- 23 Oct 15
Ahead of his eagerly-awaited Sligo Live appearance, Rufus Wainwright talks opera, fatherhood, and why the new Pope makes him optimistic.
I’m at the tail end of a wide-ranging chat with noted American-Canadian songwriter, performer and indeed conversationalist Rufus Wainwright and I’ve almost got him at a loss for words. There was a time when he would have kept an eye on the business of generational rival Ryan Adams but an extremely busy schedule in 2015 – child-rearing, opera-writing – means the first he’s hearing of the former alt. country It Boy covering Taylor Swift’s 1989 in its entirety is from yours truly. And he’s truly baffled.
“What, that happened?! Yeah I totally missed this... Oh wow, I mean I... That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard!”
The topic of the bizarre beast that is pop music is up for discussion and Wainwright seems less interested in appealing to the mainstream than he has ever done before. Maybe it’s a confidence that comes with fatherhood and your forties.
“My big move – alert the presses! – is that I just discovered and am very into this composer Alan Hovhaness who died in 2000 at 90 and lived in Washington state. Wow, that’s going to make headline news! Ha! But I just go for what I really want. This is probably something that I inherited from my parents, especially my mother [the late, great Kate McGarrigle] - we liked to find weird insects under rocks. Y’know? That is far more entertaining than shooting down eagles.”
So while Rufus “did” Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall eight years ago, it sounds unlikely that he’ll try to one-up Mr. Adams and deliver Rufus Does Beyoncé any time soon?
The drollest beat before the-drier-than-the-desert wit fully returns. “Who’s Beyoncé?”
Ridiculous, but a gag you can get away with when you’re a man deemed “the greatest songwriter on the planet” by another of pop’s supreme divas, Elton John.
We’re several weeks away from Wainwright exhibiting his musical and raconteurial skills at Sligo Live but, as he relaxes near the ocean in Montauk, New York, he’s already thinking ahead to touching base with Ireland. Today is a show day.
“I’m resting up for the big Irish jamboree – ‘The Irish Rufuree'! there's a little club out there called The Talkhouse I'm playing just to warm up the engines a little bit."
There’s little doubt the Irish visit means a lot – “I’ve been going to Ireland since I was six or seven years old. It’s like visiting a relative, so it’s necessary for me to come and say hi” – but he has plenty of other stops along the way. Italy, Japan… Now married to Jörn Weisbrodt and raising a girl with Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard, he’s no longer the footloose and fancy free wandering minstrel he once was.
“My daughter Viva is in Los Angeles. She lives there with her mother and I go there as often as I can as well. It’s a double-edged sword. A rather dull double-edged sword; we’re not out to chop anyone up here! But yes, I do miss my husband and my daughter and having a domestic life all the time. But then I also get away, and I don’t have to get up at seven in the morning! So I have no complaints at the moment. But especially with kids, things change so drastically every month. They become totally different people weekly, practically. So I wouldn’t rest on my laurels. My daughter’s about four-and-a-half and we’re really hitting that stage where you’re just like ‘my God, we’re just going to sit down and have a conversation now!’ About life and the world. Whereas before it was puppet shows and trying to distract them. But now it’s hitting this intellectual level which is fascinating and wonderful. She’s intrepid as well, which is great.”
With his daughter growing up in LA, how does he feel about the world she’s inheriting?
“I fluctuate,” he admits. “I’m not a Catholic or a Protestant, in fact I’m not baptised as anything, but certainly having The Pope here in America at the moment, there’s a lot of optimism and softening in terms of the way we’ve been acting over the last while. And then reflection on that. The forces in the world that in my opinion are evil are either ridiculous in a Donald Trump way or they’re just so disgusting in an ISIS way that you think, ‘Okay, do the job at hand! We know what we have to do.’”
And if you dwelt on it too long, there’d be no hours in the day to write operas. Rufus is currently working on his second, whilst his first, Prima Donna, has just been released thanks to a Pledgemusic campaign.
