Martha Wainwright: ‘My happiest decade is also my saddest – this decade’

Martha Wainwright, 46, is an American-Canadian singer-songwriter, daughter of folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and sister of singer-composer Rufus Wainwright. She has had to work throughout her life to come confidently into her own with piercingly honest songs that tell it like it is – and how it was. Her disarming page-turner of a memoir, Stories I Might Regret Telling You, mixes steadiness with vulnerability.

Throughout your life, your career has been talked about within your family context – is that a blessing or a curse?
I used to see it as a curse but am learning to take it as a blessing. The blessing also came as a responsibility after my mother died [in 2010]. There was a vacuum created by a great artist who had taken up a lot of room in my life, for better or worse. There was a need not to fill her shoes specifically but to live up to whatever I could do. Not that I’m saying I’ve achieved that…

Has your readiness to put yourself second held you back?
Someone sent me a picture from Boston airport of my book next to Spare. I wished I could send the photo to my dad to say: at least mine [childhood] wasn’t as bad as that [laughs]. There’s a hierarchy in families that pushes people into roles but my lack of ego comes mainly from myself.

Would you describe it as poor self-esteem?
Definitely. I was intimidated by people around me – and by other artists. It took a long time to build self-belief. I was recently sent a picture of me at 13 with Rufus at 16 – he was beautiful and remarkable. I feel lucky to have had him – and still have him – as a brother.

Rufus Wainwright, Kate McGarrigle and Martha Wainwright in 2009.
Rufus Wainwright, Kate McGarrigle and Martha Wainwright in 2009. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex

Your self-image tends to be more negative. Never the femme fatale or gorgeous blonde but “loud, quirky, nice”. Do you find it hard to see yourself as others do?
I’m always surprised when I find I’ve been perceived as a – I wouldn’t say full-on sex symbol – but that some people find me attractive. After my divorce, at the age of 40, people [suitors] came out of the woodwork and I thought: wow…

Stories I Might Regret Telling You is a great title – how much do you regret?
Things I regret led me to find out who I am. Even things that proved difficult – my career at the start, marriage, my very difficult divorce…

Would you agree marriage is as much about luck as anything?
There were things about me that brought me to unlucky decisions. My parents were bad parents so that didn’t help [laughs]. I called a family friend, Chaim Tannenbaum, when going through my divorce. I said I was worried for my children and about all the time they’d be spending with their father and he said: “Well, there are many examples of great people who had terrible parents… such as you.

With Kate on her deathbed, Rufus and I were forced to become adults very quickly

How does music help through dark times? What do you listen to when you’re after a pick-me-up?
I oftentimes gravitate towards sadder music that matches my feelings. When Chrissie McVie died, I listened to Songbird, a song I sang when I was 15 – obsessively.

You write: “My dream in life was to be a mother and a singer – to be able to do both equally well.” How hard is it to be a mother?
What I was not expecting was having to co-parent. That is most challenging. Parenting now is about holding on but has also to be about being able to let go.

Can we ever know our parents as people?
I knew mine too much. As a young person, my parents told me about their marriage, which was very rock’n’roll and not very loving – that disturbed me. I’ve gone back to watch an early video – my parents were incredibly beautiful, very sexy, impressive to their fans. I think it was too much for me.

Which has been your happiest decade so far?
My happiest decade is also my saddest – this decade. It’s been difficult to navigate not seeing the kids all the time but I met my incredible partner who was a far better choice than any man has ever been. I feel freer than before.

You write about the pull of ordinary life, imagining yourself as a checkout girl in your groovy Montreal supermarket… would you have enjoyed anonymity?
Ever since I was a kid, I liked being on stage. I liked attention. But I could have lived a well-received life as a teacher or something where you’re not an artist but get to perform.

The traumatic birth of your eldest son coinciding with your mother’s final illness sounded overwhelming?
I remember concentrating on the living, making sure the baby was going to survive. My mother made it clear that should be my focus. With Kate on her deathbed, Rufus and I were forced to become adults very quickly – we’d never really been adults before.

It sounds as if you are still in mourning for your mother 13 years on?
Absolutely – it gets easier but it was shocking at first because my mother was young and we felt robbed and also because we’d built her up to be this extension of ourselves.

What are you working on now?
I’m getting agitated because I’ve not written a song in a while. I’ve been touring and am about to go on the road in Scotland and the north of England. Once I’m back, it will be writing time.

  • Stories I Might Regret Telling You is out in paperback on 2 February (Simon & Schuster UK)

  • Tickets are on sale now for Martha in conversation at Waterstones Glasgow on 4 February. For tour dates see