Rufus and Martha Wainwright Present: Lessons in Debauchery

by Rebecca Brunn · January 10, 2011

The Wainwrights offered quasi-intentional life advice to all ages at Saturday night's Times Talk, invoking memories of boobs, booze, and the trials of a showbiz family.

The siblings Rufus and Martha Wainwright attract a pretty diverse crowd, but Saturday night saw an intriguing blend of the young and the elderly. Well, elderly might be little harsh. These mid-life crisis survivors probably found solace in songs like Martha's "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" and Rufus's "In A Graveyard," all the while touting their hip musical taste to their kids' friends when they come over.

To be fair, about a third of the audience at this event, one of ten others like it that comprised The New York Times annual Arts & Leisure Weekend, could probably pass for under 30, and there were a handful of 20-somethings. They were the ones who asked the Wainwrights for advice for aspiring musicians in Brooklyn rather than their older counterparts that have already given up and moved to Manhattan.

In any case, the talented siblings had stories that engrossed the attention of everyone in the lush red-velvet venue of the Times Center. Here are some Wainwright-approved tips for living, organized for your convenience in age-appropriate categories.

I'll start with the young people, because I know they won't read to the end of the article.

1. Ladies, (or dudes, more relevantly) if you're after the devilish good looks of Rufus, keep in mind that he's a tit man. This is according to his father, musician Loudon Wainwright III, who apparently wrote a song about Rufus's very taste for them, quite literally.

"It's about me breast-feeding, how I'd be on one breast and he'd be holding the other...I remember being like 5 or 6 and screaming 'Play the tit song!'"

2. If you're going to be bitter about your brother's early success, you probably shouldn't live in Brooklyn. Rufus was aware of Martha's disdain after he was first signed to a label at age 22, but mostly faulted the borough.

"You were angry! You were living in Brooklyn! Still are!"

3. If your first album is a failure, at least harness your delirious drinking binges to create an inspired second album (see #4).

Rufus: "...And then they tell you you're gonna be a huge star, you're gonna have the world at your feet...and then you don't chart, and you make your second album and you're living in a motel...which I was used to because of the folk world."

Martha: "A lot of debauchery for folk singers."

4. The lyric "I'm drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue" is a true story; one that includes a drunk-dial to Rufus's producer. The album the song is on, Poses, went on to win the 2002 Juno Award for Best Alternative Album. So, you bright-eyed, beer-slurping musical hopefuls, all is not lost for you.

5. If you're going to use a bar in Japan as a venue for stabbing your sister in the heart...

"We had too much sake...you wouldn't be here if not for me, blah blah blah...then I realized I had really crossed the line. Not gonna do that again."

...be sure to make up for it later in a very public setting:

"I'm still jealous of her innate, classic quality. It's very universal, very feminine but in this powerful, almost horrific way. Martha had this incredible force within her that she didn't always know what to do with...she's more talented than I am."

Now for our more distinguished guests of higher taste and class:

1. If you want your kids to play sports, it's probably not the best idea to practically raise them onstage surrounded by folk musicians. When the moderator, Melena Ryzik, asked them if they would have been different given a traditional upbringing, Rufus responded:

"Only in terms of my body...I would've been forced to play sports...but I would have had an easier time at the gay bar."

2. Go on, embrace your adult awkwardness! When asked for advice for musicians, Martha replied:

"Rufus had a short-lived awkward stage. Mine was 20 years long, so I don't think you want my advice."

3. Make sure your kids know how to get along or else you'll never see them record a duet album until after you've died.

Martha: "it would be silly not to. It makes sense to do it soon; there's so much to draw from. Hopefully not when we're old."

Rufus: "Honey we're all gonna die soon. Birds are falling from the sky..."

4. Pass on your music taste and your critique of it. Martha inherited her musical influences from Rufus, who inherited his from their mother, singer Kate McGarrigle. Rufus also inherited the harsh criticism methods from his father:

Martha: "He will really tell you what he thinks. He was tougher on Rufus than on me...my music is more accessible than Rufus'."

Rufus: "I try to put my songs next to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and say, where do I sit here? Every songwriter has to do it. Be brutal. Be honest."

5. It's O.K. if you don't remember how to play some of your old songs, just make sure your brother is wearing a lustrous cerulean shirt beneath a suit with navy polka-dots on it to distract the audience while you figure it out.

Well, there you have it. If you have any more queries into the glamorous life of rowdy folk/alt musicians, you can ask them yourself. Just don't give Rufus any openings--

Melena Ryzik: "I think it's safe to say that Rufus is a showboat--"

Rufus: "And a dreamboat!"

--and you should learn a ton.

[Images via NY Times, rufuswainwright.com and marthawainwright.com]