Exclusive: Martha Wainwright has written the tell-all we've been waiting for
Martha Wainwright knows you want to ask about her famous family – everybody does. And after a lifetime of fielding curious questions about her mom and aunt, Canadian folk icons Kate and Anna McGarrigle, her dad, American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, 75, and her brother, baroque pop star Rufus Wainwright, 48, she's finally ready to dish with new memoir Stories I Might Regret Telling You.
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"I thought if I cold really delve into it super fully in this book, you know, write about it in detail," says Martha, 45, "maybe I could exorcise that story, release it and make room for something else."
If these walls could talk! Martha is raising her family in the Montreal home where, as a teen, she lived with her mom, late folk legend Kate McGarrigle, and her brother, Rufus Wainwright. She calls it "a warm and fuzzy cage I'm extremely fond of." Photo: © Royal Gilbert
While the apple didn't fall far from the tree in Martha's case – like her parents, she fills albums with confessional songs, and she lives in her late mother's house in Montreal – she has done things her own way and has a few of her won stories to tell.
Stories I Might Regret Telling You is a no-holds-barred look at her rebellious childhood and conflicted feelings about her parents; her sex, drugs and rock and roll years in New York City; being a caregiver to Kate when she got cancer; Martha's dysfunctional marriage (to music producer Brad Albetta) and difficult divorce; and her contented life now with her sons Arcangelo, 12, and Francis, 8, and her new boyfriend, carpenter Nicolas Deslis, 51.
"I was a little shy to talk about him," Martha tells HELLO! Canada. "But he was something so positive that showed up at such a dark time, and maybe it shows that the second half of my life will be a little easier than the first half."
HELLO! Canada: Congrats on the book, Martha! As you say in the title, though, there are some stories you might regret sharing.
Martha Wainwright: I think once it's in the world I'll have to go into hiding. [Laughs] No, I'm really glad I wrote it, I don't regret it at all. The title has always played a part in what the book was going to be about. I was always willing to walk that line; it's in keeping with how I've always expressed myself in the world.
"For better or for worse, music is the family business," Martha writes in Stories I Might Regret Telling You, which is filled with anecdotes about Kate and Rufus.
Jann Arden, who loves the book, said, "I felt like I had made a new friend, the kind you wish you were cool enough to have but have never had the courage to pursue." That must have meant a lot.
I've had the opportunity to hang out with Jann at festivals and things like that over the years. And I've always just been on the floor laughing – she's hilarious and brilliant. And she has something I don't have, which is the pop touch – she really knows how to write and create more commercial music, but doing it in a way that's so beautiful and true.
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You write about sibling relationships, having seen the McGarrigle sisters up close and having a larger-than-life brother yourself. What's your sons' relationship like?
I never expected to be around this much male energy, between Nico and the two boys – and now I'm thinking about getting a dog and he's a boy! I adore my kids and always want them around me. But they have a very physical relationship, which sometimes drives me crazy, because they wrestle and they fight. My brother and I fought, but I think that because we were different sexes we kind of also did more of our own thing – we would shoot off and have our own friends. My boys are like magnets to each other.
Rufus and Martha with their late mother, Kate, in 2009. Photo: © BILLY FARRELL/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Rufus has said that you and he grew even closer once you had children around the same time.
We've been through so much together, having grown up together and also playing music together a lot. And then going through losing our mom quite early. And now we both have kids. I have two, he has one – and we're both not with the other parent. But I'm kind of tougher on my kids and, well, Rufus has a beautiful daughter, and he loves beautiful things and he loves to buy her beautiful things and then he complains she's got too many Gucci bags or whatever. I say, "You have to stop buying her ponies!" But as parents we connect, and it has helped us to forgive our own parents for their mistakes and see them for the humans that they are.
Left: Martha's aunt and mother, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, with their children (Rufus and Martha are standing in front of Kate). The two women performed and recorded as a duo and were "stunning, enigmatic, every talented and charmingly aloof," Martha says. She's also a "big fan" of her dad Loudon Wainwright III's music. He's pictured right with Martha's son Francis in 2014. Photos: © Randi Saharuni and Martha Wainwright
You talk about your distant relationship with your dad. Did he surprise you at all when he became a grandparent?
He did surprise me! He's much more present in many ways. Unfortunately, he's in New York and we're in Montreal, and that makes it harder, and having my kids only half the time makes it harder, too. But the few times he's come up or we've gone down, there's an instant connection and an instant interest that the children have with him. And he's able to do it his way – which is, play some songs and sort of entertain, and then he has to go lie down. [Laughs]
Martha says her sons' relationship is magnetic. Photo: © Royal Gilbert
There are plenty of mature themes in the book. When do you think you'll feel comfortable having your kids read it?
I had thought that my kids would probably never read it because I've found that even bookish kids don't want to read their parents' books. But then I realized when I was doing the audio book, "Shoot, my son has a phone and buys audio books and he could just download it." I was as careful as I could be to try and not put anything in there about their dad that would hurt them. That being said, I felt I needed to say something, to touch on my experience.
You do write that while the marriage didn't work out, you had a pretty fantastic wedding. Your close friend Jimmy Fallon serenaded you both with a medley of Doors songs!
It was a great wedding. But some weddings are less about the bride and groom and more about the event – and this was one of them. We weren't the centre of attention at that wedding; there was Jimmy Fallon and Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Rufus. We weren't the most special thing. But still, it was superb.
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"Arc wants to learn my songs and is really drawn to music, which of course I welcome," Martha says of her eldest son. Photo: © Royal Gilbert
How did you first connect with Jimmy?
We had a friend in common and we just hung out a lot in New York when he was still on Saturday Night Live but was being groomed for late night. We were going to lots of restaurants and doing karaoke, which he's incredible at because he's so musical and he has an incredible memory. I was totally smitten, me and everybody else. I don't see him as much now. He's in another stratosphere and I get it. He doesn't want to come to Montreal and see my messy house. [Laughs]
The book ends on a happy note, with you in love and moving forward. What's next?
You know, I'm finally feeling good about myself and the way that I look, and after meeting Nico I'm feeling exalted and free – I wish I had felt that a little earlier. And having written so many personal songs and now this book, I'm coming into a new phase of songwriting. From now on, I only want to write hits. [Laughs] I should have made that decision 25 years ago!
This piece originally appeared in Issue 814 of HELLO! Canada magazine.