‘The Best of Rufus Wainwright’
With Lucy Wainwright Roche
1215 U St. N.W.
Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Rufus Wainwright took a few minutes during a tour stop in Warsaw a few weeks ago to talk to us by phone about his show next week in Washington.
Touring behind two projects that were released last month — hits package “Vibrate” and the Blu-ray video “Rufus Wainwright: Live From the Artists Den” — Wainwright, 40, says he’s at a logical career mid-point that inspired revisiting his catalogue.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Are the audiences significantly different in Europe versus the U.S.?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: It really varies. I did shows in Latvia and Lithuania recently and you could have been talking about the East Coast and then the West Coast in terms of differences and it’s fascinating how it’s real peaks and valleys on this continent. It’s a little daunting. Occasionally you get some kind of icy folks, but mostly they’re very happy I’m here.
BLADE: The Artists Den show was recorded in May 2012 but just released last month for purchase. Did you always plan it as a home video release?
WAINWRIGHT: I just thought it would be a TV special and then we did a good job on it, so it made sense to keep the ball rolling. I’ve always concentrated really hard on my live performance and making sure that the pinnacle of my career is really what you see on stage in front of you when you’re in the room. I put a lot of faith in my live work, so it’s good to release it.
BLADE: So this is an entirely different show from the Artists Den show?
WAINWRIGHT: Oh yes, very different. Now I’m mostly promoting the “Vibrate” CD, the best-of CD, so I’m just doing a lot of songs from the expanse of my career and even a couple of new ones to whet people’s appetite. But it’s a much more intimate show, just one on one. Or hopefully one on a thousand, at least. But yeah, you’re hitting the core of the matter when you come see this new show in the spring.
BLADE: It’s a solo show? No band?
WAINWRIGHT? Just me and either piano or guitar.
BLADE: You have a strong body of work built over many years. What’s your philosophy of set list construction? To what degree is it informed by what you’re promoting at any given time?
WAINWRIGHT: Well there’s a few projects now so it’s definitely dictated to some degree by what I’m trying to sell. There’s lots of good stuff to talk about. For instance, I’m raising money now to record my opera “Prima Donna” (pledgemusic.com/projects/primadonna) which will be my next album, but I also sing some of my mother’s material (the late Kate McGarrigle) to promote some of her work, because I feel she was a great genius. And there’s also just the fun of making music.
BLADE: About how long do you play on average?
WAINWRIGHT: About 90 minutes.
BLADE: In addition to the aforementioned projects, you also had a lavish box set out a couple years ago. Are you curating your body of work in a sense?
WAINWRIGHT: Well, I have a lot of it and I hit 40 so I have 40 years left to fill up in terms of my career so yeah, I’ve definitely spent the last five years going over what’s happened and putting it in its rightful place. I’ve also been writing another opera, “Hadrian,” and now I’m working a lot on some films for Hollywood and putting together some other tracks for another pop record but we’re definitely at the middle point right now. The best is yet to come.
BLADE: It’s obvious, though, that you put some care and thought into these things. Fans can always tell when they’re just slapped together by the label. Yours clearly were not.
WAINWRIGHT: Well, I have a lot of supportive and very intellectual people who helped me do that along the way. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was influential and instrumental I should say in putting together the list of songs for “Vibrate.” And, you know, I had such a great band for the Artists Den recording. You know, you’ve got to have good people around you.
BLADE: What was it like singing with Joni Mitchell at her birthday tribute last year?
WAINWRIGHT: Oh, that was wild. Really amazing. I can’t say that I was the biggest Joni Mitchell fan growing up. Not so much because I didn’t like her music but my mother was very jealous of Joni Mitchell. My mother was a very well known Canadian songwriter as well, so we weren’t allowed to listen to much Joni Mitchell in the house. So I wasn’t really that familiar. So it was really an amazing education and kind of a baptism by fire and the last lesson was singing with her on stage. It was a lot of fun.
BLADE: Did you get to interact much with her aside from what we saw on stage?
WAINWRIGHT: Oh yeah, a lot. We hung out a lot. I went to her house a few times because my husband (Jorn Weisbrodt) runs the festival, we had to really work with her on everything so we spent a lot of time together, Joni and I. It was a great honor.
