Martha Wainwright: ‘I wouldn’t have written memoir if my mother were still alive’

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Martha Wainwright at Glastonbury Festival in 2008
Martha Wainwright at Glastonbury Festival in 2008

As she releases a witty and painfully honest memoir, Martha Wainwright tells Alex Green about her famous family and how those early years shaped her.

The second chapter of Martha Wainwright's memoir begins with the line: "My dad's work comes first."

The singer-songwriter, descended from North American folk royalty, is telling the reader about her father's commitment to music, above even his romantic partners and children.

But it is not clear whether she resents or admires him for this.

"A big part of me wishes that I had that same feeling about my work," she explains from her Quebecoise home.

"Because I recognise that is how to be very good at it and to be successful, and to also be really appreciated.

"Especially in art, because if you want to be considered one of the greats, usually those people really live and breathe their work. And I don't as much, and I guess I envy it.

"That being said, I also disapprove of it."

Music and family have always been intertwined for the 45-year-old, daughter of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and sister of the singer-composer Rufus Wainwright.

Like her music, Wainwright's searingly honest and entirely charming memoir, aptly titled Stories I Might Regret Telling You, dissects these familial bonds and her bohemian childhood between Montreal and New York.

"When the agent called me and suggested it, it really appealed to me. It appealed to my vanity and my ego," she admits with a laugh.

"As artists we all think, 'I'm a musician, I must be able to paint as well'. And have these dreams of being these well-rounded artists who can do it all.

"But it was a lot harder, as you can imagine. It took a lot of work. I didn't have any discipline as a writer and it's a much more complicated process than writing songs - it was for me."

The book took nearly a decade to write, waylaid by a divorce and other life events, but the pandemic finally gave Wainwright her chance to finish it.

Intended as a counterpoint to the ubiquitous macho rock memoir, she wanted to highlight her own indirect path and the tales of her mother, who died in 2010 aged 63 of cancer.

"These were stories that were already told in other contexts - either in songs or even in books like my dad's, for instance. So they are known. I thought that was allowed.

"I talked about my mother openly, because she's not alive, so I thought that was allowed. I don't think I would have written it if she were alive.

"So I felt that I was able to say these things. Also, some of the stuff I felt I could say, because they are my stories and they happened to me, even if I was a baby at the time."

The title of the memoir points towards a further reason for omitting some stories.

"I wanted it to be interesting and funny and fun and emotional and titillating and all of the above," she admits. "But I guess I wanted to not regret it, basically."

Wainwright, a mother of two, instead writes movingly about relationships, divorce, the termination of pregnancies and the trials, tribulations and rewards of having children.

Not your usual tales of rock and roll debauchery.

Wainwright also addresses the challenge of being the boss of your partner.

Her ex-husband, the bassist and producer Brad Albetta, worked with her until their divorce in 2018 after a decade of marriage.

This was mirrored in some of her mother's relationships.

"The power dynamic in my marriage and my relationship with my ex-husband, Brad, when it shifted it became problematic.

"I don't know why that is exactly. But in my experience, when I started off as a younger female artist, I was looking up to men for assistance and for guidance and for teaching.

"And then that relationship changed because when you are the artist, it's Martha Wainwright up there on the banner.

"Then you have to assume the role of the leader and the person who's getting paid, and the person who's then going to pay people and all that other stuff.

"And I think that it was really important for me to be able to do that, and to have that independence.

"And I think that's also why even though I play with musicians, and enjoy playing with musicians, I always know that I can do it on my own."

Wainwright's path into music was not as direct as that of her brother, who was the first artist to be signed to the new DreamWorks Records in early 1996 and won instant acclaim for his self-titled debut album.

She only released her self-titled debut in 2005, but it won rave reviews.

Did she feel pressure to match the successes of her parents and sibling?

"I liked it from the beginning, to be perfectly honest," she says of the spotlight.

"I see pictures of me as a child - seven and eight - enjoying the stage and the attention, and from an early age getting to participate in that."

She remembers looking at her parents and thinking: "That seems like a fun way to make a living."

Music was also the easiest option and meant avoiding the unpleasant task of getting a degree.

"But then I felt guilty about that too, because I felt like you're just feeding off of somebody else.

"Somebody has created this world for you and you're just fitting yourself into it happily.

"You're not challenging yourself to get a doctorate in something else and actually learning something.

"I was hard on myself and embarrassed that I would do exactly the same thing as my parents and my brother.

"Maybe it was a laziness that I had. And I felt bad about it.

"But hopefully what that did is make me insist that I have my own voice and style and be very definitive."

Following in the footsteps of her parents and brother meant breaking the UK, a country with its own rich history of folk and songwriting.

"The embrace that I felt from your country in particular really propelled me to continue and to take the real steps.

"I was really happy and relieved that finally I was getting to do Jools Holland.

"After having watched enviously my brother do it, and my parents and all these other people around me, and how it had eluded me for some time.

"Not for any other reason but my own inability to make it happen. It's not anybody else's fault.

"So it was a great relief that I was worthy, which is such a terrible word, but that I was allowed to be involved in this tower of song, which is such a big thing.

"Because if I hadn't been able to find my way into the tower of song, wherever I am in it, it would have been really hard. I would have felt really bad.

"I would have felt worse - and I already felt pretty s***** as an insecure young person."

Stories I Might Regret Telling You has a happy ending of sorts.

Her father has read the book, and while he contests some of the facts, has offered an overwhelmingly positive review.

"He was very moved and touched by the book," she explains.

"He seemed proud."

Stories I Might Regret Telling You by Martha Wainwright is published on March 31.

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