The Family Tree of Wainwright – Roots of Folk Royalty

May 15, 2014 | 9240 Views | 2 Comments

By guest blogger Adam Kukic. It’s tough enough being the child of a famous musician, but what’s it like to establish your own identity when you hail from a large inter-connected family of talented songwriters? For our second post examining legendary musicians and their progeny, we investigate the intricate web of some of the most established names in folk music: Wainwright, McGarrigle, and Roche.

loudon1Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle
Sometimes dubbed the “clown prince of song,” Loudon Wainwright III was one of many folk artists of the early 1970s dubbed “the next Bob Dylan.” It was during this period that he married Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle. While Loudon is a brash, idiosyncratic character (as seen in his hit “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road”), Kate was best known for producing breathtaking harmonies with her sister Anna. The two sang together and wrote indelible folk songs – the most famous of which is “Heart Like A Wheel.

Loudon and Kate’s marriage thrust them into the spotlight as The First Family of Folk; yet, it was far from a fairytale, and the family drama that ensued played out in their songs. While the marriage only lasted until 1976, it spawned a wealth of confessional, autobiographical songs, and two amazingly talented future performers: Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Rufus was three years old and Martha newly born when their parents divorced. The children stayed with Kate, who relocated them to her native Montreal.

rufus-pianoRufus Wainwright
Rufus has been touring since the age of 13, initially as part of the McGarrigle Sisters and Family. He shares his father’s dark sense of humor,  and — in true Wainwright-McGarrigle tradition — he draws much from his personal life to craft his songs. In 1996 he was signed to his first record deal and released his debut, “Rufus Wainwright” two years later (Sister Martha appears on the album, too). Since then, he’s issued 7 studio albums and 2 live releases — including a recording of his acclaimed Judy Garland tribute show, “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall.” His last studio album was 2012’s “Out of the Game,” a very personal record addressing both the death of his mother and the birth of his daughter. A greatest hits compilation was released in 2014 entitled “Vibrate.” One of Rufus’ most successful songs to date remains his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (performed in the style of John Cale and Jeff Buckley).

Not limited to pop music, he’s also composed an opera, “Prima Donna,” and is currently writing his second. Like his father, Rufus makes the occasional film and television cameo, and has a good sense of humor, as seen in his “Rufus Does Gum” sketch for the humor website Funny Or Die. Having been openly gay his entire career, he is a staunch LGBT advocate. In 2012, Rufus married his partner Jörn Weisbrodt, in Montauk, New York.

Here’s the official video for “Out of the Game,” which features British actress Helena Bonham Carter:

Who knew that chewing-gum jingles could sound so….sophisticated! Here’s Rufus spoofing himself on Funny Or Die:

And, check out NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” featuring Rufus, from October 2012:

Martha Wainwright
Like her brother Rufus, Martha has also performed and recorded with her mother Kate and aunt Anna McGarrigle. In 1997 she released the self-produced cassette, “Ground Floor,” followed by a self-titled EP in 1999. After a detour to obtain a drama degree, Martha returned to music with the release of the 2005 LP “Martha Wainwright.” Since then, she’s released two additional studio albums (most recently, 2012’s “Come Home to Mama”) and a live album of Edith Piaf covers. She’s also participated on several other compilation LPs. Martha’s songs, like those of her father and brother, have an acerbic wit to them, as well as an autobiographical nature. She is married and had a son in 2009.

Here’s the official video for “You Cheated Me:”

And here’s NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” featuring Martha, from November 2012:

Loudon and Suzzy Roche
Following his divorce from Kate, Loudon had a relationship with another well-known folk artist, Suzzy Roche — also from a group of singing sisters, The Roches. In 1981 they gave the world another musically inclined artist, Lucy Wainwright Roche — the youngest of Loudon’s children.

Lucy Wainwright Roche
Initially not as involved in the music industry as Rufus and Martha (she began her career as an elementary school teacher), Lucy is now a bonafide folk singer, performing on occasion with both of her parents and half-siblings. Loudon felt it best that Suzzy raise Lucy; the influence of her mother and two aunts, Terre and Maggie (The Roches trio) can be heard in her music, as demonstrated in her song “Monte Rosa Range.” Her first EP, “8 Songs,” was released in 2007, followed by 2008’s EP, “8 More.” In 2010 she released her first full-length album, “Lucy.” Her latest release is 2013’s “There’s a Last Time for Everything.”

