Rufus Wainwright was born the son of singer-songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and quickly followed in the family profession. He bagan piano at the age of six and joined the family ensemble in his early teens. His eponymous debut album (on DreamWorks) met with critical success and he has since put out an additional eight studio albums, most recently Prima Donna, an opera, and Take All My Loves, a collection of Shakespeare sonnets (both on Deutsche Grammophon), along with three live albums, including Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall (Geffen), an homage to Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall (Capitol). Wainwright is easy to talk to, with an occasional, endearing stammer and an easy laugh.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Rufus Wainwright. Something I hear across all your various guises is how you use so much voice. It became apparent watching your performance at a Sting birthday bash of “Wrapped Around Your Finger” [by The Police] — sometimes things pop out when we listen to covers because there is already a reference recording. You imbued a fullness and extension to the song’s phrases that we don’t hear in the original. I know it’s hard for people to talk about their style, but I guess that’s what I’m asking: how did you come to your style?
Well, I grew up in a family of great singers — my dad, my mom, sisters, aunt and so forth — so it was always around: this idea of interpreting songs. It was something I was familiar with at an early age, as a kind of mountain to tackle. You know there was nothing dilettante-ish about singing as a child in our family. It was always completely viewed with a professional lens. So I had that attitude early on, thanks to my upbringing. Then at around thirteen, fourteen, I discovered opera and became a massive fan. I really listened to opera exclusively for many years — with some exceptions, like Nina Simone, or Sonic Youth, odd sort of droppings from the canon. But in listening to opera singers I think I just instinctively started to imitate them, in terms of long phrases, vibrato, and a sort of dramatic arc that they utilize. I took a few vocal lessons at one point, dropped out of that because the guy didn’t like my shoes [laughs] — the voice teacher didn’t like the fact that I was wearing clogs — so I decided to not pursue my career as an opera singer. But I constantly referred back to that.
It’s interesting, because recently I did a concert with Renée Fleming — the two of us did a show together — and she commented how there’s a lot of things that I do that are somewhat impossible for either a pop singer or an opera singer. And I do credit that to my lack of education [chuckles], mixed with my passion for classical music. I kind of created this hybrid of the two.
You’re able to just step in and out of genres and orchestrations while still being yourself: always being recognizably Rufus. Is there a set of clothes in which you’re most comfortable?
Well no, there isn’t, to be honest. I think that’s why I’ve been so successful in terms of creating my own sound. I think in anything that I try to put forth, whether it’s a good song or a good opera or a good piano arrangement, I’m always reaching toward some impossible goal on the other end. I’ll try to write a song while thinking of a Mahler symphony, knowing full well that they’ll never meet, in a sense. There’s always this impossible task; in the end, I think the residue is that the listener can hear the artist trying to do something. [Laughs.] That’s all it really is — a sound — that’s what a sound really is: some kind of effort. But then, to reverse that, when I’m not writing an opera I’ll almost go more towards, you know, just a simple song. I should think more in terms of folk melody or a brilliant Beatles tune in terms of what I’m trying to express with a massive orchestra. So I think it’s the never-quite-being-pinned-down that is, if not the secret to my success, the motor [laughs] that keeps it going. [Laughs.]
How are the challenges different — and this is a naïve question — between writing a song, as a singer–songwriter, versus writing an opera? What’s the difference between the two animals?
Well for one thing, they’re completely opposite, in the sense that when I’m writing a song, it very much springs from an extremely personal existence or experience. And it’s something that will hit me occasionally with inspiration, and then I go forth and write it — or if I sit down and try to do it, the muses will appear. But in terms of an opera, you have to finish that opera [laughs], come hell or high water and when you’re doing that you can just hook into all of the job that has to be accomplished — whether it’s the orchestration or the drama or the melodies and you’re just inundated with tasks. So it becomes much more of a Herculean situation.
I imagine you have to break it up into smaller tasks.
Yeah, and I think both methods complement each other, so I am thankful that in working so hard the muse will visit me sometimes when I’m working on the opera or when I go into the studio and cut tracks. And that’s also labor intensive, but I have that work ethic down pat. But one is far more mysterious, while the other is really more mechanical. [Laughs.] They complement one another, but they are very different.
Did you have to bone up on orchestration before tackling the opera?
