“This book has been a thorn in my side for almost seven years,” writes singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright near the close of her engrossing memoir, an account produced through the lonely tumult of a custody battle, in the wake of grief, then galvanised by new hope. “I’ve burned copies and used the backs of pages as scrap paper on which I taught my kids addition and subtraction,” she continues. “An early draft was used as evidence against me in my divorce case.”
Much like her album of last year, Love Will Be Reborn, which processes some of the same material, very little feels off-limits in this slim but jam-packed book, full of very good times in the circus that is a performer’s life as well as very bad times. Wainwright is, of course, a singer-songwriter of great acuity and candour with six solo studio albums under her belt, with a surname that is both gift and bind. She was born into an extended family of artists who have a habit of skewering one another in song and print. Her late mother, the Canadian folk artist Kate McGarrigle’s song Go Leave is about her ex-husband, the US singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, whose When You Leave also ponders the fallout of his departure on their then young children, Martha and her brother, Rufus, also a singer-songwriter. Well before the stars of social media, you could argue the Wainwright-McGarrigles have long provided a much more genteel, bohemian sort of dysfunctional showbiz dynasty to boggle at. Their extended clan forms part of a wider folk and entertainment pantheon that stretches from Montreal to LA via London and New York, so there are also walk-on parts in this book for everyone from Emmylou Harris, friendly with Wainwright’s mother, to Pete Doherty, wasted at Glastonbury, via US TV’s Jimmy Fallon, a long-time pal of Martha’s.
Wainwright’s own 2005 launch pad of a single, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, was, legend has it, about her complicated relationship with her father. Here, though, she says Loudon was more of a springboard for a wider j’accuse aimed at entitled men and unfair practices, not least how the world received the sons of famous singer-songwriters (such as Rufus and his friends Sean Lennon, Chris Stills and Harper Simon) so much more enthusiastically than the daughters. We learn, too, that Loudon’s cruel song about preferring solitude to female company, I’d Rather Be Lonely, is about Martha, not a lover. Finding that out in public actually hurt her far more than another song her father wrote about her called Hitting You.
Wainwright’s is, at heart, also a very female story, full of difficult births, of dumping pumped breast milk after too much wine, of balancing the demands of an unconventional career and now single parenthood. There is much closeness with her mother, her aunt Anna McGarrigle, and another aunt, Teddy; love and loyalty offset by everyone’s flaws.
The echoes down the generations, though, are startling. Kate McGarrigle had a long relationship with her bass player, Pat, who was a solid stepfather to the young Martha and whose abrupt removal from her childhood still feels raw. More recently, Wainwright’s estranged partner, Brad, used to be her bassist.
As Kate’s cancer takes hold in 2010, Martha gives birth prematurely at a London hospital, where mother and child remain for some time before baby Arcangelo is strong enough to leave. A lifetime previously, Kate and Loudon Wainwright had a frail baby in a hospital just down the road. That baby didn’t make it.
Despite this book’s manuscript being weaponised against Wainwright in her divorce, the stories that she might regret telling are not, you suspect, the ones about her brief period smoking heroin as a younger woman, or the time she blacked out and split her head open (more drugs), but the occasions where her shame runs on the page. While her mother is ill and resting, already fighting the cancer that would end her life, Wainwright gets wrecked with her friends within earshot on two separate occasions.
Open wounds fester in her wider circle too. Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard, was once one of Wainwright’s very closest childhood friends; so close she helped her choose her wedding dress. “If I were to paint her portrait,” writes the singer now, “there would be a wide and deep backdrop of still burning bridges.” Her brother, Rufus, and Lorca have a child together through sperm donation. Reading between the lines, the co-parenting arrangements have probably not gone as smoothly as hoped.
Is it any surprise, given everyone’s lineage? This is a memoir full of talented, headstrong people recycling their pain as songcraft; of ambitions pursued or curtailed, and of love frequently tinged with other things – rivalry, frustration, not measuring up. For all the epigenetic baggage, though, it is above all the story of Wainwright’s gutsy, instinctual pursuit of her own muse.
• Stories I Might Regret Telling You by Martha Wainwright is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply