Q & A: Rufus Wainwright

The golden child of singer-songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III brings his latest project, the melancholy "Songs for Lulu," to Jorgensen Auditorium.

 

The first word that comes to mind when we try to characterize RUFUS WAINWRIGHT is “effrontery.” Certainly, it’s the best way to describe the openly gay singer-songwriter’s latest album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, a Brechtian, emotionally bare-to-the-bone disc (featuring stark vocals against mournful solo piano) recorded while his mother, Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle, was in the final stages of cancer. She passed away last January; a month later, Rufus embarked on a lengthy global tour that will bring him to the University of Connecticut’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs for two concerts Dec. 10-11. For more info on these shows, call (860) 486-4226 or visit jorgensen.uconn.edu.

You're in Australia, right? How are things going down there?

 I'm actually in New Zealand; I'm even further away than conceivable. I'm on tour, doing Songs for Lulu. It's an interesting crossroads at the moment to be at the furthest reaches of the earth with this very emotional show. It's been a real privilege and joy to be allowed to emote and spend my grief process all over the world. And to see people respond so generously to it. It'll be nice to bring it back home to the tristate area, and put it to rest.

The shows to showcase Lulu are very structured, from what I've heard.

This show is in two parts. The first section is the new album, sung as a song cycle, with visuals by Douglas Gordon, who's a great Scottish artist. I perform it as a song cycle, or as a tribute or homage or platform really, for the loss of my mother. It's very austere and depressing—but also, I think, uplifting in the end.

In the second half, I liven up the atmosphere with good ol' showbiz Rufus, and we release the tension. It's a great evening, because it really does run the gamut of light and dark, happiness and sadness. It's got bang for its buck for sure.

Tell me about the film that Douglas Gordon created for this.

It's a 30-foot film of my eye, with makeup. What's fascinating about it is whether it's my material, or the Shakespeare sonnets, or just the overall exercise of observation which a show is . . . when you have a 30-foot eye in the background, moving and doing its thing, it really ties the experience together nicely [laughs]. It can mean so many things to so many people, and it's a lovely little thread that I feel really keeps the tension going. I'm very, very, very fortunate to have worked with such a brilliant artist.

I saw you perform mid-decade a couple of times at Toad's Place, in shows that were very improvisatory—I think one was actually a rehearsal for a tour you were putting together. How does the structure of this show further develop your artistry?

I've done so many different types of shows, whether it be opera, or the Judy Garland experience, or this intrepid venture. I think my philosophy is generally to stretch myself artistically and break new boundaries in terms of what I want to accomplish in my life. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that my star rose at a very troubled time in the music industry. There were no guarantees in terms of selling records or getting exposure—all this stuff was in flux. So my theory of survival was "Let's be as diverse as possible, and it's bound to work somewhere." And it's paid off. I think behind every shift there's always a distinct Rufus voice and character and theme. But I'm an animal with many legs that's got a hold on you, baby!

This particular tour has been a long one. I know the album was released in April . . .

I've been touring since February. It's been a part of my grief process. My initial instinct was just to work as much as possible, and not necessarily to contemplate what just happened. To get out there and start running. I think that was a good initial instinct, but now I'm at a point where I have to stop and absorb the blow emotionally as a human being, not as a showbiz animal.

So I'm entering the next phase; this tour got me there. Yesterday, I had a little time to spare, so I drove up the coast through the most gorgeous countryside one could ever imagine, listened to a lot of music and basically cried for six hours alone. Which was exactly what I needed to do. 

What has been the inspiration for the way you've developed your singing voice?

There are three things: One is just experience, over years and years of doing this, since I was a little kid. Opera was my first major influence; that's where I got the inspiration to elongate my phrases and create these gymnastic situations. [laughs] I really strongly feel that when I did the Judy Garland shows, that was probably the most concrete education I received in the art of singing, just in terms of breath control and pronunciation and endurance. So for me, the Judy shows ended up being the voice lesson of my life, quintessential in my development.

What about Garland captivates you?

I am captivated by her still; she's still one of my major influences. But I'd say that since I've done those shows, the temperature's gone down a little bit. I was pretty Judycentric for a long time, and I think the shows were a kind of exorcism—just to get that out of my system and give it a life of its own. It was inhabiting me a little too much. But I return every once in a while to the glitter and the God.