I went to music school for a little bit: I went to McGill in Montreal; I didn’t finish. And later on when I started working with producers on my albums, I started orchestrating a lot for those works. That’s when I first got my toes wet in the field of orchestration. When I wrote Prima Donna — my first opera — I was very insistent on orchestrating it myself. I did have a couple of young assistants from Yale who, with the help of computers, held my hand along the way as we went on that journey, but I did all the heavy lifting and I was there the whole time. Now I’m orchestrating my second one. I learned how to do it by doing it! [Laughs.] Mostly. [Laughs.] There’s a way to go.
‘I am convinced that opera — when it works — is the greatest art form that has ever existed on the planet.’
What do you think attracted you to opera as a teenager?
First, all experiences aside, I am convinced that opera — when it works — is the greatest art form that has ever existed on the planet. I believe in that, and there are moments when everything comes together: the singers, the orchestra, the stage direction, the actual acoustics of the hall. And when all of that hits a home run, I don’t think anything surpasses it. That’s my core belief.
That being said, when the passion arose it was definitely at an intersection of my life that was kind of screaming out for those dramatic gestures. For one, I knew about my sexuality when I was very young — I accepted my homosexuality when I was thirteen — and right around that time, 1986, ’87, AIDS was decimating the gay male population. So there was this gnarly mix of sexual awakening and also an intimate acquaintance with death. So opera really spoke volumes in both of those departments. For me, it’s akin to what a lot of other people my age got into when they started listening to Nirvana, let’s say, or grunge from the West Coast. There had to be something deeper, something darker and more intense than, say, Huey Lewis and the News. [Laughs heartily.] Nothing against Huey Lewis, of course, but I think the world took this kind of shift. Most people went to Kurt Cobain, and I went to Verdi and Wagner — similar, in a sense.
Spot on. When I spoke with Robert Glasper, he talked about growing up as a skater in Houston around that time, and getting into grunge. That is the traditional garage-band path, right?
That’s very interesting is that after I got into opera I spent time in New York, meeting a lot of old-time punk rockers. People who had hung out with Andy Warhol or who had worked with the Ramones and the downtown New York rock-‘n’-roll scene. Opera was always a big foundation of their musical lexicon. They would listen to Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Opera had a sort of rock-‘n’-roll attitude for a long time.
With the opera, the Shakespeare project, the Judy Garland project, I see a pattern forming of a postmodern artist appropriating past tropes and working with them. Is that a fair assertion?
Yeah, the way that I like to define it at the moment — and I think that you could even say that with Prima Donna and quite possibly with Hadrian, my next opera — is that I’m not an iconoclast. If anything, I’m an icono-doctor. [Laughs.] And I think that falls very much in line with the world in general right now. Yes, if I had been born in 1895, I would’ve been very much in line with history — that one would want to smash the idols and start again. But in this era, it’s really about saving whatever’s left before it’s all completely ruined! It’s very much like the environment, or education, or health. We need to be more delicate with what’s available to us and restore some of our dignity. Because at this point if we just keep smashing things, it’s over.
Years ago, I was taking composition lessons and wrote a song cycle in French. My composition teacher warned me that people want Americans to write in their native, rube tongue. Prima Donna is also in French, it has recitative, it looks backward, and you’ve gotten some pushback for that, but I think it’s fair to say that those were conscious decisions.
Yeah, I took a bullet in terms of that whole situation. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, had commissioned Prima Donna initially. I was born in the United States, but raised in Montreal, so I speak fluent French. The opera took place in Paris and the main character is from Montreal, so I just started writing in French because it seemed natural. Plus for the very Romantic style I used it just fit a lot better. The music started coming out of the words. But I kept telling Peter Gelb that eventually I would switch it into English, but the longer I went, the more I became convinced there was no real reason to do it in English, especially since it was the Met, which has surtitles. And finally he gave me an ultimatum: he said ‘Either it’s in English, or we’re not doing it.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s in French,’ and I walked away from the Metropolitan Opera. It was hard at the time, but I feel for any artist, as important as knowing your craft, being aware of what’s viable and not, just as important is being completely brutal in terms of what you want to do in the world and making those difficult choices.
Not to dwell on this, but it’s almost a Hollywood stance: to have a movie set in France with characters who don’t speak French, but speak English weez a-euh Fransh acksont — as opposed to an art film where people speak their native language.