Here’s a look at the making of “There’s a Last Time for Everything:”

The Cohen Connection
Leonard Cohen, heralded cultural icon and equal parts poet, novelist, artist and singer-songwriter, has led a very full and celebrated life. Volumes have been written about his accomplishments, and he deserves every accolade. But in the midst of his cultural success, he also produced two children with Suzanne Elrod: Adam and Lorca. While growing up under the spotlight of a famous father must be tough, the burden can be shared a bit among siblings who can best relate. A surprise to few would be the friendship between the Wainwrights and Cohens (folk families, Canadian roots, relative proximity in age, etc.).

rufus-lorca-babyOf Leonard’s two children, Adam was the one who pursued music. While not a musician, Lorca has pursued the culinary arts, photography, film, and most recently, the world of antiques. But it is her friendship with Rufus Wainwright that has led to the permanent blending of these music royalty bloodlines. For years, Rufus (though gay and married to Jörn Weisbrodt) discussed with Lorca the possibility of having a child together. Finally, it was Kate McGarrigle’s declining health that led to their decision to follow through, as she was able to offer her support of the idea prior to her death in January 2010. Lorca gave birth to Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen in February 2011. “Deputy Dad” Jörn, Rufus, Lorca and baby Viva are pictured here.

Time Heals All Wounds
As for the families, time seems to have healed many of the wounds. Relationships have been reestablished between Loudon and his children. Losing Kate – the matriarch of the Wainwright-McGarrigle legacy – served to bring the family unit closer. During her fight with cancer, and leading up to her final days, Loudon also did his best to reconcile. Rufus, Martha and Kate’s sister Anna helped produce tribute concerts, as well as the album “Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle” (which even features Loudon’s sister, Sloan Wainwright). On occasion, Suzzy, Lucy and Loudon perform together (and sometimes, Rufus and Martha join them, too). And as for Rufus, marriage and fatherhood have mellowed him out, making him more focused and responsible.

Here’s a live video of Rufus, Martha, Lucy and Loudon performing Loudon’s “One Man Guy:”

To close out, here is a list of some of the songs that these artists have penned about one another — some endearing, some terrifying, but all steeped in perceived truths and a frankly personal nature.

Songs Written by _____About _____:

Songs by Loudon about Rufus:
“Dilated to Meet You”
“Rufus Is a Tit Man”
“A Father and a Son”

Songs by Loudon about Martha:
“Pretty Little Martha”
“Five Years Old”
“Hitting You”
“I’d Rather Be Lonely”
“That Hospital”

Songs by Loudon about Kate:
“Saw Your Name in the Paper”
“Unhappy Anniversary”

Songs by Loudon about Lucy:
“Screaming Issue”
“Your Mother and I”

Song by Kate about Rufus:
“First Born”

Song by Kate about Martha:
“I Eat Dinner”

Songs by Kate about Loudon:
“Blues in D”
“Go Leave”

Songs by Rufus about Loudon:
“Dinner at Eight”

Songs by Rufus about Kate:
“Beauty Mark”

Songs by Martha about Loudon:
“Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”
“Father Daughter Dialogue”
“You Never Phone”

For an amazing history of the Wainwright/ McGarrigle connection,  click here to read Jim Windolf’s piece from the May 22, 2007, issue of  Vanity Fair.

Click on the artists’ names below to visit their official websites:
Loudon Wainwright
Kate McGarrigle
Rufus Wainwright
Martha Wainwright
Suzzy Roche
Lucy Wainwright Roche

625_10151084876461599_1348094392_n© Adam Kukic, May 16, 2014
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  1. Staci Backauskas says:

    May 18th, 2014 at 8:47 am (#)

    I love Rufus and Martha and never knew all of the threads and connections. Thanks for an informative and well-written piece.

  2. Adam says:

    May 29th, 2014 at 10:59 am (#)

    Thanks, Staci- I found myself becoming better educated on all of the connections courtesy of this piece … and I definitely came away with a much greater appreciation of Kate McGarrigle.

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