Born in 1976 and raised in a renowned musical family in Montreal – being the sister of baroque pop icon Rufus Wainwright and daughter of folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle – Martha Wainwright has established herself as a tour de force in contemporary folk. Celebrated for her brutal honesty, evocative songwriting and emotive vocal performances, her music’s marked by a rich tapestry of folk, rock, and pop influences.
Wainwright’s career took flight with the release of her self-titled debut album in 2005, featuring the blistering hit “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” written about her father. She’s come out with five critically-acclaimed studio albums since, as well as the 2022 memoir Stories I Might Regret Telling You, a candid peak behind the curtain of her coming-of-age in music royalty.
Speaking with the CBC on the books of her life, Wainwright shone a light on Joan Didion’s enduring memoir of grief, Nabokov’s classic novel on obsession, and a lesser-known, psychological mystery by Kazuo Ishiguro. Explore her complete reading list below, and check out the bookshelves of other iconic musicians here.
Martha Wainwright’s Reading List
“The first real book that I read independently was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and it really marked my pre-teen years. It was sitting on a bookshelf in my house in Saint-Sauveur, Quebec, and I just picked it up when I was about 12. I’m not a big sci-fi reader, but it reads pretty easily. It was the most expanded that my mind had ever been to that point by far! I don’t know if I understood all of the subtleties of it, but it was the beginning of the possibility of fiction, in a way.” -MW
“I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking after I lost my mother. It was a very interesting account — very different from my own personal experience, in that hers was so descriptive and detail-oriented in terms of timeline and what happened to her husband and then her daughter’s illness. There’s a coldness and an objectivity to it that I really loved and somehow needed at that time. It also opened the door for me to read more memoirs.” -MW
“I have a song called ‘Lolita’ and I saw the movie before I read the book, to be honest. But when I read Nabokov’s book, I was bowled over. I probably read it when I was about 19. And I didn’t identify with Lolita at all, but rather with the character of Humbert Humbert, which is what I wrote about in this song. I understood the feeling of having an obsession with someone you probably should stay away from.” -MW
The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy
“As a young person, I tried to read Thomas Hardy many times and it took a long time to get there. But I read The Trumpet-Major and that actually turned me on to him. It was really my introduction into ‘classic’ literature, where the stories are so dramatic without being overly operatic. It’s a story about a widow who needs to find a match for her daughter to lift the daughter into a higher social bracket. Three men are trying to woo her and they’re all completely different. The trumpet major is the kinder, gentler man who is the better choice. It’s an excellent mix of comedy and history.” -MW
“The Unconsoled is very visual, very cinematic. It’s about a piano player trying to get to a show and he can’t get there. It describes the physicality of what he has to do, so it has that musical sense. Ishiguro has a great way of making you feel where the characters are in the story. The book was really badly received, but I thought it was absolutely great.” -MW
Ask the Dust by John Fante
“It’s a proto–Beat Generation drugs-and-alcohol writer book about a struggling artist living in a crappy apartment in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. It’s a coming-of-age book that’s fun and a bit dangerous.” -MW
(via The CBC; photo by Carl Lessard)
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