Nina Myskow talks to Rufus and Martha Wainwright, acclaimed singer songwriters, children of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle.
Rufus is the Grammy-nominated creator of pop songs, described by Elton John as the greatest songwriter of our generation. Martha has carved her own quirky musical niche. Both have followed the family tradition - rejection, hurt, betrayal, all laid bare in confessional songs about each other. For all of them, the very personal is material to be translated into song.
Over the course of a month, Nina Myskov sat down with Rufus in London, with Loudon in uptown New York, and with Martha in Brooklyn - to try to understand this generational conversation expressed through song.
Love, sadness, bitterness and loss revealed to public scrutiny. How cathartic is the writing process? Were songs written out of revenge? Looking back, now that the dust has settled, do any of them regret writing such revelatory barbs about their close family?
Family Ties, Knotted Up in the Lyrics
The Wainwright family - from left, Martha Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright lll, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Rufus Wainwright and Suzzy Roche.
11 May 2012
When most families fight, as most families do, you might hear about it over the back fence or see a stray post on Facebook. When the Wainwrights get into it, the spat often shows up in a full-blown song, which begets other songs. That kind of thing will happen when one of America’s most bracing folk writers, Loudon Wainwright III, marries another folk luminary, Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters, and they have two musically gifted children, Rufus and Martha. Factor in a serious relationship, which has long ended, with another member of the folk pantheon — with Suzzy Roche of the Roches, that produced yet another musical offspring, Lucy Wainwright Roche — and cue decades of songs, many of them about a complicated life in a family of musical royalty. Some of those songs have titles that don’t scan well in a family newspaper, including Loudon’s ditty about a fight for position at the breast of Rufus’s mother and Martha’s profane rocket aimed at her father’s shortcomings. Back and forth it goes, with Rufus’s “Dinner at Eight” revealing that supper at the Wainwrights was sometimes more dark indie movie than sitcom.
But as a clan they never let a song get in the way of firmer, more durable ties. On Friday many members of the family will gather at Town Hall to mark the recent release of Loudon Wainwright’s album “Older Than My Old Man Now” (2nd Story Sound Records), a bracing look back that includes references to — and performances by — various Wainwrights, Roches and McGarrigles. Even the departed are represented, with a spoken recitation of a meditation on family written by Loudon’s father, a columnist for Life magazine, along with the only song Loudon Wainwright ever wrote with McGarrigle, who died in 2010.
“Older” is a hilarious and self-lacerating take on both the bonds and bondage of family, full of duets and subtexts that would take a family therapist years to untangle. What emerges is common familial strife rendered in uncommon ways. As Loudon sings on the affecting “In C,” “And if families didn’t break apart, I suppose there’d be no need for art.”
Part of the family — Loudon, 65; Rufus, 38; Martha, 36; Ms. Roche, 55; and Lucy Wainwright Roche, 30 — recently assembled at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side, with exes, wives, grandchildren and friends milling about, to talk to David Carr about what it’s like to hear your life in song and then chime in on the chorus. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q. Most extended families couldn’t even paint a room as a group, but you guys have played together for years. How do you decide on a set list?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT That depends on whose show it is.
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT I’m the boss for Town Hall. Since everybody’s on the record, we’re going to do what we do on the record, but everyone is also going to get a chance to step out a little bit and do one of their own songs or whatever they want.
RUFUS This isn’t a new venture in terms of our careers. I remember when we were kids, Suzzy used to do Christmas shows, and I used to sing with my dad and mom when I was prepubescent, so it’s been this kind of ongoing theme that has been very successful.
SUZZY ROCHE There is something just physically enjoyable about singing together when you have that family thing. It is kind of a physical thing.
Q. Does it feel odd to sing a song by your dad that is about you?
RUFUS It’s very intense and weird. But that’s why I love it. For me personally I’m a big opera fan, I’m a big theater fan. I always gravitated toward that which is explosive and full of danger. And nothing is bigger than that, nothing gets more imbued with that, than family.
Q. Do you ever hear a song by a family member and think: That never happened?
MARTHA WAINWRIGHT I don’t think that a three-minute song can tell the whole story about anything. I think you can have a line and an element and a moment, and that can start the concept of a song but won’t tell the whole story.
Q. Rufus, on your new record, “Out of the Game” [Decca], you’re already talking to your baby daughter on “Montauk,” so the tradition continues.
RUFUS This really started with Loudon’s dad, who had the column in Life magazine where he would reference the family and his dog and his life. I’m the third generation of having one’s life being exposed.
