Nine Songs: Rufus Wainwright
A few weeks after I meet Rufus Wainwright on a Spring afternoon in London, the world is a very different place, but there are always constants to be found. The consummate performer has kept singing, entertaining and raising spirits through the power of song.
The tour for his wonderful ninth record Unfollow The Rules - his first pop album since 2012’s Out of the Game, after 2015’s opera Prima Donna, and 2016’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets - has been moved to next year, yet Wainwright has simply kept playing.
As well as being the first artist to perform The Royal Albert Home Series, Wainwright turned his #RobeRecitals series on Instagram, where he would occasionally play a song from his bedroom in his dressing gown, into a daily #Quarantunes series. Starting with “Grey Gardens”, he described the Herculean venture with his trademark humour, “Let this be part of the antidote to this situation that we’re in.” Wainwright ended up performing sixty songs from his home in Los Angeles, mixing his own compositions with covers, and finishing with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” where he was joined by the extended Wainwright clan.
Before lockdown happened, when we meet in London, he’s in high spirits, excited by the limitless possibilities of travel, that unbeknownst to the world, would be put on hold shortly after. “Today is a day of interviews here, tomorrow there’s a French pick of my soul, then a Spanish pick of my soul, then a German one and then finally Polish.” He laughs and says, “So I did something wrong! Because I’m wanted everywhere.”
As we start to talk through his Nine Songs, Wainwright realises he has a decision to make. In the grand scheme of things, it's a relatively minor one, but for a music obsessive it requires serious thought on his part. “Is it ten songs, or was it supposed to be nine? It’s hard to drop one of these.” We talk through all ten and when we finish, I ask which song he wants to drop. He pauses and decides that “Adore” by Miley Cyrus will be the one that doesn’t make the cut.
“I wanted to be somewhat 21st Century and give it an honourable mention. I thought it was important to have something relatively contemporary.” Wainwright explains that whilst he was initially sceptical about the former Hannah Montana star, something about “Adore” prompted a rethink.
“I had always poo-pooed Miley Cyrus, I thought it was so ridiculous and that she was trying too hard. I was quite jaded concerning her, as I am often with a lot of people, but then my friend played me this song and it convinced me that I’m actually pro Miley Cyrus. There’s something in it, a vulnerability, a lyrical quality that’s very poetic, and that’s something that’s hard to find.”
Turning to the songs that made the cut, as with the finale of #Quarantunes, his family relationships provide the spine to the themes that run through them, especially his beloved Mother, the late Kate McGarrigle. He speaks with awe about her talent as a writer and starts his Nine Songs with her classic “Talk to Me of Mendocino” and ends it with the French folk song “À la Claire Fontaine”, which the Wainwright’s sang to McGarrigle as she passed away.
As a natural storyteller, Wainwright’s choices are filled with tales - from not seeing eye to eye with Liza Minnelli, to visiting Verdi’s house and feeling like he’d returned to his spiritual father - but as well family, the other keystone to these stories is his enduring love of music. Regardless of the genre, whether it’s pop, classical, folk or opera, Wainwright’s fascination with the power of song remains delightfully undimmed.
“When my Mum died ten years ago, on the one hand I was of course incredibly sad. I missed her, she was too young to go and there was so much of my life that I still wanted to share with her. But another part of me was very angry, because I was very jealous of her songwriting. Somehow in dying it gave her that extra patina; ‘Now she’s going to be a fucking classic and I’m going to have to contend with that for the rest of my life!’
“Even though she was brought up in Canada and always identified as a Canadian, she really loved the United States and this song is one of those sweeping American ballads that she composed. It really captures the breadth of the country and that journey to the West Coast that humanity has been obsessed with for years.
“I don’t know if “Talk to Me of Mendocino” is her greatest song, but for me it’s certainly her most emblematic song. It’s the one that when I was growing up, she would do it at shows and immediately the audience would applaud and acknowledge it as this milestone in her work.
“I think at this point in her life she was free; her personality is very much encapsulated in that piece and in a grand way. She was always a traveller, she was always falling in love with different people and running off with them and stuff. In a quaint, romantic way though, she never abandoned us or anything.
"I would play her things of mine all the time. We always discussed it and she was always really engaged in my process. Then she’d play me stuff that she was working on and my socks were always knocked off by her and what she would bring up.
“The moment she died I really understood, equally, the great loss of having her as a Mother and that a great artist had passed. There was something celebratory in that, it was ‘Wow, look at this incredible legacy she’s left Martha and I.' We were very much influenced by her when we were growing up, thankfully."
“This song was written by Harold Arlen. I’ve sang it, but Judy Garland’s is the most famous version. It was written for her, she launched the song and it will be forever associated with her.
“For one thing, I adore the unusual structure the song has. It has two sections that morph into something different and there’s this mounting army of musical ideas that eventually explode at the end of the piece. It’s very much like an aria and it has this operatic quality, which I love.