“Released on Deutsche Grammophon, which is a big deal. And I’m working on a second one which is premiering in 2018 about the emperor Hadrian. So I’m in that mode. And when one is in that mode, you don’t make a lot of money. Because it’s all about the music and staying home and composing that music. So I have to go out and earn a living and thankfully I come from a very illustrious and intense bonafide family of intrepid troubadours. So I can lean on that tradition and I can go out and do my job. At this point I have quite a repertoire, be it a bit of Judy, a bit of French, a bit of my mother’s material, bit of opera. So I just go out there and sing for my supper essentially.”
Have the pop performances become a way to pay the bills?
“It pays the bills, but it’s also... I don’t want to undercut the pop world or at least my position in it. Because yes, after mounting an opera and dealing with conductors and divas and disgruntled chorus members, there’s a lot of headaches that you have to go through and it’s pretty tiring. Of course, on opening night when it all comes together there’s nothing more fabulous. But needless to say it’s hard work. When I go back into the pop world and I go to the studio and I work with these other types of musicians, I appreciate it that much more. The freedom, the desire to make mistakes. The late nights... The Devil.”
This journo has heard tell that orchestra members could almost outdo the rock ‘n’ rollers in the partying stakes once the performance is over.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of that. I’ve heard of that. But I dunno... I challenge them to a duel in Hollywood!”
In 2012, Rufus Wainwright released the Mark Ronson-produced Out Of The Game. A real gem of record, its creator assumed it was his ticket to the top of the charts. Mark Ronson said it was the best thing he’d ever worked on. No one bought it. Three years later, Mark Ronson has one of the biggest selling hits of all time in the Bruno Mars- assisted ‘Uptown Funk’. A tremendous jam, but about nothing. Rufus Wainwright couldn’t write that song. He probably wouldn’t want to.
“Right. I think the same thing applies to opera as to pop. Basically your brain, your sense of reality, shuts off. You think, ‘Oh my God, this is the biggest hit, this is going to be huge’ or ‘this opera is going to change the world’. And it’s this funny delusion that you really have to believe in while you work on a project. The minute you release it into the world and you actually wake up and look at what the world is really like, you realise ‘oh my God this is the furthest thing from what’s popular or the furthest thing from revolutionising the classical world that could ever have been written.’ But in the process while you’re doing that, you have to be crazy and think that you are God and think that you’re totally going to revolutionise the world. So it’s a kind of slightly unfortunate mental illness that you have to go through.”
A few years back, Q magazine paired Michael Stipe with Rufus Wainwright for something of a songwriting summit. Entertaining in the extreme, it quickly became more than craft talk, with the REM singer going into his first sexual encounters and Rufus reliving his tearaway teenage days. But the thing that stayed with me was Stipe casually stating that he could go into a room with Rufus for a few hours and leave with a pop song that would reign supreme in the charts for months. No hassle. But they just wouldn’t want to do it. But... surely Rufus did?
“Ahhh! Well, I dunno. I would have enjoyed that process with Michael. But Michael is also abitofa…He’s a bit of a flirt, ha! On many levels. My hats are off to him, mainly because I have more hair! But he really is a genius in terms of understanding the actual arteries of popular culture. He can see them. He knows where to put the needle. I’m far more cloudy on the subject.”
Would he swap the greatest of regard from the most gifted players in the game for 10 times as many teenagers tweeting glowingly about him?
“I don’t know... If we lived in ancient times and I could have a palace and they were all my subservient sex slaves, sure!” he chuckles. “But I don’t think that’s the way the world works any more.”
And considering he’s one of the few old school pop stars whose opinion is still worth a damn, why don’t we find him tweeting to the masses?
“I still can’t figure out how to save a phone number,” comes the unexpectedly prosaic reply. “That’s sort of where I’m at.”
Rufus Wainwright has long fancied himself a pre-Raphaelite type enthralled with the romance of a time long since past. If he could have lived in any period, when would it have been?
“I just finished the Tennessee Williams biography and certainly the ‘50s in New York right before Flower Power sounded pretty fun.,” he says with consideration. “But I’d probably last about 10 years and die at the Chelsea Hotel or something. So this one’s pretty good for me.”
Late October in 2015, on a stage in Sligo?