Q. Suzzy, did you ever think to yourself: Maybe we should have a dentist in here or a lawyer?
LUCY WAINWRIGHT ROCHE [Turning toward her mother] You were hoping I would be a lawyer.
SUZZY It is what it is. I feel like we’ve all seemed to be hooked on this kind of life. Once you start down that path, it’s very hard to stop. It’s like Loudon’s song “In C.” That pretty much says it all. It’s beautiful and sad, acknowledging that the choices that we made when we were young had a huge effect on the children.
Q. Do the songs serve as a way of healing wounds?
LOUDON I’m always asked if the songs that I write are therapeutic, and my answer is a quick no. In fact, it could be argued that they exacerbate my neurosis. But then people come up to me at the CD table and say, “That song meant so much to me.”
Q. So they can help everyone but you.
RUFUS One of the people who’s missing from this table is our mother, Kate, who is an amazing songwriter, and listening to her songs is an incredible kind of gift she left behind.
Q. Loudon, it’s interesting that the song you wrote with Kate, “Over the Hill,” not only is on the record but also fits in so well with the theme.
LOUDON The inclusion of Kate and the inclusion of my father, for me, are really big parts of this record. When a parent dies, the whole house of cards comes down. The siblings, everything gets blown away, and you do have to kind of reconstruct because they’re the giants.
Q. You foreshadow your own death a lot on this record even though you are only 65.
LOUDON I’ve been playing a death card for years.
Q. And still you do not die.
LOUDON I have always thought about it pretty much every day, but I also know that it’s dramatic. It’s theatrical.
MARTHA Not every song can be about a family member or sex and drugs.
Q. What about feelings of sibling or artistic rivalry?
RUFUS I had them intensely for Martha when we first started years ago. I did. I was very threatened. I think it has to do with the fact that our mother wanted us to be a duo like she had been with her sister. I was working really hard at music for 10 years and was very open about it, and I did my first show, and then Martha said the next week, “Can I sing one song on your show?” I’m like, “Fine.” Then everybody was blown away by her, and the next week she was on her way.
I remember being conscious of it and making a very, very solid decision at a certain point to say: I’ve got to get over this, I love my sister, and I think she’s incredibly talented. I honestly can tell you that I probably wish more for Martha’s success and Lucy’s success than my own in the end.
MARTHA You’re in a place where both Lucy and I hope to arrive. So he’s in a place where he can feel that way. I appreciate that he really showed me how hard you do have to work to succeed.
Q. Do you all have the kind of relationship where you can be honest about one another’s artistic choices?
MARTHA I don’t think it would make any difference at all to what Rufus was going to do. Of course not.
RUFUS Both Loudon and Kate weren’t nuts about the Judy Garland project at all. They didn’t get it.
Q. You performed Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall.
RUFUS They were very honest. It was like, “I don’t think you should do this.”
MARTHA I think that Rufus was able to prove everyone wrong. You have to take chances. There are things that Rufus does that I don’t care for, and I’m sure he feels the same way about me. Sometimes you tell him what you think, and sometimes you don’t.
LUCY I don’t want to know what anybody in my family thinks about anything. My survival and ability to write or perform is dependent upon me being able to block out the fact that my family is paying attention.
Q. Loudon, the family is famous, but the problems you write about are fairly universal.
LOUDON There’s nothing unusual about the events. There’s been a couple wild things, but the lives are pretty mundane actually.
RUFUS Speak for yourself.
LOUDON It’s people living with the people that they’re trying to love, people trying to deal with their appetites, people not getting along with each other, the excitement of children and the sadness of that also. That’s what I mean by mundane. It’s not astronauts going to the Moon. I mean, who are the big people in your life? Your family.
RUFUS But we are different. Loudon has mastered the mundane. He will write about these little elements of life. I write very different songs. “Martha” is about calling her up when my mother is in the hospital, or “Dinner at Eight” was about this horrible fight that we had.
LOUDON That’s mundane. That happens to everybody. Mundane is not a bad word.
RUFUS I think the thing you’re saying, we’re just like everybody else, is a lot of [expletive]. It hasn’t been just like everybody else, and that’s why I love it.
Q. Loudon, are you proud of what your kids have done in this business?
LOUDON The best thing is the three kids that are sitting here are really talented. Think how embarrassing and awkward it would be if they weren’t. And the fourth kid who’s not here, Lexi, who’s still in college, is ridiculously talented, so I thank God every day for that, that they’re all amazing and doing great things and [expletive] me off every day.