Life and art are a repeating mirror for Martha Wainwright

Martha Wainwright is the same animal whether spilling secrets on stage or spilling stew in the kitchen. The Canadian singer-songwriter is so comfortable in her own skin that she doesn’t even mind fans pestering her in restaurants, and her 2022 memoir, Stories I Might Regret Telling You, is as raw and honest as her lyrics – and as she is being interviewed via Zoom.

Martha Wainwright. All photos: Gaelle Leroyer.

No snapshot of her life could be more apt than the St Patrick’s Day party she hosted in her small Montreal music club, Ursa. Featuring many of her singing friends (some coming from New York), it was open to the public, and Wainwright cooked food for all. “I was running between stirring this stew pot and singing some Van Morrison, and then mopping the floor later,” she says with a laugh.

Only one pursuit is sequestered from the rest of the hurly-burly: songwriting. “When I want to write songs, no one can be present,” she says, describing the process as not only intense, but embarrassing. Daily life – such as caring for children – both interferes with her writing and infuses it. “A lot of the life stuff that happens that’s difficult – whether it’s divorce, dealing with a young teenager, relationships, money, or being menopausal and ageing – gets put into the songs,” she says. “And I think that it does help me to deal with some of them. If it weren’t for being able to write songs, I think I would be in a worse situation.”

So she chooses emotional candour over being an emotional wreck. “When an experience has been maybe too hurtful or aggressive or something, I’ve tried to make it poetic and interesting in some way,” she says, “and try and connect with some inner truths that hopefully resonate with people.”

If the writing can be harrowing, performing the songs is more celebratory (“You don’t want to just watch someone falling apart!” she quips), with the applause she receives completing a therapeutic loop. “I always liked the stage, and singing made me feel good – even though it also made me feel terribly insecure… But that becomes less as time goes on because you just accept who you are. So it’s a little ecosystem that’s ticking along that I don’t really want to let go of. It’s magical, but it’s also necessary now, because I support my family, and I don’t really want to do anything else.”

Perhaps it was inevitable she’d end up in this particular ecosystem, her divorced parents being the revered singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle, and her brother the genre-bending composer/singer Rufus Wainwright. In preparing Stories I Might Regret Telling You she checked with Rufus about such matters as how she’d depicted their mother’s disappointment in his homosexuality, but she showed her father nothing. “I didn’t think it was a good idea because I didn’t want to feel edited,” she says, “and because he didn’t ask me when he wrote his book!”

When her father did read it and rang her, Wainwright had just survived a high drama. “I was on a mountain, and it was very icy, and I slipped and almost fell to my death. As I was slipping down the hill, my partner grabbed my foot and then the other person that we were walking with grabbed his foot, and they pulled me back, and it was this crazy moment. Then my dad called me and said these nice things. He was really moved and he loved it.”

If he quibbled about her version of some events, he came to an acceptance. “It was like this very beautiful loving moment,” she recalls. A subsequent launch show he attended, however, comprised of both readings and songs, hit him hard. “So we went through it,” she says. “We always do this, the Wainwrights: we talk it out, yell it out, cry it out or whatever…

Martha Wainwright. Aall photos: Gaelle Leroyer.

“The outcome remains a father and daughter relationship like many,” she continues. “But in the case of my father, it’s also the passing down of a torch because it’s so obvious – especially when I sing on stage alone with my guitar – how influenced I am by him and his music, whether I want to be or not. I mean, the songwriting is not exactly the same, but there are a lot of similarities, and it’s a more that we have the same life.”

As she does with Rufus. Asked if the family was a competitive environment, she says her father “could have been annoyed sometimes that his children were taking up some of the bandwidth. But recently – and in some ways after this argument over the book – he’s become really proud, and is able to say that.”

She believes her obsession with truth and soul-baring has compromised her commercial success, as has her aversion to playing the stardom game of carefully primped and plotted careers. “If there’s one thing that I’ve never been, it’s strategic!” she laughs.

Nor in her love life, until finding her current partner in her 40s, after a messy divorce that limited access to her children. In the book she says it was only then she started to grow the thick skin her therapist recommended, even if it’s not a skin in which she feels comfortable – perhaps, I suggest, because vulnerability is the lifeblood of her art. The idea intrigues her.

She also writes about being taught to be an outsider within her family. “I think being a misfit of sorts was the goal!” she exclaims. “My mother was very proud of her different lifestyle. We grew up in a well-to-do neighbourhood, and we stuck out like a sore thumb with our outfits and the fact that they were folk singers.”

If being an outsider goes hand-in-hand with her vulnerability, the pay-off comes on stage, “in the light, on a pair of high heels, in a position of power…  Yes, I’m vulnerable,” she admits, “but I’m hopefully always winning them over – and not falling apart!”

Martha Wainwright Australian tour: