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Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

Interview: Rufus Wainwright Talks Family, Going Pop

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Plenty of songwriters were born into musical families, but few more so than Rufus Wainwright, the son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and the older brother of folk-rock singer Martha Wainwright. Wainwright has collaborated with his family extensively, performing with his mother and sister in concert and singing with them on his 2007 album Release the Stars, a typically lush collection of symphonic chamber-pop. Wainwright went it alone on his latest record, AllDays Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, a sparse solo set recorded without the usual backing ensemble or guest voices, yet his family still looms large over the album, which was recorded last year while his mother battled the cancer that took her life in January. One of the record’s most striking songs is a plea for support from Wainwright’s sister, simply titled “Martha.” In advance of his concert Tuesday, Aug. 10 with his sister at the Pabst Theater, Wainwright spoke to the Shepherd Express about his new album, which in its stark execution was a marked departure from his previous project, the ambitious 2009 opera Prima Donna.


What prompted you to make an album as stripped down as Songs for Lulu?



There are basically three reasons. One is that my fans for years have enjoyed solo concerts that I’ve given in order to stretch the dollar, as they say, in my artistic life. I have to work a lot to just live in New York, I guess, so I’ve always done solo concerts, so it’s always been a sound that’s familiar to my fans. Also, just in my personal and professional life, this has been the most intense year yet, both with the opera and the death of my mother, so I was juggling these two massive entities. Me alone at the piano became a kind of refugee, a shield, or a cocoon, where I could really just express myself without worrying what others thought. It was important for me to be alone during these momentous moments. And thirdly, we live in a recessionary time, and everybody’s cutting back, and you have to tighten the belt. I’m doing the same as everybody else, just cutting back a bit.


Even without the orchestrations, a lot of these pieces are very complex. Were you ever tempted to simplify your compositions, as well?

Some of these songs are very simple, whether you look at “A Woman’s Face,” [an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, one of three Shakespeare sonnets Wainwright included on the album] or that song “Martha,” but they’re coupled with the toughest arrangements I’ve ever written. I wanted high peaks and low valleys on this album. In order to give it full contrast, I wanted the album to be a full extension of my abilities.


Was it a lot faster writing songs without elaborate arrangements?

Without the arrangements they come each at their own speed. Some of them are a flash of inspiration, and some of them are a laborious exercise … it’s like a child, each child has their own type of birth. Some of them, because they’re related to the theatrical projects of my world, be it the opera or the Robert Wilson Shakespeare project, they’ve been floating around in the ether for a couple years. Others came when my mother was first really diagnosed and in the hospital with her illness. I would say “Zebulon” is the earliest song on this album, followed by the theatrical pieces.


Given that so many of these songs are about your mother’s illness, why did you opt to dedicate the album to your sister, Martha, instead of your mother?

I’ve dedicated an album to my mother already. Once the album was released my mother was gone, and I felt that my sister—not that she needs the encouragement per se—but that she has been such an incredible force of nature since my mother passed. She really kind of swooped in and grasped the matriarchal mantel of the family, totally effortlessly. We all owe a lot to her in our family for being so together, and so open. Since she became a mother last year, she just really blossomed in a way, and she just really took on a lot of responsibility.


You’ve collaborated with your family extensively. Did you ever feel the need to distance yourself from them a bit, to carve out your own identity?



I feel confident enough in my own abilities to go back and forth. Aside from my work with my family, I’m very deeply entrenched in the opera world and theater world and even one could argue in the jazz world, with the Judy Garland project, so I’m not bound to any particular regiment that I have to be true to. I’m still taking cracks at the pop world, really. I’ve made some pop sounds and I’ve gotten noticed by the mainstream here and there. But I’ve never truly conquered the charts and that for any songwriter is one of the main goals. So I’m still eyeing that possibility, especially for the next album. Especially for the next record, I’d like to dumb it down a bit, and be a little less arty.

It seems you’ve been marketed more as a “high-culture” artist. Does that make it difficult to cross over into the pop world?

Well, I have been in that world. I was in Rolling Stone magazine as a best new artist, and Elton John is a great supporter of mine. I’ve been nominated for a Grammy, so that is my territory. I’ve done radio breakfasts and stuff like that, and so the pop world is actually where I’m based, but it’s hard to have a foot in both worlds in America. The truth is I’m very big in England. I’m a pretty big celebrity in England. In England, and in most Europe you can do both, but in America it has to be much more compartmentalized. For some reason, in America, they can’t conceive of shifting gears. It’s always been that way.


So what would a Rufus Wainwright pop album sound like?

Well, something you can dance to. And something you can cry to, too. I’ll be working with another producer.


Do you already know who?


[Laughs] Yes, but I’m not saying.


Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright share an 8 p.m. bill at the Pabst Theater on Tuesday, Aug. 10.

Photo by Kevin Westenberg