“My sons are 10 and 14 now… so really, I don’t think they really give a fuck about what mom is singing about.”
The audience around Martha Wainwright at Ursa erupts into laughter, and as they do, there’s a palpable sense that she has them in the palm of her hand.
In the span of just twenty minutes, she reveals anecdotes of her personal life that ranges from becoming a mother to getting divorced, and finally, to falling in love again in her 40s.
“Falling in love again when you’re older is just…” she says, trailing off into a long pause before simply stating, “better.”
That uncanny ability to stand before a crowd and speak so openly, so genuinely about how she felt and how they reacted to it is the kinds of undeniable presence this Montreal singer and songwriter can have in a room.
There was a tangible, artistic fervor that could be felt across Montreal, with poetry and music that was fringy and edgy, with artists like Patrick Watson, Heather O’Neill, and Catherine Kidd leading the way.
FROM NEW YORK WITH LOVE
Born in New York City in the mid-1970’s to renowned folk musicians Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, life led Martha to Montreal early on where she, alongside her mother and brother Rufus Wainwright, immersed herself in the rich cultural and creative scenes in the city.
“I went back and forth between Montreal and New York so many times that it was hard to know which one was home. But there was always something about Montreal that just felt different, though at a younger age it was hard to pinpoint what exactly,” Martha explains.
“I had a bit of a wild youth in the late 90's,” she says, laughing. “I’d play shows as a 17- and 18-year old, joints like Sarajevo and Jailhouse Rock.”
“There was a tangible, artistic fervor that could be felt across Montreal, with poetry and music that was fringy and edgy, with artists like Patrick Watson, Heather O’Neill, and Catherine Kidd leading the way.”
Having spent a portion of her early career trying to make it in the clubs of Manhattan’s Lower East Side or in Brooklyn’s burgeoning Williamsburg, she noticed there was something missing from the NYC scene that was being offered in Montreal, though on a smaller scale.
There was something emerging in Montreal that was so different from what was happening in New York, where you started seeing bands like Arcade Fire and others that were creating entirely new sounds with more creative freedom.
A BLOSSOMING FOLK SCENE OF THE 90’S
“I think there was a longing at the time to find another incredible voice like Jeff Buckley, and that made it incredibly competitive for folk singers like me.”
“And yet, around the same time, there was something emerging in Montreal that was so different from what was happening in New York,” Martha recalls, “where you started seeing bands like Arcade Fire and others that were creating entirely new sounds with more creative freedom.”
Not long after, Martha made the decision to come back to Montreal and see what her hometown could offer. A movement was underway, with new bands emerging on both sides of the linguistic divide, with so much of the city’s bilingual composition represented in its culture.
“The duality of cultures and language are a testament to what this city offers,” Martha says. “I’ve even felt that the seasons had so much to do with how people felt and expressed themselves here.”
RECREATING ANOTHER TIME
Now 47, Martha Wainwright’s expanded her repertoire from a musician and poet to memoirist and club owner at Ursa, a long and cavernous venue found on Parc Avenue in the Mile End.
Harkening back to less corporately influenced atmosphere of the 90s, Ursa is a symbol of that freedom of artistic expression, easily accessible and able to pivot from one evening’s attraction to something completely different the next.
The small club has come to represent something of a bygone era in music today. “We have younger artists, older artists, French and English artists. This is a space dedicated to an equal representation of artists of all backgrounds, each of which contributes to the music and creative scenes of Montreal in their own unique ways,” she says.
Performing at what Martha describes as a more mature artist has its benefits, as it becomes easier over time to exhibit more control over her storytelling. Describing herself as never having been truly cutting-edge, her performance style as a folk musician means that she can talk about aspects of herself while on stage and how momentous events in her own life inform her lyric writing and artist expression.
With songs, you can skip right to the core of it to write something everyone can relate to, but with a memoir, this was my own experience, one that needed more time for me to fully dive into.
TELLING HER OWN STORY
Martha’s memoir, Stories I Might Regret Telling You (Penguin Random House), was released in November 2022 after a long and laborious effort to put pen to paper to tell her story. Admitting that she had never written before—other than songs—Martha borrowed from her skills in song writing to confront the problem of filling the pages.
“It was new for me. I’ve often addressed my emotions or family drama through songs, but never in a way that I had to fully expand on the ideas enough to make sense of all of it,” she says.
“With songs, you can skip right to the core of it to write something everyone can relate to, but with a memoir, this was my own experience, one that needed more time for me to fully dive into.”
A personal story like this one comes with far more vulnerability, and far less room for interpretation than song writing. Inspired by Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking for her book, Martha’s come to rely on her own ability to tell stories and her desire to convey the message that her life, with all its ups and downs, could inform and inspire her audience.
A FEW OF MARTHA'S FAVOURITE THINGS
Leaning forward onto the square candlelit table a few inches away from the banquet where she sat, Martha looked squarely ahead as we run through a list of her favourite things about Montreal, or just some stuff about the city in general:
Where do you like to hang out, and why do you like it?
To be in the kitchen and/or cooking.
Where do you get takeout from for a cozy night in?
Where do you go for date nights?
Cinéma du Parc.
Where do you go to feel good and relax/your own version of therapy?
What's a place you'd like to explore but haven't got around to yet?
Verdun and Kahnawake.
Where do you like to take your friends?
Jean-Talon Market and Plaza Saint-Hubert.
Do you have a secret spot in Montreal you'd like to reveal?
A dog park near new Université de Montréal.
Name some businesses or people you'd like to shout-out, ones that you think deserve more local love and attention?
Canadian rapper and record producer Socalled.
What is Montreal’s most treasured possession?
What would you say is a “Montreal state of mind”?
What’s one thing you would change about Montreal?
What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
Seeing bands at Ursa.
Where do you go to be alone?
Exploring green alleys.