The dark night
Rufus Wainwright returns this month, with the London premierE of his first opera and a new album. He talked to John O’Ceallaigh about recent heartache, gay marriage and Lady Gaga’s ‘mediocre’ songs…
Given his lineage, it’s little surprise that Rufus Wainwright has dedicated his life to music. Born in New York in 1973, his father is the songwriter and singer Loudon Wainwright III, while his mother Kate McGarrigle found fame as a folk singer in her native Canada. Immersed in creativity, Wainwright has released not only eight critically lauded albums but has recently written the opera Prima Donna, made multiple film and television appearances and even performed a series of tribute concerts dedicated to Judy Garland. Having had a longstanding relationship with London, Rufus returns to the capital this month in typically assiduous form. Prima Donna receives its London premiere at Sadler’s Wells on 12 April, while the singer promotes his newly released album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, with a one-off performance at the same venue on 13 April. However, circumstances have changed since the singer last performed here in December. Then he appeared at the Royal Albert Hall with his sister, Martha, and mother, to raise awareness for the Kate McGarrigle Fund, which raises money to combat specific types of cancer. Having been diagnosed with sarcoma in 2006, his mother, Kate, eventually succumbed to the illness in January 2010. Just a few weeks after their emotionally charged performance and her subsequent death, the usually ebullient Rufus – while as articulate and quick-witted as ever – appears to be in an understandably reflective mood. With many considering All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu his most emotionally intimate work to date, the dark, poignant songs that define the album suggest sorrowful times for this brilliant singer. The album title is both a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 43’ and Rufus’ own concept of ‘Lulu’ – a character inspired both by Pandora’s Box actress Louise Brooks and the “dark, brooding, dangerous woman that lives within all of us”. Can you tell me how the album came about? Well, I think this new album is a reaction to the various Babylonian towers that I’ve been erecting over the last few years, whether it’s Judy or the opera. There have been a lot of big gestures and expense, so often in this process I’ve retreated to the piano, to solitude, to just digest my own personal feelings. Whether it’s concerning the work that I was doing or, of course, my
mother’s health or being in a relationship or touring in general. I actually used the piano and songwriting as a kind of – I wouldn’t say therapy because I always hate it when people say that they find music therapeutic – I think sometimes music should not be listened to if you want to maintain sanity [laughs]. It can be damaging? Yeah, I think music is dangerous. I think it’s wonderful and great but I don’t think it always does good. It can be a destructive force, which is why I love it – it has no moral quantity. I would go to the piano to digest all this stuff and this album was born. It’s a very sombre occasion and now that I look at it, it was me preparing for my mother’s death, and getting ready to mourn artistically for her passing. Even though I always
I appreciate Lady Gaga for her fashion sense and her astute readING oF the pulse of the public, but the songs are crap knew it was a possibility, you always maintain a certain amount of hope in these situations. But still, I think that artistically, the gods were settling me into this reality. Your mum’s passing is obviously still informing everything you’re doing... Oh yeah. It’s a huge – I want to say step, but it’s more of a pothole – in my life. But on the other hand, I do feel fortunate that I have these outlets and... in being able to play with these emotions and get something out of them physically with songs.
I wanted to ask about your other projects as well because you seem so diligent in terms of constantly producing new work. Firstly, why did the Judy Garland association come about? I’ll always adore Judy and will return to her periodically throughout the rest of my life, but that being said, the Judy project was a bit of an exorcism [laughs]. I’d had a good ten years of going into HMV or wherever, thinking I’m going to buy the new Radiohead album or something and then walking out with five Judy Garland CDs! I’d hit this blind spot and realised something wasn’t quite right [laughs]. Finally, I said ‘look, I obviously need to immerse myself in this wandering spirit and get it out of my system’. And it did work. I mean, I still adore her but I don’t listen to her nearly as much. Why do you think gay guys have this affinity with her? Well some do; it’s really a generational thing. I mean you can’t help but draw several parallels with gay men and her, whether it’s the Hollywood thing or the being-in-love-with-gaymen thing or the party life. But that being said, my main theory as to why they’re so enraptured is because Judy was very attractive without being beautiful. She had this very strange, magnetic, sexual allure that had nothing to do with her looks, and I think it’s something a lot of gay men would like to have because we’re so body-conscious and obsessive about our physical appearance. But Judy could cut through that. She could be toothless and fat but still magnetise the room. The more recent project you did was writing your first opera. Why did you decide to tackle such a huge undertaking? Well, while Judy was more of an exorcism the opera was more of an offering to my religion, which is the opera religion. Opera has, pretty much since I was 14, totally shaped my outlook on life. Any major situation I’ve dealt with has already been touched upon in opera. I’ve always run there for solace and understanding and hope and it’s always given it to me. So this was an opportunity for me to return the favour and to begin what is a pretty treacherous climb. Was your celebrity a hindrance in being taken seriously? I think it was like an elephant in the room. People [involved in the opera’s development] didn’t allude to it negatively but it came off in other
