August 4, 2010 | by David J. Hoffman
Sister act

It could be the royal family of folk-pop, artsy-confessional music.

The Wainwright musical dynasty began with their troubled father, folk singer-songwriter and actor Loudon Wainwright III and their mother, the late Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle.

In this generation it has flowered into cult stardom both with gay singer and opera composer Rufus Wainwright and his younger singer-songwriter sister Martha, who are together in concert this Saturday Aug. 7 at The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda.

Of the Wainwright clan, the Guardian newspaper of London recently observed that, “Loudon, Kate, Martha and Rufus are the bards of kith and kin, the troubadours of the consanguine,” a fancy way of saying they write about family and use song to communicate with the ones they love — or in Martha’s case at least feel greatly troubled about, as in her notorious song that she admits was written to her father: the quite literally titled “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.”

But she has also sung a duet, in his 1995 album “Grown Man,” with her father Loudon. Titled “Father/Daughter Dialogue,” in it she lays bare in song her deeply felt family grievance as she sings to him, “Dearest Daddy with your songs/ Do you hope to right your wrongs?/ You can’t undo what’s been done/ To all your daughters and your son.”

In an exclusive interview with the Blade, as she was driving to Boston with her aunt Teddy to her concert appearance there Tuesday night with Rufus, Martha said that some of her songs in the Strathmore concert on Saturday will be from her first songs that were “more about my family,” as in her 2005 self-titled debut album “Martha Wainwright.”

But in addition to “some old hits from my first album,” her set will also include a mix of her more recent songs, such as those from her second album, “I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too,” which are less about her family, she says, and “more so about others.” She was married in 2007 to her producer Brad Albetta.

“I have the tendency to write about people I know and love,” she admits, “and family is in that group still.”

Rufus, meanwhile, is also a troubadour of troubled family life. His troubles include the pain of their parents’ divorce when he was three and also his mother’s recent death from cancer, as well as his own personal odyssey coming out as gay while a teenager. In 1999, he told Rolling Stone that his father recognized his same-sex attraction early and has also admitted that his “mother and father could not even handle me being gay,” and it was basically off limits for discussion.

At 14, Rufus was sexually assaulted in London’s Hyde Park after picking up a man in a bar. In an interview years later, he described the event that left him fearing that he would become HIV-positive after the brutal rape in which the assailant also tried to strangle him to death.

“I thought it was going to be a romantic walk in the park, but he raped me,” and he says he survived through quick wits only by pretending to be an epileptic and faking a seizure.

He says he remained celibate for seven years after the rape but then turned promiscuous. Later, in the early 2000s, he became addicted to crystal meth and even temporarily lost his vision. The addiction reached a crescendo in 2002 during a week he has described as “the most surreal of my life,” including time spent partying with President George W. Bush’s daughter Barbara and a “debauched” evening with singer Marianne Faithfull. He has said he experienced recurring hallucinations of his father throughout.

From hitting bottom then, Rufus has said he decided he would either go into rehab or instead go to live with his father because “I knew I needed an asshole to yell at me, and I felt he fit the bill.” These and other tales of trial and tribulation are recounted in Kirk Lake’s 2009 unofficial biography, “There Will Be Rainbows: A Biography of Rufus Wainwright and the Story of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle.”

Born in 1973, his parents divorced in 1976 and Rufus lived with his mother Kate in Montreal, Canada for most of his precocious youth. He began playing piano at age six and at 13 started touring with “The McGarrigle Sisters” — Kate and her sister Anna. At age 14, he performed his song “I’m a Runnin’” in a film. He then attended high school at the Millbrook School in New York, which would later inspire his song “Millbrook.”

After briefly studying piano at universities in Montreal, he began to perform at weekly shows at Cafe Sarajevo there and soon was on the Montreal club circuit and cutting demo tapes. He showed such talent and so impressed his father that he sent the tapes to legendary songwriter and producer Van Dyke Parks, who passed them on to DreamWorks, the record label co-owned by David Geffen, which signed Rufus and released his first studio album, the eponymous “Rufus Wainwright” in 1998.

The singer had moved to New York City in 1996 but relocated later that year to Los Angeles where he spent most of two years in the studio working on that first album in sessions costing a reported $700,000. Rolling Stone called it one of the best albums of 1998 and named Rufus “Best New Artist” of the year. He was also nominated for four awards by the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards and again won for “Best New Artist,” as well winning the GLAAD Media Award for outstanding music album. Commercial success for the album was, however, limited.

Rufus toured with Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in 1998 and began his own first headline tour later that year. He lived in New York City’s shabby but chic Chelsea Hotel for six months during which he wrote most of his second album “Poses,” which was also released to critical acclaim, winning another GLAAD Media Award, but again finding limited sales. From 2001 to 2004, he toured with Tori Amos and Sting, meanwhile releasing more albums and in 2005 a DVD titled “All I Want,” featuring a biographical documentary and music videos, and that same year he contributed a solo song to Burt Bacharach’s “At This Time.”

In 2006 in two sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City, he performed an entire Judy Garland set of songs based on her album she recorded there in 1961. He later repeated this concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the Paris Olympia, and at London’s Palladium, and live CD and DVD recordings of these concerts — “Rufus Does Judy” — were released in 2007. Also that year, Geffen Records released Wainwright’s fifth studio album, “Release the Stars,” produced by the singer and featuring among others his mother and sister.

His more recent interests have also turned to opera – and his first opera, originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, “Prima Donna,” the libretto written in French, is about “a day in the life of an opera singer,” anxiously preparing for her comeback, who falls in love with a journalist.

In 2010, he released his sixth studio album, “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” mainly featuring his piano and vocals with nine original songs rather than the lush instrumentation and arrangements of his other work. This new CD, for which he is now on tour, includes the closing aria from his debut opera, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent” (or the games of fancy call to me).

The CD also features three of William Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music, including Sonnet 43 giving the album its title, “All days are night to see till I see thee….”

The “thee” is possibly a reference to his boyfriend and partner of five years, German arts administrator Jorn Weisbrodt, about whom the singer declared in a recent London Telegraph interview that, “I wasn’t a huge gay marriage fan before I met Jorn because I love the whole old-school promiscuous Oscar Wilde freak show of what ‘being gay’ once was. But since meeting Jorn all that has changed.”

Also included in the album is a striking opening track, “Who Are You New York?” with its rolling arpeggios that recount an “obsessive search for an unnamed object of desire,” the haunting obsession of erotic fantasy, a song originally written for a film project, but rejected by its producers to Wainwright’s evident relief. His powerful third track, the song “Martha,” meanwhile, consists of conversational lyrics.

“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 any more./ Martha, it’s your brother calling/ Have you any chance to see father/Wondering how he’s doing/And there’s not much time/ For us really to be that angry at each other anymore.”

Family. The ties that bind, the ties that can also choke. Family, the seedbed of the Wainwright musical canon. Come hear brother and sister give their musical voices to this pain and this passion.

Rufus Wainwright
w/ Martha Wainwright
Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m.
Music Center at Strathmore
Bethesda, Md.
$46, 202-397-SEAT
ticketmaster.com

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