Rufus Wainwright's rich voice on sober subjects

by John Timpane

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

6 August 2010


“Having a voice like mine is like having a rabid dog you have to muzzle — or release against your enemies.”

Rufus Wainwright is reflecting on his operatic, unmistakable voice, and on how he manages, or does not manage, to keep it in check.

That voice is speaking by phone from a limo speeding between New York and Asbury Park, N.J. It’s Sunday, the first U.S. date of his current tour, in which the singer-songwriter performs his new album, “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” in its entirety.

“The reaction in Europe was astounding,” says Wainwright. “One of the greatest experiences of my life was the performance in the Grand Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona. I ended the tour at a Greek temple. Now it’s Asbury Park’s turn, which is a temple of sorts.”

“Lulu” is both a departure and a further journey. Wainwright has been busy, with an opera (“Prima Donna”), written with Bernadette Colomine; a Shakespeare sonnet cycle for the stage, created with director Robert Wilson; and albums, such as “Rufus Does Judy” at Carnegie Hall, that often feature flamboyant, lush arrangements.

But “Lulu” strips it down to piano and voice — fitting for an album that faces the death of Wainwright’s mother, that sings of grief, loss, and identity. Yet, thanks to that voice, a voice that owes as much to classical music, opera, and torch-song cabaret as to rock ‘n’ roll, you wouldn’t call “Lulu” stark.

“When I started out, my ego was so on fire, so eager to devour the planet,” Wainwright says, “that I just ran with my voice. One could argue it wasn’t up to those standards ... yet there was a blissful brazenness to it ... still, I have really worked hard to refine my instrument.”

That work began with “Rufus Does Judy” (2008), in which he sang Garland’s signature tunes backed by a 36-piece orchestra. “Those classic songs, with those incredible lyrics — I had to think about what I was doing in terms of diction,” he says. “And the voice is still a work in progress. I’ve been singing a lot with my dad recently. He’s 63 and singing better than ever.”

“My dad” would be Loudon Wainwright III, the singer-songwriter associated with “Dead Skunk,” “Daughter,” and much else (including the song “Rufus Is a Tit Man”). Rufus’ mother, Kate McGarrigle, of the revered Canadian folk duo the McGarrigle Sisters, died of clear-cell carcinoma in January. His aunt Anna McGarrigle still performs, as does his aunt Sloan Wainwright, and his sister Martha. Rufus’ father also has a daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche, with Suzzy Roche of the Roche sisters.

One of the most affecting tracks on “Lulu,” “Martha,” depicts Rufus, aware of his mother’s illness and time ticking away, calling his sister, getting her phone machine:

Martha it’s your brother calling

time to go up north and see mother,

things are harder for her now

and neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore. ...

there’s not much time for

for us to really be that angry at each other anymore.

“‘Martha’ stems from one of the darkest periods of my mother’s passing,” he says. “My mother was in the hospital, and I was working on the Shakespeare show in Europe, and I was trying to get her there to see it, and it wasn’t looking good, and I was totally, totally helpless.

“Over the years,” says Wainwright, 37, “I’ve learned to appreciate and be grateful for this huge, musical family dynamic, and give myself permission to use it. Everyone has been generous and kind as we all work through this. We all, as people and as musicians, we have this strange passport we’ve been issued — mainly because we haven’t been quite superstars.”

As for a voice-and-piano album, he “always knew” it was coming. “But I knew it would come only at a very important moment, a crossroads, a milestone that delineated my youth from the next era of my life,” he says. “And so you have my mother’s death, and me working on the opera. Really, too, it’s also knowing the power of voice-and-piano, which can top a symphony orchestra or a full jazz band.”

Some call Wainwright too emotional, too self-involved, too self-indulgent. Others note his undoubted gifts, his brave explorations of his identity as a gay man, and the question of identity itself.

Doesn’t “All days are nights” echo a line from Shakespeare? And who is the Lulu of the title?

“Lulu” includes three Shakespeare sonnets set to music. In “Sonnet 10,” the speaker cries out to the unwilling beloved, “Make thee another self for love of me.” In “Sonnet 20,” a beloved man is seen as a woman: He is “the master mistress of my passion.” And in “43,” the speaker says, “All days are nights to see till I see thee” — grief for a dead beloved, or grief over an absent lover? That’s a strong current in “Lulu”: Love and loss alike challenge identity, force changes of roles on us as we love, seek, lose. Days become nights out of sheer grief; days and nights switch roles, identities.

The first track, “Who Are You, New York?”, was written for a film but was rejected, which Wainwright calls “fortuitous.” It took him 10 minutes to write: “And any song that comes that easily, that quickly, is heavily related to the ethos, to the collective subconscious. I really think New York has had an identity crisis, and was, long before 9-11. I think it’s now on the cusp of a better, more inclusive, less money-conscious era.”

Again: Who is Lulu? Wainwright chuckles at the suggestion it might be Louise Brooks, star of the 1929 German film “Pandora’s Box,” a version of Frank Wedekind’s play, which became a celebrated opera by Alban Berg. Brooks, with her perfect body and hard, swept-forward helmet of hair, her liaisons with everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Greta Garbo, has become an icon of liquid, shifting sexuality.

“I’ve said Lulu is the woman who lives within all of us,” Wainwright says. “And Louise Brooks, she’s my ultimate Lulu. Shakespeare is the ultimate Shakespeare — we’re not even sure if he even existed, so he and Louise, they’re both exploring the line between reality and fantasy, always asking ‘Who are we?’”

The drama of “Lulu” is Wainwright’s struggle with loss — and his struggle both to express and to restrain himself, to muzzle or release the romping beast of his feelings (and, yes, voice). The first half of his show is “Lulu,” performed without breaks for applause, with visuals by artist Douglas Gordon. “In the second half,” Wainwright says, “we come out and sing the old favorites and have a good time.”

That’s a clue to what’s next for Rufus Wainwright. “On one hand,” he says, “I am going to continue my classical music explorations. I’m going to continue with the opera, with the Shakespeare sonnets. On the other hand, I still haven’t conquered the pop market, and I need to lighten up and have fun with my rock ‘n’ roll work and” — he pauses for a moment, chuckles, and says: “dance.”

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