Rufus and Martha Wainwright: ‘When Mum died, we sewed ourselves together again’

The famous musical siblings revisit their fractious childhood relationship and recreate an old photograph

Rufus and Martha Wainwright in 1980 and 2021. Later photograph: Florian Thoss/The Guardian. Styling: Katharina Kosellek. Set design: Cinzia Grundke. Hair and makeup: Magdalena Wlodarkiewicz
Rufus and Martha Wainwright in 1980 and 2021. Later photograph: Florian Thoss/The Guardian. Styling: Katharina Kosellek. Set design: Cinzia Grundke. Hair and makeup: Magdalena Wlodarkiewicz

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Internationally revered singer-songwriters Rufus and Martha Wainwright are as known for their theatrical artistry as for inter-familial rifts. The children of two famous folk singers, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, their bohemian childhood was split between Montreal and New York, before Rufus rocketed to fame with his self-titled debut, a further nine albums and two operas. Similarly prolific, Martha has released seven albums, the latest of which she is now touring. Martha lives in Montreal, with her two children and partner. Rufus is based in Los Angeles with his husband and daughter, and is touring the UK this month.

Martha

Throughout our childhood, Rufus and I fought about everything. We were quite scrappy, physically. Once, when I was a toddler and starting to walk, I ran down the hallway and he stuck his foot out. There was a lot of that. But something shocking happened that traumatised him. When he was about the age in this photograph, six or seven, there was a high, exterior staircase outside our mother’s house. One time he fell, cracked his skull open and ended up going to hospital. He is convinced I tripped him deliberately. I don’t know if I did.

When we were kids we lived in Montreal with our mum, but would spend long summer weekends in New York with our dad. At night we would often try to out-sing each other; see who could stay up the longest, singing as loudly as possible. He won every time.

I was less than a year old when my parents split up. My brother and I unfortunately witnessed our parents bad-mouthing each other. We were affected by that, but banded together. We had to hide our love for Dad’s girlfriend because my mother was angry. There was resentment and anger towards my dad – Rufus and I would speak French to each other, which he didn’t understand. We teased him. We made his life difficult, but a moment later we were totally adoring. It was this big tug of war. It’s a classic divorced-kids kind of thing.

With Rufus’s first record (1998’s eponymous album), there was a lot of hope. A feeling from the label of: OK, throw some money at this guy, he is amazing. I’d never been exposed to that in music before; my parents’ success was up and down. It all felt very exciting. But I was jealous of him. I had already started writing songs and, like any artist, I had a fantasy about becoming famous, too. Deep down, I already knew that it was not going to happen to me. It was not going to happen twice.

I was right there with Rufus as a young person – we did a lot of drugs together. But he took it further. I’d be with him at the party, but then he would disappear behind a curtain and you’d lose him. I wasn’t going to cross that threshold – it was a different group, (crystal meth) was something else. It was too far for me.

I couldn’t encourage him to go to rehab, because I myself am not sober. But he had enough people in his life who could help him through that, like Elton John. Rufus likes to brush shoulders with famous people; that’s something he feels comfortable with. Elton has experience. He was able to see the red flags and guide Rufus.

Losing Mum (in 2010) made Rufus and I much, much closer. In our early 20s, we wanted to do our own thing, so we did, for 10 or so years. But when Mum died, we needed to support each other and become incredibly positive about one another. The love that our mother gave us needed to be replaced. So we sewed ourselves together again, repaired ourselves. We became one. It was like going back to a cellular level.

Rufus is incredibly sane. He has taken hard knocks really well, with a lot of reflection and acceptance. And he’s even more talented than he thinks he is. Which is a lot.

Rufus

Legend goes that when my parents brought Martha back from the hospital after she was born, everybody crowded around her, so I took a glass of grape juice and poured it on her. It was a ceremonial welcome. I was a precocious two-year-old and had a lot of attention until she arrived. Understandably, I was very perturbed.

I was never the protective older brother. I was keen to dominate most situations – and Martha expressed a kind of brutal self-defence method from very early on. The minute you went for a pinch of skin, she turned into this tigress. If anything, I was afraid of her. I liken it to the relationship between a cat and a dog. I was very much the dog. My bark was much bigger than my bite. I tended to loaf around, I was needy of attention, always lapping it up. Whereas Martha was very quiet, a little cooler. But if you attempted to cross her, she was ferocious.

Martha had her own little dalliances with hedonism. What was more troubling on my end of drug addiction was that I would disappear from everybody. I would go off alone into these jungles of insanity; nobody would hear from me for days. It was hard on Martha and the rest of my family. But it was a turbulent time for everyone: my mother was basically a functioning alcoholic, Martha was struggling to keep her career going in the shadow of all of the others around her, and my dad was pretty confused by the whole thing. Eventually I went to rehab. Before I left, Martha wrote a very beautiful letter to me. It was great. Although I had to wait for her to deliver it; I was waiting and waiting. That’s typical Martha; always fashionably late.

We both had an intense relationship with our mother. Kate and I were so close. We were bound in this insane gay son-mother way that enveloped us. Martha felt left out. With my father, it was the polar opposite situation. I was always seeking him out, lonesome for his attention, and felt very disconnected. Martha really didn’t care about him in that sense. She loved him, but was able to move on from the situation at an early age. I was swamped by it.

When our mother was dying, Martha and I were able to come together. She became more central. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be there for the actual event: Martha’s son was born prematurely so she was in hospital at that time. But I could be.

Our mother’s greatest dream was for us to form a duo. Martha and I weren’t able to do that when we were young because we had to find our own path, but there is something to be said for what my mother saw when the two of us sang together. There is a power there. Maybe we could have been a wildly famous Osmond kind of thing.

The biggest change to our relationship has been becoming parents. Martha gives me advice: how to be patient, to give space. How to bring up a girl. And in a strange way, all our fighting growing up has made our relationship stronger. It gave us a chance to reconnect when we were navigating our way through adulthood.

Martha never ceases to amaze me. I am sure it’ll always be like that. Until the bitter end.

Contributor

Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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