Photos, clockwise from left: Martha as a child (Martha Wainright Collection); with her family on the ice (Randi Saharuni); Stories I Might Regret Telling You; Martha and Rufus, singing (Martha Wainright Collection)
Stories I Might Regret Telling You
In a Q&A with Martha Wainwright about her memoir, the singer-songwriter talks about envying her famous musical family, taking lots of drugs, bisexuality, abortion and divorce / BY Kim Hughes / March 29th, 2022
Books don’t come more aptly named than Stories I Might Regret Telling You, the wildly readable memoir from acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright. Seven years in the writing and steeped in dish on her famous musical kin — namely, brother Rufus Wainwright and parents Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III — as well as many marquee performers, producers and hangers-on in their rarefied orbit, Stories paints an unvarnished picture of a remarkable life without boundaries.
Wainwright matter-of-factly lays out — without apology or a plea for sympathy — her substance use, affairs, abortions, clashes with her hyper-talented, often mercurial family, and her bitter divorce from long-time musical collaborator Brad Albetta, with whom she has two sons, Arcangelo, 12, and Francis, eight.
The effect is often breathtaking. “Loudon told me when I was a teenager that he didn’t want me at first and pressured my mother to have an abortion,” Wainwright, 45, writes in an opening passage. “My mom freaked out just as the procedure was about to start, though, and the doctor spoke up.
“He was concerned for her and he pointed out that Loudon and Kate were married, had some degree of financial stability, and had one child already, my brother Rufus. Maybe not the best reasons to bring a child into the world, but I’m glad the doctor opened his mouth.”
If Stories is a breeze to read, Wainwright admits it was a formidable effort to write, especially since important relationships – with her ex-husband, and with Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca, with whom Rufus has an 11-year-old daughter, Viva Katherine, are now fractured.
Plus, as Wainwright jokes in an interview from her home in Montreal, “this was written in midlife, so it’s not like I’m going to be dead in a few years.”
Why write this book now?
I was asked to. A book agent had contacted me about eight years ago when there were some successes with musicians writing books. It appealed to my vanity and ego to think I could do such a thing. They offered me an advance, which I took. I didn’t do anything for a year. Then I realized I actually had to write a book and that it was going to be hard (laughs). It’s not something I had any experience doing.
You don’t mention keeping journals. How did you piece this together?
I’m terrible at journaling and had very few records of the past, which is why the book is emotionally driven in terms of the stories I remember and the things that stuck with me, because I am not referring back to calendars or journals of tours.
Any reservations about opening yourself up like this?
I was okay having people ask me about my personal life, but there were some issues of liability to contend with. I had to make some phone calls to some of the people mentioned in the book to get their clearance, or at least give them a heads-up that there was going to be mention of alcohol and illegal drug use. As expected, all those people were fine with it. I mean, no one is taking more drugs in the book than I am. I didn’t want to target anyone or upset my dad too much, which was a tightrope to walk. But so many of these stories have already been touched upon in songs, in interviews, as well as in my dad’s memoir [Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things], so some of this stuff wasn’t coming up for the very first time.
You mention in passing that your mother, who died in 2010, was bisexual, “though she hid it.” Was that well known?
I don’t think so. I mean, this book would not have been written if my mother was still alive. I say in the book that I was bisexual when I was young. I think many women were. I remember many of my girlfriends were. I just assumed that was something people in my generation and those before us experimented with, but didn’t really talk about.
Presumably you didn’t need legal clearance when it came to your brother, your aunt, Anna McGarrigle, or your dad, but did they have sign-off?
I didn’t get sign-off, but I tried to write what I felt and not disrespect or take anyone down. I certainly talked to Rufus, a lot, asking how he remembered certain things. I interviewed him and much of what I talk about here, he told me in those interviews. With my father, I had to get clearance on certain songs, and he was able to figure out what I’d be talking about based on the songs I was quoting. He’s very proud of the book. He read it a few weeks ago and contacted me, saying he was moved by it. He dismissed any discrepancies and accepted my version of the story. He felt I captured the gist.
You admit to being jealous of your father’s talent and dedication to his craft. Did writing about those feelings soften them for you?
The envy I felt towards my father and, to an extent, towards my brother and mother as well — their commitment to their lives as artists — I feel I’ve overcome by virtue of having done this for so long, having released records and played shows and, now, having written this book. I’m in a place where I finally feel equal. It’s not that I’ve reached a goal; there’s still so much left to do. But I am satisfied that I am doing what I can.
Which of the many revelations in your book do you expect to be the most scandalous?
Don’t know. The book starts with a mention about abortion, and I go on to talk about abortions I’ve had, so that might offend some people. But scandalous … I’m not sure. I mean, there’s lots of drugs and alcohol discussed. I had to tread very carefully with my divorce and my ex-husband because, although there was more I could have said or wanted to say, it was not good to say it.
I don’t think he’ll like the book, but I don’t think he would like anything I had written. The sense I get from people who have read it and journalists I’ve spoken with the last couple of weeks is that the overall message of the book is love and kindness, even though there are people being attacked. My dad has a target on him. I talk about some men in a way that’s not great. But the gist is tolerance, love, hope for peace. This is just one woman’s story. I think people will identify with it even if they don’t come from parents in the music business. People will recognize themselves in stories about broken, modern families.
Just as a matter of record, did you call your mom Kate or is that a device to help the reader?
I called her mom. I never referred to either of my parents by name. I mean, I would introduce her as Kate, or if I talked about her I’d call her Kate. I remember one time in my 20s I referred to my father as Loudon and he did not like that at all. In fact, I think I called him Loudy, which is what his siblings called him. It made him very angry.
You mention a falling out with Lorca Cohen, but don’t elaborate on it. Can you?
No, that would be dangerous (laughs).
Has that impacted your relationship with your niece, Viva?
My niece, like my children, is protected from animosity between her parents. When you have parents that don’t get along so great and there has been court stuff and custody battles, the goal is to protect kids from that information as much as possible. You must learn to be a good actor. I’ve seen first-hand that my own children are very sensitive to even the slightest indication that I’m insulting their father. They don’t like it. My generation saw a lot of that sort of name-calling, and of course my parents spoke negatively about each other. [The divide with Lorca] has impacted my relationship with my niece in that I don’t see her as much as I would if I were still friendly with her mother. But with the time I do have with her, I try and keep it as positive as possible.
You take obvious pains in the book to avoid bad-mouthing your ex-husband. He’s not exactly cast positively, but neutrally.
Well, I try and cast him in a positive light, but that hits me in a neutral zone (laughs). That was the hardest part of this process. There were two years where I didn’t touch the book because I didn’t know how to write about this very difficult, traumatizing, painful thing I had experienced. And when you’re writing a memoir and talking about abortions and drugs and sex and your parents, and then all of a sudden there is this big thing that happened that you can’t really talk about, it’s very hard to figure out how to incorporate it without being sued or having terrible things happen.
It was very dangerous. I battled with that a lot. I put a lot in and took a lot out and cried a lot, I said goodbye to a lot of things. I try to make peace with some things, and I try to land somewhere that is acceptable. I’m sure I’ll pay some price. But it was important to me to at least intimate how hard it has been, but also to talk about Brad, who I lived with for almost 15 years and made a lot of music with. He played a huge part in my life, so I had to find a way to talk about him. I hope it comes across that he is a talented musician and there were some good things there. But it would have been false of me to pretend it was all good.
If this book is made into a movie, who should play you?
Maybe Charlotte Gainsbourg? She knows about mothers. That would be the French version. In the English version, it would be Maggie Gyllenhaal. And I should play my mother.
What will success look like for you with this book?
I have no idea. I didn’t know if it was going to get done. Just having finished it was huge for me because it was a difficult thing to do and has been hanging over me for a long time. With records over the years, I have learned to temper my expectations. Every time I make a record, I hope to get nominated for a Grammy, but I don’t think I’ve even been nominated for a Juno (laughs), so what I hope for doesn’t seem to work. I like attention and I wanted to be famous when I started, and I was driven by that. But it’s never materialized in hugely obvious ways, though it has in other ways. People recognize me on the street, people like my music and seem to appreciate it. And I am trying to learn how to believe them.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.