“The other thing is that when I sang it for the first time publicly, when I did the Judy Garland show at Carnegie Hall, unbeknownst to me a lot of people immediately translated my sentiments to that of a boy - specifically a gay boy - singing about a Father. Obviously it could be ‘the man who got away’ and ‘Yes, I’m gay, I could be singing about another man’, but oddly enough, I think in the desperation the song engenders it’s more touching if you think of it in terms of a relationship between a son and a Father.
“I wasn’t aware of it, but in retrospect I can see why people were going there. There’s something in ‘I can see a man being devastated by another man’, but it was written for a woman and for a heterosexual situation. I think when I sang it, it somehow translated into this other equation, which is more about losing a parent.
"The other songs in that show all made total sense, but there were two songs, this one, which because it was written for a woman and it’s imbued with that spirit, people didn’t think of it as a romantic song for me, and “Stormy Weather” which is also by Harold Arlen. That one I had Martha sing, because it really should be sung by a woman.
“I grew up with Judy Garland, in the sense that my generation was right before video cassettes. When I was a kid you couldn’t rent movies, so you could only see movies in movie theatres or if they were on television. Every Easter The Wizard of Oz was on, it was this yearly event and it heavily influenced me as a child.
“Later, when I went to live in Hollywood, I totally fantasied about Judy Garland’s life there, where she’d been and what she’d done, and I saw her in all the crumbling artefacts of old Hollywood. Subsequently, when I got into drugs and stuff, I could relate to her on that level too. So she’s been a companion of mine for years. I consider her a friend.
“Sadly, Liza didn’t really appreciate my obsession so much. We’ve crossed paths a few times and it always ended up being… I don’t know, it always went south between her and I, but things went quite well with Lorna, the other daughter. In terms of Judy Garland, I don’t in any way claim to surpass her might or take on her mantle, but I am nonetheless, for my generation and down, a very important figure in the Judy Garland ethos, for better for worse. So there, Liza.”
“This was a seminal piece of music for me. When I first heard this - actually, more of an apt expression is when I came into contact with it - it was this alien creation that discovered me.
“I was about eleven. It was that early, pre-pubescent age where you can hear the echoes in the canyon and that something’s going to come out of the woods pretty soon. This song was my awakening as a sexual being and I suddenly started thinking about love and the wonders of teenagehood. There was something in Annie Lennox’s presentation, with her look and the cold quality of what she was offering, that was just so seductive and it made me excited to get older.
“I understood it immediately, in the sense that I was seduced completely and I pretty much fell in love with her as a child. On the one hand there was something violent about what she was saying and it was kind of scary, but nonetheless it was enticing. It wasn’t gratuitously dangerous and it wasn’t mean. It was very exciting.
“There was a lot of music around in my world at that age, and that was a great year too. There was Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and Prince. There were all of these wild, classic, legendary, oddities. You think of them all in their outfits and the fact that they were all doing music that was so different. They were like Gods, these individual Greek Gods, that you could pray to depending on the day. It was part of that period of music, which was a fantastic period.
“I think “Sweet Dreams” is one of the greatest tracks in the history of music and recording, without a doubt. Unlike a lot of all that computer stuff, it never got encapsulated in another era and it still sounds very current. That song never ages."
“I enjoy singing this song, although I don’t think I’ve ever released it. I don’t have a particular version of it, but I would say the Ella Fitzgerald version is the one I know the best, because at a young age I became very obsessed with the Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter songbook records.
"This song has always fascinated me. What I love about “Begin The Beguine” is that it’s an incredible marriage of lyrics and music and it takes you on this journey that is so all-enveloping. Once you follow the opening lines and you go along with it, you’re transported into this movie essentially. Then you get to the movie, the storm comes, everything turns to shit and you can’t leave the movie. It’s a bit like “Hotel California”, that’s what it’s always represented to me.
“Another thing about this song is that according to some guru somewhere, if you listen to it seven times in a row you’ll get closer to enlightenment. Some guru said ‘Just sit there, listen to “Begin The Beguine” seven times and you’ll get further ahead. I don’t think you’ll reach enlightenment necessarily, but it can be an exercise on the path to enlightenment.’
“I did that and look at me now, I’m a God! Well, no, but I tried it and it was a nice thing to do in the afternoon. I think I was also really stoned and so I was probably at one with myself to begin with, but it’s worth a shot, try it.
“I listen to the Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter recordings now and they are incredible. Ella Fitzgerald really spoke to me at that young age because of her incredible instrument, vocal prowess and the things she could do, but now there are singers that are a little bit more interesting to me. I’m much more into Sarah Vaughan and there are other jazz singers I prefer from that era.