I hadn’t orchestrated an opera before, and my main concern was to focus on the task. That’s where I needed to concentrate, as opposed to the language. In my opinion, English does work in opera sometimes, and sometimes it really doesn’t, whereas French doesn’t generally have that problem. My new opera Hadrian is in English and I’m enjoying that process. And it’s appropriate for me to do that now, because I am confident in my orchestrations and I can really focus on setting in the English language. But when I wrote Prima Donna, I was more interested in my orchestration prowess.
Does Hadrian occupy the same musical language as landscape as Prima Donna?
The music is still very melodic, very Romantic. It’s a little more... brutal, a little more angular. In illustrating the Roman Empire, you can be pretty up to a certain extent. [Laughs.] Then you have to illustrate the reality — that it was a pretty awful place to live. [Laughs.]
‘I feel that with my experiences as a human being — being a better father, a better husband, and also still grasping at the remaining youth I have — it’s made me more of an interesting performer. More human.’
You revisited your Judy Garland material [Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall (Geffen)]. Can you tell me what it was like to take it up again and the effect of ten years’ time?
Well I was a little afraid at the outset. But then as I started to sing the songs more — and I had been singing them here and there over the last ten years — in little spurts. I realized that something had settled in my bones and that there was this kind of extra darkness or a kind of more brooding color that came from life experiences. Aside from being an artist: having a child, a long-term relationship, the loss of my mother. Those great songs are real magnets for everyday emotions and so they were therefore imbued with more stuff that I had to express. So in a way it was more fulfilling, because I was able to unload a lot of packed-up feelings.
When I first did them, I was very much trying to channel Judy Garland. I mean I wasn’t imitating her per se, but I was communing with her. And that’s an erratic spirit, which is on one hand very thrilling and on the other frightening. So I was very much in that mode ten years ago when I first did it. But this time, I actually felt myself more channeling Frank Sinatra. [Laughs.] I’m not a huge fan of his, but I do appreciate him — isn’t his centenary coming up? Some big anniversary. [Sinatra’s centenary occurred in 2015. —Ed.] Anyways, the thing about him was that he gave me this more masculine, tough, warrior-like stance to the material. I kind of sang them more like a man, which I enjoyed a lot. [Laughs.]
He sang comfortably behind the beat, an ability he shared with Billie Holiday.
Totally, totally. That’s very true. I also think that with Judy Garland, after recording the album ten years ago, I accepted the fact that even though I’m a pretty good interpreter and I have a solid voice — I’m not the sort of alien that she was vocally. There were things that she could do that were just horrifically incredible. But now I feel that with my experiences as a human being — being a better father, a better husband, and also still grasping at the remaining youth I have — it’s made me more of an interesting performer. More human.
Quite a remarkable cast assembled for your Shakespeare album [Take All My Loves]! What does Shakespeare mean to you now, in 2016?
Well I didn’t really think about it before, but I always sort of accepted a lot about Shakespeare. He’s “the bard” and Stratford-upon-Avon and so forth. I, like any good member of the British Empire, having been brought up in Canada, was subservient to the whole Shakespearean mythos. Recently though, I saw this documentary about how basically no one knows who Shakespeare was, and there are other candidates, especially the Earl of Oxford — and I’ve gotten really interested in the question ‘Who is Shakespeare?’ I think it’s quite important, possibly one of the greatest capers of all time! [Laughs.]
You mentioned how songwriting is a more mysterious process than writing an opera. Is there a ritual for you, or a ritualized process when you’re writing a song?
In most cases, no. It either hits me or it doesn’t, and I’ll often find myself writing one without even knowing it. One thing that is for certain is that I can pretty much gauge that if I have a day off and I’m in a beautiful or interesting city — whether it’s Vienna or Minneapolis, and I have some time and I can walk across the town, by the end of that walk I’ll have a song. There’s something about walking and songwriting for me that works.
Do lyrics or music come first, or does it depend?
Well there will usually be a lyric and a melody that pop up at the beginning, either the chorus, the opening or some kind of bridge, but then the melody usually fulfills itself and I have to trail behind with the words a bit; the words come a little bit later. The music is like the blood and the lyrics are the bones.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, an award-winning quarterly print magazine published by Steinway & Sons. Subscribe here.