From her self-titled debut in 2005 to last year’s Love Will Be Reborn, mostly written in the wake of her bitter divorce, Martha has never flinched from putting her life out there.
As if the songs weren’t clear enough the Canadian artist titled her autobiography, released earlier this year, Stories I Might Regret Telling You.
As the daughter of esteemed folk musicians Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and younger sister of the equally acclaimed performer Rufus Wainwright, her story has always been tangled with theirs. It is something she has both leaned into and fought to escape from.
She is returning to the UK for a run of shows, including at Wickham Festival on Friday night. The Guide caught up with her on the phone at her home in Montreal.
Dinner at Eight
One of those songs is Dinner at Eight by her brother Rufus.
‘The book is a lot about family dynamics,’ explains Martha, ‘obviously my family, but I think that people will recognise some elements of their own family life in there too.
‘Rufus's song is about a dinner date with our dad and the power struggle between the father and son. Our dad was also somewhat of an absent father, so it sort of accuses him of that. But then also at the end of the song it's really about recognising that there's a lot of love there and that is the overarching emotion.
‘That is really what the book is about – the book is pretty frank at certain points and goes to some taboo subjects pretty quickly and speaks honestly about some things that my parents did that were not great.
‘But I think that the overall idea of the book and the overall emotion and the overall message is one of love and forgiveness and just acceptance – so that's what that song is about.’
She stresses that the book, seven years in the making, is not your conventional music memoir. ‘It's not really a rock autobiography. I was asked to write a memoir at 38 and I'm not a rock guitar player who's been in the business for, whatever, 50-plus years, who's going reflect back on this album or that album.
‘There's a little bit of that, I write a little bit about being an artist and writing songs. But it it's really a personal story of a young woman who had to learn a lot of stuff. And the backdrop of course, is the Wainwright/McGarrigle clan, but it's really my own personal story.’
Putting her family in song
Several of Martha's songs have tackled family relationships as well, but since becoming a mother to two boys and watching them grow up, has it changed her approach to writing about family?
‘Writing the book and also writing starting to write songs about my own kids too, I hope that I'm going to do a slightly better job than my parents did. My parents were great parents and I think that they did what they could and everybody makes mistakes and things like that. My dad would reference me in songs and it was great when it was done nicely, and it wasn't a good idea when it wasn't done nicely, and it wasn't really worth it, you know?
‘And also my mother was really hard on me and wished that I was better at certain things and put a lot of pressure on me. All parents do that because they can't help it, and I understand that, but I hope I'm a little bit more sensitive with that.
‘It is hard to be fully honest and I have two listeners – my kids – that you really don't want to damage. Well, do the least amount of damage to, you're going to damage them a little bit because that's also part of it.
‘That is really what the book is about too – my small family. It's been a difficult time. I'm divorced from their father. That was not good. That did not go well. That was really complicated. And I wrote a lot down and I took it all out – or most of it out – at the recommendation of lawyers as well!’
Stories I Might Regret Telling You
Apparently the book’s title has been the same since she began working on it – was it in some senses prophetic?
‘That title has already come true in that in my divorce there was a copy that was taken off a computer that was used against me. So I realised quickly how dangerous this is. I went back into it and I really honed in on what was important to me and I really let a lot go and struck a lot out and really, really weighed things up. I think I did the best job that I could, at the same time I needed to be able to say things, I didn't want to be muzzled either.
‘It goes as far as I could afford to go and I think that that's important. It's important to be able to do that. It's not a book about gardening and it doesn't go into detail about all of my music tracks or who I slept with or whatever. It's a little bit different than that.’
Does she regret any of the stories in the book?
‘No, I don't. And that's what the process of letting stuff go was about too.’
She’s also noticed how the response to the book has been similar to the response to her songs – those stories now belong to the readers.
‘What I've noticed with the book, it's what I noticed about some of my most personal songs, in particular a song like BMFA,’ a notoriously sweary riposte to her father from her debut album.
‘But the minute it flew out of my mouth and other people heard it at a show or wherever, it was very obvious to me that they were absorbing the songs for their own purposes and really seeing themselves in the song. And then I realized that this song has nothing really to do with me.’Isn’t that what good writing can do – taking your experiences and making them universal?
‘Yeah, exactly. And obviously that really works sometimes when you go really deeply personal, because those details are the things that can hook people in and they can interpret it the way that they want to interpret it, which is really great.
‘I've noticed that about songs that I've sung over 25 years now – they had a different meaning when I wrote them, when I was 22, than they do now. The words still apply, they've just been slightly altered in terms of their meaning and that's very powerful.
‘I think that's the same with the book. People's reaction to the book is where they felt moved by it.’
Her eldest son Arcangelo was born 10 weeks premature in London in November 2009. Kate McGarrigle died of cancer in January 2010. Her last public appearance was with Martha and Rufus at the Royal Albert Hall in London, just six weeks before her death.
‘The main story in the book is my mother's death and my son being born at the same time.
‘I think that that obviously is going to touch a lot of people because I think people are responding to it, not in the specifics of my story, but in more where they recognise themselves in that.’
A positive future
Martha’s previous album, 2016’s Goodnight City had seen her working with co-writers for the first time. Was it important for her to take back the sole songwriting reins on this album?
‘Yes, for me, this record is a very important record. It feels like it's the bookend to the first record, there's a lot of similarities in that it's very personal – some of the songs are quite in your face.
‘It talks a lot about my difficult separation and divorce with the children’s father. As well though, as this new love that happened, which was not expected at all and a new beginning.
‘Really what ended up happening is that there was this sort of concept when I started of: “Oh, you hit 40 and as a woman everything's over,” kind of thing.
‘All of a sudden I realised it’s quite the opposite and there was this total rebirth and a rebirth that comes in a time when your eggs are all dried up and your skin's falling off your face and all of these things that are telling you it's over in some ways. And in some ways it is. Basically, there's less time in front of you than there is behind you for the first time, you know?
‘It's a crazy realisation, especially for people in the music business, which is all about being young. But the winning force, at the end of the album is that I'm basically better off now than I was back then and I’m better, stronger, happier, more confident in my own skin, and that's good.’
So it is ultimately sort of a positive album?
‘I think it is, very much so. And you can hear that in some of the songs in particular and there's strength in the voice and just taking back and asserting.’
While the touring and promoting the book have taken up much of her focus, she is starting to think about the next album – the start of a new chapter.
‘I am getting antsy, which means that there's stuff to be dealt with in song...’
Wickham Festival runs from Thursday to Sunday, August 4-7, with The Levellers, 10CC, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Show of Hands, The Saw Doctors and many more. Daily tickets from £50. Full weekend tickets £220. Go to wickhamfestival.co.uk.