Picture yourself in a dark basement club in downtown Montreal, small votive candles burning away on each little table. Across from you is a woman with a raspy voice smoking a cigarette, telling you her life story in between sets on stage. She is surprisingly forthcoming considering you’ve never met, but she seems have this urge to tell you everything about her life, even the shocking fact that she was almost aborted save for a doctor speaking out minutes before the procedure was to begin. Stories I Might Regret Telling You by Martha Wainwright instantly transported me to this (fictitious) place in my mind because I was at turns enthralled, surprised, and weary of the life I was learning about. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to be born into a family of musicians, but Wainwright offers us a glimpse into this often hard-to-believe world in her memoir.
Martha Wainwright is a Canadian folk musician and the sister of better-known Rufus Wainwright; her father was Loudon Wainwright III and mother was Kate McGarrigle. Not being a big music person (books are quite obviously all I have the bandwidth for), none of these names really rang a bell for me, but the lack of familiarity actually worked in Martha’s favour, as I was much more likely to believe anything she tells me considering I don’t know any different. Martha lived through a somewhat challenging childhood – her mother travelled a bit for her work and was eccentric in her own right, plus her father was largely absent, even when she moved to New York to live with him. She struggled to differentiate herself from her family’s musical reputation and blaze her own trail, but she also did a lot of drugs and partook in many drinking binges while on tour herself, so she readily admits she self-sabotaged more often than not. The book also focuses on the death of her mother Kate, the birth of Martha’s two sons, and then her eventual divorce, so she is no stranger to grief, although it seems to fuel her creativity and artistry. There’s even some juicy little celebrity gossip, including the fact that Van Morrison hit on her in a “uninteresting and sad” way (p. 230 of ARC).
The feeling of intimacy is woven throughout this book is various ways; as I said, it feels like Martha is speaking directly to you, and only you, as the writing is very conversational in style – she throws in quips, self-deprecating jokes, and at times can jump back and forth from inner musings to the continuation of a story, so we get the feeling that she is learning about herself as she moves through these memories.
So much of her book takes place in the aforementioned clubs I was imagining; nothing too big because she’s not a huge superstar, but nice enough that the musical acts are taken seriously and people have paid to see just her perform. She happily writes about her debaucheries on the road with her crew and ex-lovers, but her thoughts on her family are the most honest, and interesting to read. Being born into a family of artists intent on growing their own careers can be a lonely place at times, and although she gives her father credit wherever she can in able to understand his distant manner, it’s hard not to see him as anything but a narcissistic jerk. She jokes about Rufus’ selfishness too, but being her brother, he is much less responsible for the obvious feelings of inadequacy Martha is fighting against, those which are so clearly rooted in her father’s apparent disinterest.
Even though it appears as though writing this book could be considered an act of catharsis for Martha, it’s clear that she’s had time and space to consider these major life events from a safe enough distance that now offers her a better perspective. She herself admits to self-sabotage when it comes to the partying she did on the road, and well before her divorce, she sees the signs of how destructive her marriage and relationship was on her mental health. But she also looks back on these times that she initially believed as heartbreaking, were actually incredibly joyful, unbeknownst to the pain ahead of her; death, divorce, and precarious childbirths were all in her future, but she was blissfully unaware of it all at that time, just focused on a difficult relationship and a blooming career with all its starts and stops. This book invites us to revel in the joy and despair of her life, all with some entertainment thrown in for good measure.
Thanks for your excellent review! I do not usually read memoirs but this one sounds interesting! I am not familiar with her music but I love the music of her very talented son Rufus Wainright.
Rufus is her brother. Her sons are Arcangelo (born 2009) and Francis Valentine (born 2014)
Ah! I was always confused – ha!
Rufus is actually her brother 🙂 He is very talented, I think they are all quite talented musicians – definitely runs in the blood!!!!
I did not know that, thanks! I am not sure why I thought he was her son!
lots of wainwrights’ to get mixed up, it’s understandable 😉
The names are familiar to me but I don’t really know any of their music. I’m always very glad my parents weren’t celebrities and that I never became famous myself – it rarely seems as if it brings much happiness. I’m glad to hear she can look back on her life and see some joy there amidst what sounds like a pretty destructive life.
Yes, I think having famous parents and siblings would be horrible, for so many reasons. The upsides just don’t make up for things.
I wonder what drew you to this if you aren’t much of a music fan?
well essentially I chose my March theme for my CBC column as ‘strong female protagonists’ so this fit the bill. Unfortunately much of what i choose to read it sort of led by my radio segment and the themes I choose…
Okay between this and Sarah Polley’s memoir, I’ve got some catching up to do with great Canadian women!! I am not a huge fan of Martha’s music, but I did enjoy her stint on Canada Reads. I looooove Rufus though, seen him live a few times and his early albums take me back to the early aughts in a visceral way!!
Oh I had no idea she was on Canada Reads!
How did I not know she was Canadian? I’m more familiar with Rufus Wainwright’s work though even there the word familiar is a bit of a stretch.
I’m completely oblivious when it comes to most music stuff
Saw her play a few times in the mid-2000s and her creepy husband propositioned me after one show! Well, how can I not read this book?!
Oh wow you’ve got gossip of your own! haha
Did you find yourself tempted to explore any of the music or were you content to simply leave her story on the page?
I watched a few youtube videos, and she did a live interview with Wordfest online that I watched a bit of, but I was happy to just read it and move on LOL
Since you’re a mom, I’m going to guess you know Rufus from Shrek, in which he sings Hallelujah ☺️
Actually, he sang Hallelujah in the Shrek soundtrack. John Cale sang it in the film.
I stand corrected! LOL, I truly hate it when the person in the film singing is not the person on the soundtrack. Queen of the Damned? Love Jonathan Davis singing all those songs. The soundtrack? It sounds like a bunch of cover bands, even though they are cool bands.
I had no idea!