BLADE: In interviews, she’s never been one to mince words. Is that how she is when the camera’s not rolling too?
WAINWRIGHT: Oh yeah, there’s no filter there whatsoever. You know, she’s lived in her own universe for so many years, there’s no way to really encapsulate and explain what she is. She’s kind of transcended what it is to be real.
BLADE: With the operas, which came first — the concepts or the commissions?
WAINWRIGHT: Well, I’ve always wanted to write operas, that desire was always there, but you really cannot write an opera in a vacuum. You need a commission to really hold on to because it’s such a laborious and intense process so yes, thankfully, I did receive one commission and now I’ve received another so I’m continuing that journey. But yeah, you can’t really write an opera on the side. It doesn’t work that way.
BLADE: Your vocals manage to be both full voiced and big, yet also have a world weariness to them. How do you do that?
WAINWRIGHT: I think part of it is due to my love of opera. They have to project in these huge halls so I try to kind of emulate that. But growing up, even before I became a big opera fan, my other influences were people like Judy Garland and Al Jolson, these, you know, much older kind of vaudevillian performers who, again, had to project. I think that kind of thing always attracted me more than, I don’t know, some kind of high quality recording. I was more into the kind of rough-and-tumble show biz epic. My voice is a very unusual and mystifying monster to me. I mean, I love my voice and I’m indebted to it eternally, but on the other hand, it puts me through hell sometimes trying to figure out what it is, where it’s going to go and what it needs. It has a life of its own. I’m just dragged around.
BLADE: You’ve said your last studio album (2012’s “Out of the Game”) with (producer) Mark Ronson was the most pop album you’d ever made. Do you think about pop and commercial appeal when you’re writing?
WAINWRIGHT: When I talk to my accountant I do (laughs).
BLADE: But do you with the muses as well?
WAINWRIGHT: A little bit. I know a lot of people who are very successful in the industry in terms of pop music. You know, Elton John or Neil Tennant. People who’ve had real hits. Norah Jones. So it’s around me and I see it happen and I wonder, you know, why not me? It’s always important to have a dangling carrot in front of you in the arts. You always have something you haven’t quite attained yet, so I’m thankful for this as an impetus.
BLADE: Is your stuff too smart perhaps for the masses?
WAINWRIGHT: I think that might be an issue. When I sing, it tends to grab your attention fully. I’m not very good background music. It seems like most pop music today is made to be played in restaurants really.
BLADE: How gay is your fan base would you say?
WAINWRIGHT: Well, that’s an interesting question. I’ve never felt supported by my own kind. I think there are a lot of great gay music fans out there and definitely a strong nugget of wonderful queers who get it, but I’d say like the majority kind of mainstream gay sensibility really kind of runs countercurrent to what I’ve been trying to put forth. I’ve never felt that embraced by gay culture, especially by gay men. But that’s also part of my aesthetic. If I felt accepted by them, I’d be far too happy. (laughs)
BLADE: Do Jorn and (3-year-old daughter) Viva travel with you?
WAINWRIGHT: Jorn sometimes but he’s busy with his festival. We kind of run into each other along the way. My daughter lives with her mother (Leonard Cohen’s daugher, Lorca) in Los Angeles so I see her once a month or so.
BLADE: Did you see the Judy tribute at the Oscars?
WAINWRIGHT: No, I didn’t. What was it? Was Liza in it?
BLADE: Well she and Lorna and Joey were there but it was clips from “Wizard of Oz” and Idina Menzel sang. Do you know Liza well?
WAINWRIGHT: Well, I know Lorna a lot better. I don’t think anybody really knows Liza that well.
BLADE: You do so much work aside from the traditional writing/recording/touring cycle of a typical recording artist. Do you think you would have been doing as many other things had you been doing all this, say, a generation before?
WAINWRIGHT: I think if all of this had been happening even 15 years earlier, it would have been a whole other story. Financially, well, you know, there was just more of a kind of market and structure in the record business to support developing artists. I don’t think the deals were particularly good, but you were nonetheless kind of strung along more and there were more platforms to really express yourself whether it was TV or the radio. There was more to do. But I’m happy. I don’t know — I probably would have branched out anyway, now that I think about it. I tend to be pretty slippery.