Q&A: Rufus Wainwright on Kate, Martha, Loudon, the Opera, and His Favorite Shakespearean Sonnet"/>
Rufus Wainwright is having a heavy year. In January, he lost his mother, the folk songwriter Kate McGarrigle, to cancer. After spending much of 2009 working on his first opera, "Prima Donna" (which appeared in theaters in Europe and North America), Wainwright is currently on the road touring in support of his eighth record, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu. All Days, a compilation of songs featuring only Wainwright's vocals and piano, is likely his most emotional effort to date -- it includes three Shakespearean sonnets that he musically arranged for director Robert Wilson's play, "Sonette," as well as "Prima Donna"'s final aria, "Les Feux d'artifice t'appellent." For his concerts, Wainwright enlisted the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon to create visuals to serve as a backdrop on stage. I spoke with Wainwright on the phone yesterday; he was in Milwaukee, mid-tour ("I've made it here through blood, sweat, and piano keys"), and generously took the time to talk to me about All Days and his musical family.
Rufus Wainwright will perform at the Paramount on August 25.
How has your tour been so far? What kind of reaction are you getting from your audiences?
I'm definitely aware that what I have to offer is unusual and unique, in terms of this record being solo piano with a very somber context, and people have come out and shared with me my sadness and my trials. It's not an easy show, but it is nonetheless a fulfilling one.
How did your experience with the opera affect the way you wrote this album?
This album is very much a reaction to a whole plethora of massive events, whether it's my mother's events, or the opera, or working with Robert Wilson on the Shakespeare sonnet project. There were all these incredibly intense, focused sessions occurring in my life that I had to be athletically involved in, both emotionally and artistically. So me being alone at the piano was this kind of refuge or cocoon that I could crawl into and just be alone and process what was going on around me without losing it in front of people.
Did you get to spend much time with your mother before she passed?
I was fortunate to finish this album, mix it and master it, about a month before she passed away. So I immediately went to her bedside and hung out until the end. The fates were on my side in that respect.
What about your father? [Wainwright's father is the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III] Do you get to spend much time with him?
I've actually spent quite a bit of time with him. We did a show together in Brooklyn not too long ago. My mom just died, and it becomes about time and how much of it you're going to spend with people. I'd like to spend more time with him, because he is a great guy.
Why did you choose to dedicate this record to Martha? [Wainwright's sister, Martha, is, also, a songwriter]
Martha has really chosen to blossom in a fantastic and awe-inspiring way throughout this whole debacle. She was faced with probably the hardest situation any woman could be in - losing her mother while giving birth to her first child. And instead of having it destroy her, she just totally went the other way and has just blossomed into the matriarch of our family. I think all of us Wainwrights owe a tremendous debt to her for keeping us together.
And she's on tour with you right now?
Yes. It always makes me a little bit nervous, because people just adore her. The crowd just goes wild for her, which I'm so happy about. But I'll admit, it's also a bit scary having to go there after her because she is so good. But I do it, I do it every night, and it works. But then she comes on in the second half of my set and we sing together. The first half is very very somber. I request no applause during the first section and then I do the album as a song cycle. And then the section half is lighter fare.
Tell me about Douglas Gordon's visuals for your show. How do they add to your performance?
Like the cover, it's my eye, but thirty feet tall and in various stations, shall we say. Stations of the eye. It's a gorgeous work, and it's reminiscent of many things. It's reminiscent of the Surrealists, it's reminiscent of horror movies, it's reminiscent of Buñuel, it's reminiscent of going to the zoo and looking at an elephant. It's just all that the eye can conjure up. And once I roll around to the show to the Shakespeare sonnet, it's shocking how much Shakespeare uses the eye as a reference in all of his work.
And how did you choose which sonnets to include? There are so many to choose from.
I basically chose them practically because they're the ones that sound the best with me and the piano. I've written music for ten sonnets, and most of the other ones had big arrangements or rock bands behind them, and these work very well with the piano. That being said, Sonnet 20 is my favorite sonnet of all of them, so I had to have that one in there. It can never hurt to have a little Shakespeare in your show.
Rufus (and Martha) Wainwright will perform at the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday, August 25. You can purchase tickets here.
Shakespeare's Sonnet 20
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted Hast though, the master/mistress of my passion; A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted With shifting change, as is false women's fashion; An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling, Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth; A man in hue, all hues in his controlling, Which steals men's eyes and womne's souls amazeth. And for a woman wert thou first created, Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting, And by addition me of thee defeated, By adding one thing to my purpose nothing. But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure, Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.
Hast though, the master/mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and womne's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.