Martha Wainwright — you know that famous last name immediately: daughter of singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and sister of songwriter/composer Rufus Wainwright, her mother was the singer Kate McGarrigle (of the singing/songwriting McGarrigle Sisters). Her new memoir “Stories I Might Regret Telling You” is a glimpse inside that famous family, a memoir about a life that has been lived in the public eye from the beginning, and the story of an artist and singer finding a voice of her own.
I’ve never had a real job, except working at a coffee shop the summer I was fifteen and tending bar briefly at the Sarajevo. Music has always been the way I supported myself, except for a stretch of time when I was seventeen and Kate handed over to me the monthly child support check she received from my father, in hopes that I’d learn how to spend and save money. By the time I was twenty-five in New York, I was playing three or four nights a week in different small venues in the city, as well as going out to the West Coast from time to time to perform at places like the Silverlake Lounge, Largo, the Knitting Factory, Berbati’s Pan in Portland, Oregon, and the Crocodile and the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. Coffeehouses and clubs. It was all fairly low-rent — I was still staying on people’s couches — but it was fun, too. Rufus was touring his second record, “Poses,” extensively, so I also sang backup and often did the opening slot, selling my EPs from the merch table.
My brother, who had always liked to party, was partying even harder, and I was right there alongside him. But I was becoming restless to do my own thing. I felt like I was running from a shadow, if that means anything. The shadow of my family, and the darkness of my own self-destructive behavior. I had that chip on my shoulder that my mother hated, and I didn’t want it anymore. So many people believed in me, and it was time to start believing in myself.
When does someone’s music career really begin? When you stand in front of an auditorium full of parents and classmates at the talent show as a kid? When you sing along with your mother? Is it about getting noticed or is it about making money? Well, for me at least, my career only really began after I made my third EP, the one with the song “Bloody Mother F**king Asshole” on it. I guess, in many ways, though I tried to learn from his discipline, that’s how my father helped my career.
I was angry at him in a number of the classic ways a daughter in her twenties can be angry at a dad who wasn’t really there for her growing up, and also because of the way he questioned my legitimacy as a singer-songwriter — I feared he might be right. When I saw him for our rare dinners, he would ask me what I was doing with my time, and I would attempt to justify my existence, not a pleasant experience. But he also challenged me as a songwriter because he himself is so frank in his own songs. I was mad at him, sure, but I was also just mad. Mad at men. Mad at myself.
Once, I stupidly told a journalist that Loudon inspired “BMFA,” and it’s been really hard to correct the narrative. (I’ve been way too open with journalists at times, and I’ve gotten bitten in the ass as a result.) But I’ll say it here: the song is not “about” my dad. He was just the springboard, though he also became one of the targets. Though I was a “daughter of ” twice over, doors seemed closed to me, in stark contrast to the attention paid to the “sons of ” musical stars. I knew and hung out with all those boys, in New York and LA: Teddy Thompson, Sean Lennon, Chris Stills, Harper Simon, and the list goes on and on. I liked them — these were my friends — but they were all getting signed and written about and had publicists and photo shoots and beautiful girlfriends. Were their songs better than mine? Were their songs more genuine? I think “Bloody Mother F**king Asshole” is really about getting the short end of the stick.
I wrote the music quickly and was practically finished with it when the lyrics at the end came out of my mouth. It’s an earnest song, and as strident as it is vulnerable, and the coda really packs a punch. All those bloody mother f**king assholes. I wrote it out of misery, but it was also fun to sing. And very quickly after I started to perform it, it became an anthem for people who were mad at, or hurt by, someone. I know it sounds cheesy, but in some ways that’s what separates “BMFA” from my other songs. Despite what people assume, it’s not overly personal or particular to me.
I don’t sing it much anymore unless there’s a good reason to. These reasons may include “I want to dedicate this next song to the guy talking in the back” or, for a good long while, “This song is for Trump.” That kind of thing. Audiences request it sometimes, but I’ll only do it if it feels right. I never do it if my dad is in the audience, and I won’t do it in front of a more conservative crowd, unless I’m a little pissed at them. (I’m grateful that so far my kids haven’t started singing it, but I’m sure they will at some point.)
JOIN THE CONVERSATION