"I’m Never Quite Sure What to Expect": An Interview with Rufus Wainwright
Just as he kicks off the next leg of the tour supporting his stark, cathartic album revolving around his mother's passing, Rufus Wainwright talks to PopMatters about Shakespeare, Stieglitz, and how the first half of his performance each night is one of the hardest things he's ever had to get through.
"At the end of the day, the album is a real slice of my life," starts Rufus Wainwright, talking about his latest album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, "whether it's my mother dying or my opera or my sister. So it's a real cross-section of my life. It's like a very somber photo like a Stieglitz or Nan Goldin shot of who I am realistically right now."
This record, quite possibly his most personal, is definitely his most scaled-back, musically, featuring just piano and vocals on the 12 tracks. "It was all very, very planned. And the other thing too I can't deny, the sonnets, the aria from the opera, those are all from other projects, whether it's the opera or the Robert Wilson play that I did." Wainwright is referring to the three Shakespearean sonnets he set to music for this record, a project originally done with the aforementioned Wilson for the Berliner Ensemble. The album also includes "Les Feux D'Artifice T'appellent", an aria from his first opera, Prima Donna.
The aria, whose title translates to "The Fireworks Are Calling You", is a key moment on the album. That song, so full of grieving for Wainwright's dying (and now deceased mother) is an unexpected moment of vitality. In an interview with the Nottingham Evening Post, Wainwright told Mike Atkinson that the fireworks represented "life itself". The aria precedes "Zebulon", a song which features confessional lyrics like "My mother's in the hospital / My sister's at the opera / I'm in love but let's not talk about it."
But, then again, Wainwright has never been one to play his cards close to his chest. From his self-titled debut on, Wainwright has maintained an intimate relationship with his listeners. Even on his first record, songs like "Danny Boy" and "Baby" disclosed a vulnerability that has persisted in Wainwright's music. He has maintained that openness in the press, talking candidly about his relationship with his parents (the folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle), his sister (singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright), his troubled romantic life, and his former meth addiction. These relationships are dramatized again on All Days Are Nights, taking many forms.
One such song is the wounded "Martha", which laments the difficulty of getting in touch with his sister during troubled times. Wainwright admits this was the hardest song on the album for him to write:
"Emotionally, I think it [the most difficult song] would probably be 'Martha' because it was at the most difficult time in this process. I finished the album before my mother died, but at the point where I had written 'Martha', I was in Germany and my mother was in the hospital in Canada, and she was having a very difficult time, and I couldn't go see her because I was working. And I couldn't see Martha because she was on tour. It was like a diaspora of our family. We had all been scattered around and we all very exhausted. It was very trying. So I think 'Martha' encapsulates that moment."
As for how his sister perceived the song, Wainwright gives a little laugh as he recounts her impression:
"She loves that song. Initially she was a little shocked because I sort of presented the song to her flippantly, like, 'Here, Martha, I just wrote a song about you never returning my phone calls.' And she was like, 'Oh, great, Rufus, hit me while I'm down. My mother was dying and you're gonna write this horrible song about me.' But once she heard it she realized it was a love song and it was all good."
While he's quick to disclose his feelings both in the songs and when speaking about them, Wainwright admits that he sometimes closes his emotions off from himself when writing songs. As an example of this, he cites "The Dream", a song which he thought referred to the titular Lulu, a Louise Brooks character in the movie Pandora's Box.
"'The Dream' has been a very interesting song for me. Initially I wrote it about Lulu. It's this vision in my mind of the end of the movie Pandora's Box and Louise Brooks has been killed by Jack the Ripper, and his and her ill-fated lovers are singing this song about the great beauty of death. But what did the great beauty represent, really, and who was the dream? I had this very convoluted idea in my head, and, of course, now when I sing it, and I do it in shows, I'm struck by the simple fact that it's very much about my mother and I our relationship. And I was writing in a certain way about those things but I couldn't do it in a more direct way because I was protecting myself."
Indeed, "The Dream" is a sad farewell to a dream in which Wainwright asks "But who was the dream? / Was it you or was it me?" In addition to being a difficult song for him to tackle emotionally, the technical aspects of its performance proved challenging. The song was recorded with the piano and vocals tracked separately since Wainwright couldn't yet perform them both together.
