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Interviews

Rufus Wainwright

The Good Son 

Rufus Wainwright From his music, his videos, and his promotional photos, you’d think that Rufus Wainwright is a Wildean aesthete living in an opulent dream. Fittingly, on a promotional visit to Toronto, the singer, songwriter, and now opera composer, has found seemingly the only hotel suite in the city containing both a grand piano and a chaise lounge. But when he unfolds himself across the latter, his eyes bleary and his hair swept up as if by a rogue gust of wind, he comes across as less of a decadent epicure than a patient waiting to be psychoanalyzed.

Truth be told, his new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, invites such a treatment. After five elaborately-arranged predecessors and a series of more and more ambitious and theatrical works culminating in the opera Prima Donna (which will have its North American premiere in Toronto this June), he has stripped his music down to voice and piano alone. Though the album includes post-romantic moments of what he laughingly calls musical “massivity,” it also features starkly personal songs.

On the track “Martha,” with its downward-spiralling melody, he tells his sister “there’s not much time for us to really be that angry at each other any more.” The song, he says, is “about the finite nature of time – you can go on and on, and one day, everybody’s gone and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m trying to tie up the loose ends at this point. It’s working out, but it’s such a traumatic thing to lose a parent, especially one you were very close to.”

Wainwright’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, who sang in a famed folk duo with her sister Anna, passed away in January of cancer. She kept performing in her final years despite her illness; her last stage appearance was at a family Christmas concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in December, with Rufus and Martha joining her.

“She had this miraculous relationship with the stage,” Wainwright recalls with a smile, “where she’d be in real bad shape and then she’d go up and sing a song and walk off twenty years younger.”

All Days Are Nights is dedicated to McGarrigle, whom Wainwright calls, in the booklet, “the bright lady,” as opposed to the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets (three of which Wainwright has set to music on the album). Light and darkness are intertwined everywhere from the album’s title to the white and black of the piano keys to Wainwright’s musical personae. The “Lulu” in the album’s title is Louise Brooks’s live wire character in the 1929 film Pandora’s Box; Wainwright thinks of her as his “counterpart – she’s the yin to my yang. Some of the songs [are] me looking inward at my dark companion.”

Wainwright finds a “common thread of disaster” between the women who appear on the album, including his sister, his mother, and his “dark companion.” “I don’t think things can be as orderly for women, because of periods and childbirth and breastfeeding,” he offers. “Disaster is a part of life that they can’t necessarily stave off. There’s a reckless force that on the one hand excites but also infuriates and also frightens the world – this female energy. I love it; I worship it; I think it’s life itself, so it’s a positive thing, but it’s also very powerful and dangerous.”

The diva character in Prima Donna, Régine Saint Laurent, transmits this reckless force. She’s an aging soprano in Paris in 1970 who hasn’t sung onstage since a traumatic performance six years before, and who falls in love with a younger journalist. Her passion brings out what Wainwright calls the “danger” of “an older woman being sexually aroused in our society. It rubs people a lot of different ways, and I found that somehow, unleashing that kind of force brought out a lot of emotion in a lot of people, and it was funny to watch it happen.” On All Days Are Nights, Wainwright sings her bittersweet aria “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent,” tapping the piano’s soundboard and running his hands along its strings to simulate the crackle and cascade of fireworks.

To promote the album, he’ll be playing it in its entirety while wearing a 17-foot gown designed by Zaldy Goco, who designed costumes for Lady GaGa’s Monster Ball tour. Clearly Wainwright is in touch with his own feminine side, but his more reckless days are apparently over. In his early years in the music business, he went through what he has described as a “gay hell” of promiscuity and crystal meth abuse, but at 36, he appears to have reached the palace of wisdom through the road of excess.

“I think I’ve helped people by being honest about what I was going through on many levels,” he says, closing his eyes as if looking inward, “whether it’s my sexuality or drug addiction or the music business, and I’ve been told that many times. I’ve never had to run into the burning building and save anyone, which I hope I would do if the opportunity arose. I’ve been there a lot for my family, now, with my mother passing – I’ve been a good son.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, March 22, 2010

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