Rufus Wainwright talks Judy Garland, the need to create and hints at new musical production
I remember the night Rufus Wainwright made his Toronto debut.
The year was 1998 and his self-titled album was scheduled to be released on DreamWorks, a record label co-founded by Hollywood heavyweights David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Wainwright was its first signing.
The venue was (Toronto bar) C’est What, and amongst a gathering of music industry acolytes and the club’s normal patronage, Wainwright sat down at an upright piano, sang … and was promptly drowned out by one of the rudest crowds to occupy the premises, ignoring the music and holding conversations at the top of their voices.
Twenty-four years later, calling from the Hollywood abode he shares with his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, Wainwright, who plays Massey Hall on May 16, chuckles at the recollection.
“Well, it incrementally got better over the years,” he quips.
Indeed it has, although some may quibble with the “incrementally” notion: at 48, despite not really having anything even close to a hit song, Wainwright has cobbled together an amazing career that has allowed him to indulge in all of his musical passions, ranging from pop to opera to Broadway.
Wainwright certainly has no regrets.
“I can say I’m 100 per cent satisfied with how it’s gone,” he says. “And that makes a lot of sense because, in the past and still, when I’m in the studio or when I’m doing live shows, I’m pretty unforgiving of myself, in terms of timing and hitting that mark and raising the intensity and stuff like that.
“There are other parts of my career that I look back on — and not so much with regret, but wishing I could have done a little better … like a video I might have made, or certain outfits I wore. Sometimes there was an event I chose not to do that suddenly became the be-all and end-all. I have regrets, don’t worry. Not about music, though.”
He’s certainly as prolific as ever. Although he is currently touring to promote his 2020 pandemic-interrupted, Grammy-nominated album “Unfollow The Rules,” with a three-piece band, he’s got another waiting in the pipeline that will be released on June 10 — “Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studio” — just in time for what would have been actress Judy Garland’s 100th birthday.
This is not the first time Wainwright has paid tribute to Garland: back in December 2007 he released his first live album, “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall.”
What is it about her that fascinates him so?
“She’s definitely the gift that keeps on giving for me, in the sense that I did the first concert almost 20 years ago at Carnegie Hall, and then I had a chance to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that actually in Toronto when my husband Jörn was the head of the Luminato Festival.
“I realized about a year ago that this year is the centennial of Judy Garland and it seems to be a repertoire that people now identify with me and remember and want to hear more of, so … I understand that I have to please the goddess, you know, on her birthday.”
Purchase tickets for Rufus does Judy at Capitol Studios here: https://rufuswainwright.veeps.com/stream/schedule
Born in Rhinebeck, New York to well-known folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, (his sister is singer and songwriter Martha Wainwright,) the couple divorced and Rufus spent the majority of his childhood in Montreal.
After studying piano at McGill University, he began a weekly residency at Cafe Sarajevo.
“That was a huge influence,” Wainwright admits. “That was something that I very much came up with on my own and in the sense that I was doing little gigs here and there in Montreal and maybe sometimes with my mom and my dad, but it was pretty sporadic.
“And finally I figured, I’m just going to take this one spot and play there every week and by the end of the run, I’ll be at the next level. And that’s what happened. I don’t think it happens for everyone, but I do think that there’s something in just focusing your efforts in one place and repeating that over and over until people get hit over the head enough,” he laughs.
He whittled 52 songs down to one dozen for his debut album, and since then has released nine studio albums, including his first opera “Prima Donna” (he’s written another since called “Hadrian”) and also committed Shakespeare sonnets to music in “Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets.”
“The sonnets weren’t easy” he admits. “I tried to focus on serving the lyrics. With the opera, it’s totally different. There are two elements: one is, it’s very collaborative. You have to write stuff that the singers can sing and that the orchestra can play and making sure the balance is right and so forth.
“And then, there’s also the drama, with the characters themselves becoming pretty demanding and very much in control of what has to be composed for the opera to make sense. And I just created a musical recently which I can’t really announce anything about, but I have done it and it will be announced soon. But yes, the theatrical work is very good.”
Although he hasn’t announced the name of his musical, Wainwright says when it comes to writing a major work, that, too, is a different ballgame.
“It’s very different, too. I mean, an opera — what I love about it is that the composer is king, at the end of the day. Everyone is trying to serve what the composer’s idea is. And that’s a wonderful opportunity and position to be in.
“But with musicals, it’s far more democratic. Whether it’s the director or the book writer — everybody really has to negotiate with each other, and actually the music falls several notches behind. You have to be a little more subservient, which is good, too. That’s good for honing future skills. I’ve already done nine workshops.”
Like his other albums “Poses” and the “Want One,” “Want Two” efforts, “Unfollow The Rules” is a collection of songs that Wainwright says represents some of his finest work … but not all of the songs were written recently.
“There’s always a surplus of songs and some of them I release far later than they were written,” he admits. “In fact, on this album, ‘Unfollow the Rules,’ that is definitely the case. There are songs that I wrote earlier like one called ‘Early Morning Madness’ — that was written in another period of my life.
“The way that it works for me is that I write a bunch of songs, and then it’s pretty obvious which ones make the record and which ones can wait. I think it’s really a process of deduction and it depends on the quality. And I think that that makes sense for anybody who thinks, ‘if I write 30 songs, I’ll have a better chance of having a good one than if I write two.’ So, it’s actually mathematics.”
But Wainwright also admits that for him, creativity is a compulsion.
“I’ve always been rather manic, artistically, whether it’s singing all the time or writing songs or especially- even during COVID, because all the tours were cancelled for a while — I ended up doing a lot of drawing,” he explains. “I drew each one of my songs for the new record.
“I just have this need to create and I think it’s quite common when you’re an artist and I just don’t ask any questions and I go for it.,” he laughs. “Maybe it has something to do with being brought up in Montreal and as far away from the spotlight, though not in another universe, just not far from New York. There’s always a yearning that I’ve had to go out there and make my mark.”
For those curious about his husband Weisbrodt, Rufus reports that his spouse is now managing him.
“He’s here with me right now, working away,” says Wainwright. “We work together now. He manages me and he helps me a lot with — especially with these theatrical exploits. We’re doing my second opera ‘Hadrian’ in Spain this summer, in Barcelona, and so we’ve been working on promoting it and Jörn is actually directing it. We’re also living in Hollywood, kind of making our way through Tinseltown. It’s incredible to have a partner with me. And he tells me that he misses Toronto a lot.”
In fact, the duo has dim sum plans with ex-Governor General and former journalist Adrienne Clarkson when they arrive in Toronto for the gig.
“I’m very excited to come to Massey Hall,” says Wainwright. “I would say it’s one of my top five venues in the world that I love playing. I’ve had some of my greatest theatrical and favourite musical moments on that stage, including the tribute to my mom for Luminato (“Love Over and Over: The Songs of Kate McGarrigle” was the third of a series of three tribute concerts held on June 15, 2012 for McGarrigle, who died of sarcoma in 2009.)
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m hopeful.”
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