OUtstanding ways sometimes. So I had to get over that, or rather more importantly they had to get over that, and I think they weren’t really expecting me to deliver a fully formed project. I think they thought ‘oh well, he doesn’t really know how to orchestrate, it’s his first opera so we’ll help the poor little pop boy along and when the time is right we’ll step in and really get the job done’. Well, lo and behold, I delivered the work and they didn’t have to step in. I had a really distinct vision. So, it took them a bit by surprise. Looking at your career path it’s apparent that you really immerse yourself in everything you do. Obviously when you perform you sing live, you play an instrument and you’ve written the songs. Does it frustrate you that a lot of musicians now are heavily produced and don’t necessarily perform well live? I think in England it’s still pretty open and there are still outlets for songwriters and popstars to co-exist and have their own coverage. But in America it’s a disaster. I mean, unless you’re Lady Gaga, you’re in an artistic – I want to say concentration camp but that might be a little bit too harsh – but you’re really ignored and sort of sequestered into this alleyway of attention. Do you think she might rejuvenate things? Well, I appreciate Lady Gaga for her fashion sense and her astute reading of the pulse of the public, but the songs are crap. I mean, really! I never thought I’d pine for the days of Madonna! [laughs] Not that I liked every Madonna song but she would at least try for something musically her own and I find that Lady Gaga songs are kind of... [whispers] mediocre. Are there any contemporary pop stars that you do rate? I have to say I’m amazed by Beyoncé. I mean that woman has a head on her hips! [laughs] She’s in control and she can really sing which is great, and I think, actually, that Lady Gaga can really sing. I just wish the songs themselves were better, or less gimmicky. This thing of switching outfits and having it be about what hat you’re wearing I just find so exhausting. She must be really tired! I don’t want to be too hard on her though because she is really trying, and she’s succeeding. But in America I find it repulsive how little attention they pay to anything else unless it’s selling. You debuted your opera in England rather than America. How did you feel about having it premiere in Manchester? I’m very happy that it premiered in Manchester and actually my mother really pressed upon me that doing it there was a big deal because Manchester is a city for the people. If you want to bring opera down to the common man Manchester’s the place to do it. And what did you think of the city generally? Is it true that you’re a fan of Queer As Folk? Well, I don’t know it that well, actually. I haven’t avoided it; I just do queer as fuck... or fuck as
There’s a side of ME that wants to hold on to this hyperromantic version of homosexuality queer... or fuck queer ass. Sorry! But I went out a few times, got pretty trashed in that Dutchlooking area, Canal Street. It was a lot of fun, but I rented this beautiful house in Marsden so we would mostly go there and have our very Palladian picnics with friends and family. It was very Room With a View, which is more my speed. Really? Yeah, I don’t really go out to bars anymore. I did it for so many years and now I have a boyfriend; it just seems really over to me. Could it be that because you’re in a relationship you’ve settled down a bit? Oh yeah, I’ve definitely settled down; we’ve been in a relationship for about five years and it’s
wonderful. We’re practically married now, we’ve bought a house. Do you think you might get married? It’s definitely a question. He’s European and I’m American so if we did get married he wouldn’t be able to work in America, so we feel the sting of inequality now. Which I didn’t relate to at all before. I was anti-gay marriage for a long time just because I thought it was like trying to be a straight person. In fact, Boy George and I were talking once about a congressman in America who was anti-death penalty and pro-gay marriage and Boy George said to me: “But isn’t gay marriage kind of the death penalty?” [laughs] And there’s still a side of me that wants to believe that, that wants to hold on to this hyper-romantic version of homosexuality where it’s open and you’re clandestine. What do you mean by ‘open’? Just that it’s about ultimate freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. And there’s a side of me that still worships at that altar. But that being said, once you’re in a relationship with someone and it’s been a long time, reality sets in and you love that person and you’ve got to make money and then you’re in the same basket as everybody else. So I’m now more aware of the gay marriage issues on a practical level, which I need. It has to mean something to me for me to engage with it. Do you think it’s something that’s going to change in America? I don’t think Obama’s the one to do it, frankly. I think the stuff he’s doing with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is fantastic. The fact that they’re going to repeal that is really great. But I don’t think America is ready for gay marriage. Not even somewhere like New York, if they were to do it on a state-by-state basis? No, New York City maybe, but New York State is as redneck as it gets. Once you get two hours out of the city you’re in America. So no, I don’t think America’s ready for gay marriage. As well as serious American issues, you know about camp aspects of British culture and have even appeared on both Ab Fab and French and Saunders. How come you’re so aware of all that? Through my best friend in England, Mr. Neil Tennant! Why do you think I saddled up to him - he’s the professor of English culture! He was the executive producer on Release the Stars, so we hung out a lot and it really set the record straight. Or set the record gay. And your last performance here was with your family at the Royal Albert Hall. How was that? I think it was one of the most heart-wrenching and also glorious experiences of my life. It’ll go down as one of the most important artistic moments in... Western history [laughs]. Rufus Wainwright’s new album, All Days Are Night: Songs For Lulu, is out 5 April. He will perform on Tuesday 13 April at the Sadlers Wells theatre. www.rufuswainwright.com
Published on May 11, 2010
Published on May 11, 2010
Recent cover-page interview with Rufus Wainwright for Out in the City magazine. He discusses his work; the death of his mother; living in th...