Rufus Wainwright talks about Judy Garland, the need to create and hints at new musical production
I remember the night Rufus Wainwright made his Toronto debut.
The year was 1998 and his self-titled album was to be released on DreamWorks, a label co-founded by Hollywood heavyweights David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Wainwright was his first signing.
The venue was (Toronto bar) That’s What, and among a gathering of music industry acolytes and normal club patronage, Wainwright sat in front of an upright piano, sang… and was quickly drowned out by one of the rudest crowds to occupy the premises, ignoring the music and carrying on loud conversations.
Twenty-four years later, calling from the Hollywood home he shares with her husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, Wainwright, who plays Massey Hall on May 16, laughs at the memory.
“Well, it’s gradually gotten better over the years,” he jokes.
Indeed, although some may quibble with the notion of “gradually”: at 48, although he has nothing close to a hit song, Wainwright has concocted an incredible career that has allowed him to indulge in all his musical passions, from pop to opera to Broadway.
Wainwright certainly has no regrets.
“I can say that I’m 100% satisfied with how it went,” he said. “And that makes a lot of sense because, in the past and still, when I’m in the studio or when I’m doing gigs, I’ve been pretty ruthless with myself, in terms of timing, hitting that mark and boost, intensity and stuff like that.
“There are other parts of my career that I look back on – and not so much with regret, but wishing I could have done a little better…like a video I could have done or certain outfits I wore. Sometimes there was an event that I chose not to do that suddenly became the be-all and end-all. I have regrets, don’t worry. Not about the music, though.
He is certainly as prolific as ever. Although he’s currently touring to promote his pandemic-interrupted, Grammy-nominated 2020 album ‘Unfollow The Rules’ with a three-piece band, he has another one pending which will be released on June 10 – “Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studio” — just in time for what would have been actress Judy Garland’s 100th birthday.
This isn’t the first time Wainwright has paid tribute to Garland: in December 2007, he released his first live album, “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall.”
What is it about her that fascinates him so much?
“She’s definitely the gift that keeps on giving to me, in the sense that I did the first gig almost 20 years ago at Carnegie Hall and then I got to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that. actually in Toronto when my husband Jörn was the head of the Luminato Festival.
“I realized about a year ago that this year is Judy Garland’s centenary and it seems to be a repertoire that people now identify with me and remember and want to hear more of, so… I get it that I have to please the goddess, you know, on her birthday.
Buy tickets to Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios here: https://rufuswainwright.veeps.com/stream/schedule
Born in Rhinebeck, New York, to well-known folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III (his sister is singer and songwriter Martha Wainwright), the couple divorced and Rufus spent most of his childhood in Montreal.
After studying piano at McGill University, he began a weekly residency at Café Sarajevo.
“It was a huge influence,” admits Wainwright. “It’s something that I came up with on my own and in the sense that I was doing little gigs here and there in Montreal and maybe sometimes with my mom and dad, but it was pretty sporadic.
“And eventually I thought I’m just going to take this place and play there every week and at the end of the race I’ll be at the next level. And that’s what happened. I don’t think that it happens to everyone, but I think there’s something about focusing on one spot and repeating this over and over until people get hit enough on the head,” he laughs. .
He cut 52 songs down to a dozen for his debut album, and since then he’s released nine studio albums, including his first opera “Prima Donna” (he’s since written another called “Hadrian”) and has also hired Shakespeare’s sonnets to music in “Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets.”
“The sonnets weren’t easy,” he admits. “I tried to focus on serving lyrics. With opera, it’s totally different. There are two elements: the first is that it is very collaborative. You have to write things that the singers can sing and the orchestra can play and make sure the balance is right and so on.
“And then there’s also the drama, the characters themselves becoming quite demanding and very in control of what needs to be composed for the opera to make sense. And I just created a musical recently that I can’t really announce anything about, but I did and it will be announced soon. But yes, the theatrical work is very good.
Although he hasn’t announced the name of his musical, Wainwright says when it comes to writing major work, it’s also a different ballgame.
“It’s also very different. I mean, an opera — what I like is that the composer is king, in the end. Each tries to serve what the composer’s idea is. And it’s a wonderful opportunity and position.
“But with musicals, it’s much more democratic. Whether it’s the director or the author of the book, everyone really has to negotiate with each other, and in fact the music is several notches behind. You have to be a little more servile, which is good too. It’s good for honing future skills. I have already done nine workshops.
Like his other ‘Poses’ albums and ‘Want One’ efforts, ‘Want Two’, ‘Unfollow The Rules’ is a collection of songs that Wainwright says represents some of his best work…but not all songs have been written recently.
“There’s always a surplus of songs and some of them I release much later than they were written,” he admits. “In fact, on this album, ‘Unfollow the Rules’, that’s definitely the case. There are songs that I wrote earlier, like the one called ‘Early Morning Madness’ – which was written at another time in my life.
“The way it works for me is I write a bunch of songs and then it’s pretty obvious which ones do the recording and which ones can wait. I think it’s really a process of deduction and it depends on the quality. And I think that makes sense to anyone who thinks, ‘if I write 30 songs, I’m more likely to get a good one than if I write two.’ So it’s actually math.
But Wainwright also admits that for him, creativity is a constraint.
“I’ve always been pretty manic, artistically, whether it’s singing all the time or writing songs or especially – even during COVID because all the tours were canceled for a while – I ended up doing a lot drawing,” he explains. “I drew each of my songs for the new record.
“I just have this need to create and I think that’s pretty common when you’re an artist and I don’t ask questions and just go for it.”, he laughs. “Maybe it has something to do with being raised in Montreal and so far from the spotlight, but not in another universe, just not far from New York. I’ve always wanted to go out there and make my mark.
For those curious about her husband Weisbrodt, Rufus reports that his wife now manages him.
“He’s here with me right now, working away,” Wainwright said. “We are working together now. He directs me and he helps me a lot with — especially with these theatrical exploits. We are doing my second opera ‘Hadrian’ in Spain this summer, in Barcelona, and so we have been working on promoting it and Jörn is currently directing it. We also live in Hollywood, working our way through Tinseltown. It’s amazing to have a partner with me. And he tells me that he misses Toronto a lot.
In fact, the duo have dim sum plans with ex-Governor General and former journalist Adrienne Clarkson when they arrive in Toronto for the concert.
“I am very happy to come to Massey Hall,” says Wainwright. “I would say it’s one of my top five venues in the world where I love to play. I had some of my greatest theatrical and musical moments on this stage, including the tribute to my mother for Luminato (“Love Over and Over: The Songs of Kate McGarrigle” was the third in a series of three tribute concerts held June 15, 2012 for McGarrigle, who died of sarcoma in 2009.)
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m hopeful.”