admit to having written about songs of artists that I’ve had some contact with. It’s been a great privilege in my life to have worked with many of the songwriters on this list. When I hear and see other people doing what I do, it helps to form who I am as an artist. I guess I’ve been shaped by the music and artists who I’ve listened to over the years. Many I envy for their talent, and some I try to emulate in my own way. I can only hope that they feel the same way about me. —Martha Wainwright
Antony And The Johnsons, “Hope There’s Someone” from: I Am A Bird Now
I remember seeing Antony, now ANOHNI, play a lot in the early 2000s and getting a sense of how special she was, but it wasn’t until I Am A Bird Now and this song that Antony became a more realized artist. The right combination of sheer incredible talent, being truly and wonderfully different and an incredible album launched this artist into fame. She pushed out the walls of what is considered acceptable and normal and made the world a better place—a world where a song like this and a voice like this can cradle us in its beauty.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “God Is In The House” from: No More Shall We Part
A beautiful modern-day gospel triumph. I must also say it’s amazing having a mom and aunt who are Bad Seeds. Kate and Anna were the back singers for this album, and I don’t think they even realized how hip they were for being in the Bad Seeds. Of course, they came back from the studio refreshed and looking younger, having fallen in love with Nick and all the guys in the band.
Leonard Cohen, “Tower Of Song” from: I’m Your Man
I’ve been covering this song since I was 16 years old. Not only is it lyrically brilliant, but it speaks to me as a child of musicians. I feel I’m in the tower of song and that the legends around me are like neighbors in life. Such a great concept and image of Hank Williams in the tower and the power of song.
Billie Joe & Norah, “That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine” from: Foreverly
This one is tough because Songs Our Daddy Taught Us by the Everly Brothers was in constant rotation in our house. The record was my mom’s copy, and it has wafted in and out of my life as long as I can remember: Songs My Mommy Taught Me. Everything that Norah does is natural, effortless and genuine. Her voice fits this music very well. I can’t say I don’t prefer the original, but kudos for doing it.
Beth Orton, “Central Reservation” from: Central Reservation
This is a fun sort of “feel good” song from Beth’s seminal record, but it doesn’t lack substance. Nothing that Beth does lacks substance. She is an artist with great turmoil and feeling in her lyrics, and her charm, intelligence and beauty come out in her work.
Prince, “Kiss” from: Under The Cherry Moon
Well, what can you say about a triple threat? The man is beyond reproach, and the song is perfect pop.
Steely Dan, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” from: Pretzel Logic
Steely Dan is one of my favorite bands in the world, which irks some of my friends because they just don’t get the appeal. This is probably one of their most famous songs and is a classic example of quirky, fun lyrics and fantastic musicianship. This song puts me in a mood of unabashed freedom. It makes me want to dance badly and make out with strangers.
Sufjan Stevens, “Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!” from: Illinois
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t both jealous of and a little in love with Sufjan Stevens (despite never saying his name exactly correctly). He came to my birthday party recently and made me a pair of pants. Very cool pants. I wear them with great pride. I love his creativity, and this song is a good example of it.
Richard And Linda Thompson, “Shoot Out The Lights” from: Shoot Out The Lights
This is brilliant! It’s music as communication and language.
tUnE-yArDs, “Water Fountain” from: Nikki Nack
Super fun yet disturbing, too. Merrill is a brilliant artist with a sound like no one else. I remember the first time I saw her on Jools Holland, and I needed to stand up and stand right in front of the screen and watch closer. This is a great song and an example of her wit and ability to make a statement in a powerful way. I’m glad to report that she wrote a song for my new record, Goodnight City, and she plays on it, too, so I sound a little like her, which is exciting!
Rufus Wainwright, “Going To A Town” from: Release The Stars
What a powerful song—an anthem really. Of Rufus’ songs, this one is one of the most direct. It gets to the point and strikes the perfect chord. Rufus has a poetic-yet-unpretentious way of telling it like it is on this song. It makes you want to do better.