Interview: Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright, once referred to by Sir Elton John as “the greatest songwriter on the planet,” has already established a reputation for not fitting neatly into any one prescribed genre. But his sixth studio full-length, “All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu,” a piano-centric concept album released in spring of this year, propels him even further into the realm of the unclassifiable. Wainwright, a prominently portmanteau performer, opts for the minimalist route, reasoning that less instrumentation is more.
However, that doesn’t mean the album is stripped down or easy. Quite the contrary. Wainwright instead experiments with the interplay between the simplicity of an unadulterated vocal line and the complexity of piano lines that tranquilly ripple and tumultuously surge their way through a near 50-minutes of soul-bearing compositions.
Just like with any album, Wainwright struggled with writing many of the songs, and he cited “The Dream” as one of the numbers that was “more laborious” than the others. However, surprisingly, a good number of tracks, including “Zebulon,” “Sonnet 20” and “Martha” came to him rather easily.
“Those are songs that came in a fraction of an instant and practically wrote themselves,” he shared. “I didn’t really have to work much to get them. That is always a good sign. It’s a very rare and very cherished moment for any artist.”
Audience members on this tour will be exposed to a Wainwright as he has never been before. While he is known for his telling lyrics that unabashedly tackle personal issues pertaining to relationships, strained family dynamics and drug addiction, “All Days Are Nights” takes honesty to a new level–one where not just the subject matter is candid, but the arrangements are as well.
“A lot of it has to do with the arrangements,” he shared. “When you’re down there and you’re just working with the black and white keys, it really draws out a certain truth within you and you can’t hide behind anything.”
That inability to simply disappear behind the music is what initially drew Wainwright to the idea of showcasing vocals and piano.
“Nothing on earth, in my opinion, can beat a piano and a voice. Whether it’s jazz or pop or classical music, there’s something that happens with a voice and a piano that really hits a kind of area of the brain that is made for that type of experience,” he said. “You’re dealing with the most sophisticated instrument that man has ever built with the most sophisticated instrument [humankind] has in his body.”
And although Wainwright has been playing the piano since he was a child, he admits that isn’t as good as perhaps he should be, and that he often makes mistakes.
“When I’m up there, [I’m] playing the hardest material I’ve ever written [and] I am sucking at piano,” he said. “This show is nerve-wracking. This is the hardest show I’ve ever done.”
The makings of an album like “All Days Are Nights” has been brewing for awhile, and Wainwright said he had been wanting to record a piano and voice album for some time. However, as an artist, he is continually aware of the need to occupy a certain emotional space in order to produce a certain kind of content, and felt that living in Germany and falling in love were life experiences that didn’t quite align with what the aim of the album would be. So instead, he put out “Release the Stars,” during that time in his life, knowing that when the moment was right, he would write a more serious set of songs.
“I’ve had this on my mind for a long time,” Wainwright said. “[But] the life situations didn’t resonate with it.”
In 2006, Wainwright’s mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, was diagnosed with cancer, which ultimately claimed her life early this year. During the time she was battling the disease, Wainwright set to work on the dozen songs that comprise “All Days Are Nights,” utilizing the sobering feeling of knowing that his mother was losing her battle with sarcoma. Both knew it was the last album she would be around for, a fact which was simultaneously heartbreaking and emotionally conducive to composing the music.
“This album has some real flashes of–I don’t want to say brilliance ‘cause I’ll be cut down for that–but let’s say inspiration,” Wainwright said. “Real flashes of inspiration.”
As for how this album stacks up against his prior releases, he admitted that he listens to all of his albums from time to time, but that ultimately, it’s difficult to compare them to one another.
“For me, it really fluctuates. I must admit that I do listen to my albums occasionally. If you put them to bed for awhile, they rest up and recharge and they’re ready to be listened to again,” he explained. “It [has] never been identified what I do, you know, my style, therefore it’s never totally dated.”
The current tour, which is beginning the tail-end of its North American leg, consists of two halves, the first of which is Wainwright’s performance of “All Days Are Nights” from beginning to end. It features a visual collaboration with artist Douglas Gordon which will be void of talking and applause in order to highlight the powerful nature of its contents. The second half however, will showcase Wainwright as the animated and ostentatious performer he has earned as reputation as being. His sister, Martha Wainwright, will open for him.
“Everybody’s being fabulously well-behaved,” he said of the touring ensemble, which includes his nine-month-old nephew Arcangelo. “It’s fantastic. [And Martha is] putting on a great show every night.”
During an earlier stop in Pittsburgh, Wainwright visited the Andy Warhol Museum, where he purchased “a ton of old Warhol movies,” which are keeping him entertained while on the road.
“I like watching horribly adult drug-addict-tear-each-other’s-hair-out stuff on the screen,” Wainwright admitted, emitting his trademark laugh. “[But] we put the baby to bed first.”