Something about your vocals reminds me of Harry Nilsson.

A lot of people have likened me to him. I think whether it's Harry Nilsson, or Randy Newman, or Tom Waits—these are all big influences. But not so much on each other. I think we're too similar to influence each other; we're all in the same boat. For me to put my name in the same boat as Nilsson or Waits, that's quite a statement. But I think I deserve it, nonetheless. [laughs]

What kind of response have you gotten to Lulu from fans?

The main response to Lulu is a visceral one, whether you love it or hate it. Certain people adore what I'm doing and totally get it, and will go on that journey, and other people will simply not set foot in the premises. [laughs] It's an extreme reaction, pro or con, which is great. That's what you want in art—that people are either going to love it or hate it. That's a sign of quality, in my opinion.

I know that you've also been working on an opera of your own, Prima Donna, which has gone through various stages of development and exposure. It's opened in Toronto and England . . .

And there is an American date coming, which will be announced very soon—but I can't get too far into it now because it's a big one and we want it to be somewhat of a surprise. Anyway, you can hold your breath, because the announcement will be made this year. However, the production's opening won't happen for a little while, because that's the way opera works.

Can you tell us a little bit about what the opera is all about?

It's a day in the life of an opera singer; sort of a love letter to opera. It takes place within a diva's mind—I therefore could relax into the romantic repertoire that I've worshipped for so long, whether Strauss or Wagner or Puccini or Verdi. That's sort of her vernacular. It's in French, and it all takes place one day in her beautiful apartment in Paris. The sets are gorgeous. What's great about the subject is that on one hand, I could pull pull from a lot of famous, iconic images, whether Norma Desmond or Jessye Norman or the 1980s movie Diva. Also, I could put a lot of myself in there, because essentially it's about a singer who is contemplating her worth, and that's something that all singers go through. So I could make it very general and very private at the same time.

Structurally, what makes it distinctive?

It's a good two-hour long opera, in two acts. It incorporates four singers and a massive orchestra, 70 pieces. I did all the orchestrations myself. It's a big work, but it's still very approachable. I'm not, by any means, trying to alienate the audience with my intellectual magnitude, which I find certain operas do these days. It's written for the people for sure. It's very melodic and romantic, and quite tragic. One also can't help but see my mother's life in it as well, because it's about about a woman examining the possible end of her career, which in a lot of ways could be translated into the end of one's life as well.

So, one the one hand you've got a new work that's very stripped down, just you and the piano, and then there's this . . .

I think this'll go down as one of the most interesting artistic events of this time period. I hate to say it, but it's true, and only because they were coupled. When I premiered the opera in London, the next evening I premiered this Lulu show. I did the same in Toronto. I don't know any other artist who one night presents an opera, and the next night they're all alone on stage. A lot of people accuse me of being arrogant or very in love with myself, but it's only because I do these insane things that nobody else does. So I don't know, am I not supposed to talk about it? Anyway . . .

Then there's the project you did with director Robert Wilson, the scoring of Sonette in Berlin, which features 24 Shakespeare sonnets . . . you alluded to it earlier . . .

Three of those sonnets appear on Lulu. I just premiered five of them as a song cycle, all orchestrated, in November with the San Francisco Symphony. So I've garnered a lot from the Shakespeare sonnets.

What was it like to work with Wilson? He's certainly a polymorph, working in visual arts and theater . . .

It was a great privilege to have had time with the master. He really is an American master and a living legend. I would argue that he's the most important theater director alive, only because he really created his own language. Nobody else around has had that vast form of communication that he has had over the years. It's wonderful that he's still working so much and still so open to being engaged with the arts. He doesn't rest on his laurels—he's always searching, but solid as well. I love Bob.

You've said decadence is your favorite thing. What's the most decadent thing you've done recently?

I ordered pizza and fries last night. That's pretty decadent at 37! [laughs]

There's just one final thing I wanted to tell you. You recently mentioned having a crush on 50 Cent. You should know he lives in Connecticut—maybe you could drop by.

Ohh, boy. I'll show up with flowers and and a bulletproof vest.

Q & A: Rufus Wainwright

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