The rock autobiography is typically a male genre, telling tales of excess so competitive that readers could be forgiven for wishing Keith Richards, Neil Young, Roger Daltrey, et al, would break the monotony by taking up wood whittling.
But now comes Martha Wainwright, whose autobiography, published this week, is a female-gaze account of what it takes to juggle relationships, familial and domestic circumstances with life under the stage lights.
Speaking to the Observer last week, Wainwright recalled that while working her way through Young’s biography, Waging Heavy Peace, she felt that none of the stories would be happening without the wealth that came from decades of rock success.
Paraphrasing her fellow Canadian-American singer-songwriter’s account, she says: “I went down in my incredible car, popped over to Honolulu, went over here, got some wood from the floors of the Algonquin room and put it on the side of my beautiful schooner yacht.”
“That’s charming, but [mine] is not a rock biography,” she said. “It’s a woman’s story about a modern family and these things people have gone through – termination of pregnancies, separation and divorce, relationships with siblings, dealing with children, and trying to figure out how to get by and, as an artist, where I chalk up in the tower of songs.”
Wainwright, a mother of two, speaks for thousands of working mothers when she describes the tension of balancing work and home. The daughter of the folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, she recalls her father saying to her mother, who died in 2010 at 63, “the baby or me, or else the baby and the career, but not all three”. The words “really fucked with” her mother, said Wainwright. “It was important for me to say it, because she talked about it. She, like myself, already felt bad enough leaving our kids for weeks at a time to go to places – where people kind of go, ‘Yeah? You’re gonna do that?’ ‘Well, yeah, I gotta feed them.’ We’re easy targets.”
Wainwright was talking while spreading Marmite on toast in her Québécoise kitchen. “I used to put a little on, now I put a lot on,” she allowed. Like many things, it’s a habit that gets stronger. That could be said to apply to her honesty.
Spread around her, she said, was a post-pandemic pile of bills and tax demands. “I’m starting to see and feel the damage done over the last couple of years. I’ve got a lot more wrinkles on my face, the house is an incredible mess, there’s nothing in the bank account, a lot of bad decisions were made, and I’m, like, what happened?”
It took Wainwright, 45, seven years to write Stories I Might Regret Telling You, and we learn from this tender personal survey what it is to be the stray lamb of a folk-pop dynasty. Across four decades, the Wainwrights and McGarrigles – Loudon, Kate, their two children, Rufus and Martha, and aunt Anna – have sung singularly or together for fans, as well as with fellow travellers from Linda Ronstadt to Nick Cave, who asked her mother and aunt to join the Bad Seeds.
But Covid gave her time, Wainwright said, to extricate herself from her story. It began with a devastating single, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, about her father. “I’ve been talking about my family since for ever, and families are interesting but, by putting it down on the page, I’ve maybe freed myself of it,” she said. “I’m letting some things stay in the past, and looking to create a new story, with new love and a new family with my own children.”
Clearing the decks comes with an opening-page punch: her father pressuring her mother to have an abortion. “I had always felt a little out of place in the world, and knowing I’d only just barely made the cut didn’t help any,” she writes.
Her musical inheritance wasn’t as daunting as it can be for some rock spawn. “Rock often comes with grandiosity. I come from folk, I still sing with my brother, and there’s goodwill in my family. We always had to sing together, and show up for each other, so there’s a mutual appreciation among the annoyances.”
Next week, Wainwright will be in New York to celebrate the life of the music producer Hal Willner, who died in the early days of the pandemic. It will be a coming together of the people that he touched. Likely as not, the sound of harmonising voices will be the bond that holds the event together.
“When everybody is civil and kind, and that impulse is creative and upheld by a harmony in the voice. That probably goes to singing with your community, going to church or singing with your neighbour. You don’t turn to them afterwards and punch them in the face.
“It’s one of the reasons we sing,” Wainwright mused. “Certainly, it’s the glue that’s held this family together.”