"'The Dream,' I couldn't sing until midway through the European tour, so that one I can had to piece together on the recording. But I can now. It's all possible. I knew it was all possible. But that's always the case with albums in the studio, one of the great passports of pop, that you can fuck around as much as you want to get what you need."
"The Dream" is only one example of a song on what is perhaps Wainwright's most technically difficult record yet. The simplicity of instrumentation forces him to be flawless with his piano and vocals. For Wainwright, the technical difficulty and the emotional challenges are very related to each other:
"Interestingly enough, the technical demand of this album is very very closely related to the grieving process that I'm going through. My mother passed away in January, and I have been noticing for these shows, just having to get up there night after night and having to go through the paces is probably the closest thing I've experienced to the loss of a loved one. It's just what you have to do, and there's no escaping it, and you gotta get to the end because there's an audience. So the technical part is actually very closely related to my personal life right now in many ways."
While Wainwright says he pieced the album together in a very intuitive, organic fashion, he says certain laws governed the track order and the musical flow of the album.
"A lot of that is very organic or technical, I mean the organic feel is just not to think about it too much, just what seems right. That being said, though, I think there are a lot of scientific or musical or physical laws that are being followed, whether it's with key changes or tempo. And of course the other thing that was very important was that the sonnets were right in the middle in the piece. It's like you discover this new world momentarily of Shakespeare, which is endless, and then you return to Rufus-land."
The sonnets are some of the most stirring moments on the album. Shakespeare's words, distilled through Wainwright's distinctive voice and delicate arrangements, suddenly seem made to have been sung. Wainwright admits to being touched by the sheer majesty of the words when playing the songs live.
"One of the more interesting experiences I've had recently was [that] I was doing a show, and I sometimes cry during the show just because it's so emotional. But then at one point I started crying, crying, crying doing one of the Shakespeare sonnets. It had nothing to do with my life whatsoever, at least not consciously. It was just the beauty of those words was so shocking all of a sudden, and I never fully realized it until one night, and they beheld all the magic in that moment."
The live shows for this tour have been, like the rest of the album, very planned, very personal, and very challenging for both the artist and the audience. For the first half of the concert, Wainwright dons a feathered black cape and heavy black eye makeup as he performs every song from All Days Are Nights in order. The audience is asked not to applaud until after Wainwright has made his exit from the stage from this first set. The second half features Wainwright in a more relaxed mode, playing old favorites from his back catalog. For Wainwright, the performance style necessitated itself from the start, given his love of song cycles: "I knew that it had to be a very somber and intense and serious presentation, and the idea of not having applause between songs is clear. So I always imagined it as a song cycle because I love song cycles. I'm a big Schubert fan, a big Schumann fan, Hugo Wolf, and all these people." While the performances are guaranteed to be somewhat similar each night, subtle factors influence the performance: "Well, it's such an organic experience because it's very attuned to a varied amount of aspects. Whether it's the hall I'm singing in or how I'm feeling personally or what the audience is like or what the weather outside is doing. It's a really different experience every night, so I'm never quite sure what to expect."
Consistently finding new meaning in his songs is yet another sign that Wainwright has chosen the right career path. He finds himself fortunate to have a job that is as therapeutic as it is artistic.
"It's useful to have this ability and kind of creative job to direct my sadness. I feel very very privileged and fortunate to go out there every night and basically purge all the emotions that I am feeling, and so I'm a very, very lucky guy. Most people don't have a creative outlet as dramatic as mine to grieve with. I feel very, very fortunate to be able to put my sadness in this boat."
For a record that is clearly Wainwright's boat, the subtitle of Songs for Lulu can initially seem surprising. But Lulu, to Wainwright, is a very real presence channeled. "Well, she is very much a spirit or a phantom or a ghost who I channel or am trying to channel away from," he laughs. "She's sort of this demon character that I see in the corner of my eye whenever I'm a little bit vulnerable and bit giddy. So this album in a lot of ways is a sacrifice to that deity so she stays in her movie."