Martha Wainwright’s memoir explores heartbreak and bitterness, but also love and forgiveness

  • Stories I Might Regret Telling You
  • Martha Wainwright
  • Simon & Schuster, € 17.99

Martha is the daughter of the folk singers, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and her brother, Rufus, is a singer and opera composer.

Martha joined the family business and is a celebrated singer-songwriter whose six solo albums are distinguished by her candid lyrics and a voice that blends defiance and vulnerability.

In Stories I Might Regret Telling You, Martha infuses her intimate, unsparing, and deliciously-titled memoir with the qualities that define her music.

Shortly after Martha was born, her parents divorced and Martha lived mostly with her mother in Montreal.

But as a teenager, Martha spent a year with Loudon.

It inspired him to write the song I’d Rather Be Lonely, which includes the lines: “I think that I need some space / Every day you’re in my face / How can I get rid of you?” The complicated relationship Loudon sardonically captures in his lyrics receives a more nuanced treatment here.

Although she believes Loudon “experienced his children through the lens of songwriting”, Martha admires his intelligence and commitment to songcraft and career.

Stories I Might Regret Telling You Martha Wainwright

For mother Kate, who performed with her sister as Kate & Anna McGarrigle, the tensions of balancing a music career with family responsibilities was an exhausting struggle – strains that are echoed in Martha’s life.

In Stories I Might…, Martha charts a tempestuous mother-daughter relationship.

Kate wanted to be lots of people (“an Egyptian queen, a devoted nun, an Irish Republican”) and competed for attention with Martha, who always felt judged and dismissed by Kate, who once told Martha she was “the definition of mediocrity” . The turning point in their relationship was Kate’s 2006 cancer diagnosis.

When Martha knew Kate was dying, her resistance to her mother melted away and she started loving Kate “the way a small child adores her mother”.

Yet even the visceral pain Martha felt when her mother died in 2010 is eclipsed by the anguish Martha experiences during her divorce and subsequent separation from her two children due to the joint custody arrangement with her ex-husband, Brad Albetta, who played bass in Martha’s band.

Their marriage is portrayed as tenuous and abrasive while Albetta emerges as self-absorbed and cavalier.

But like most of the book, Martha’s antenna is fine-tuned to the coal-black humor of her problems.

After the couple purchased a house that needed renovating, “Brad bought a toolbox and proceeded to lower the property value”.

The book is haunted by Martha’s debilitating self-doubt.

From an early age, she is insecure about her looks. Despite her critical acclaim, she questions her voice and musicianship.

After her divorce, she believes she is unworthy of love.

“I’m terrible at folding laundry, yes, but I dust regularly and I’m a good cook,” she writes as though trying to convince us of her domestic credentials.

A refrain of the book is Martha’s keen understanding of how her unconventional family shaped her.

Acknowledging the paradox of singing songs on stage that articulate feelings she’s unable to say in private, Martha recognizes that while music might have connected her family to their emotions it simultaneously “protected us from them”.

The book barely made it to press. Martha spent nearly seven years writing the manuscript, often abandoned it, and Albetta used an early draft against Martha during their divorce case.

Stories I Might… is about heartbreak and bitterness, but also about love and forgiveness.

The book, underscoring its capacity to surprise, is dedicated to Loudon and is unmistakably imbued with a ferocious desire to honor the memory of Kate.

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