"They were a little rougher around the edges and they weren’t quite as perfect, but at that age, I was eleven or twelve when I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, it was like nothing else I’d ever experienced before.”
“The version of this song that I grew up with was by Lotte Lenya, who was married to Kurt Weill. She was one of the great actors and she was in a James Bond movie too, with the knives in her shoes.
“What this song represents for me - and it continues to haunt me - is the perfect marriage between the classical world, the popular world and theatre, which Kurt Weill created with The Threepenny Opera and some of his other work. He managed to take European sophistication and match it for the general public. With Brecht he made this hybrid that was both very high art and very low art, all happening at the same time and without compromising either one.
“This song is one of the great masterpieces of that era. I heard it recently, Meow Meow, who is a good friend of mine, does a version of “Surabaya Johnny” and it’s one of my favourite new versions of it. I was in Australia and saw her show, she’s this great Australian performer who works with Barry Humphries a lot.
“That song always packs a punch and the story is very touching. Again, I would never sing this song, it’s a song that I think only a woman can sing and really pull it off. It’s about this desperate love and I think that whilst men feel desperate love, I don’t know if they feel it as much as women, in that kind of “The Man That Got Away” sense.
“Maybe I’ll be attacked for being sexist and weird, but there’s a kind of destitution that only women can do, at least in songs. Most of these songs were written by men, so there’s something weird in there, but “Surabaya Johnny” is another song that I think needs to be sung by a woman.”
“I’ve always admired Verdi and he’s always been a father figure for me, both musically and spiritually. I’ve often found myself contemplating ‘What would Verdi think?’ Not because he was a particularly nice person, Verdi was not like a cuddly kind Dad; if anything, he was a lot like my Father, not that my Father’s mean. Verdi was a hard man, but he knew how to navigate through life pretty well and to do what suited his needs, both musically and also businesswise, which I’ve never quite figured out.
“In the opera this song is sung by the Father, it’s an aria to his son and it’s a very touching sentiment. Basically, the son is having this torrid affair and it’s ruining the family’s reputation. The Father needs to have him leave her, because in the 19th Century it wasn’t possible to do that kind of thing if you were from a good family.
“The Father is saying “Come back home, come back to the sun of Provence, come back to the bosom of the family” and it’s touching, because at the end of the opera the Father and the lover, Violetta, the one he was trying to split up with his son, become very close too. It’s just an unfortunate circumstance they had to bust up that relationship.
“I had an experience a few years ago where I went to visit Verdi’s home in Italy. I had this song playing in the sound system as I was driving up the driveway to his house and I totally lost it. I was ‘I’m visiting Dad!’ It was very emotional, as Verdi’s music always is to me.”
“There’s a lot of versions of this too. There’s Fischer-Dieskau, but the one I grew up with, which I’m finding hard to find - I can’t even find it on iTunes - is by Brigitte Fassbaender who’s a great singer.
“I would say “Der Leiermann” is arguably - and this I would offer as a debate issue for classical music aficionados - the greatest Lieder song ever written. It’s definitely one of the contenders. It’s at the end of the Winterreise by Schubert, which is possibly the greatest Lieder cycle ever written, it’s certainly one of the most important and I think the greatest written, ever.
“There’s something about it. Once you’ve heard the whole cycle - Lieder’s are all about cycles and most Lieder songs have to be part of a group of songs - and you reach this song after the very long journey of listening to all of the other ones, the effect is earth shattering. It’s so simple, it’s so eerie and it’s so imbued with all of the drama that you’ve heard before, but yet it’s not played out. There’s also something very 20th Century about it. It suddenly skips into another century.
“So, if I had to say ‘What’s the greatest Lieder song ever written?’ I would say it’s this one and there would be other people who would agree with me, who know about it as well.
“It’s a subtle thing. Yes, I think that there are songs in Lieder that are more apparently great and that are incredible, like The Erl-King or these masterpieces which are huge, but there’s something so strange about this song, and in terms of that whole Lieder concept, it’s the pay off.”
“I’m obviously associated a lot with him for many reasons, one of them being “Hallelujah”, which by the way is not my favourite Leonard Cohen song.
“I never intended for that song to be a kind of calling card, which it has become and I’m grateful for that fact, but before “Hallelujah” - which only happened in my lifetime, and my later lifetime for that matter, after the age of twenty-five - the most famous Leonard Cohen song was “Suzanne.” That was the Leonard Cohen song and his emblematic anthem.
“Maybe it’s because I’m old-fashioned, but I definitely buy into that vision of Leonard. Whereas “Hallelujah” is a great song certainly, and it’s more in tune with the battles of everyday people and a struggle for love, what’s wonderful about “Suzanne” is that it’s so esoteric. It’s has all of these references to images that I can see because I’m from Montreal, like the harbour church, the garbage and the flowers. You see that kind of stuff in Montreal, and it really comes from Montreal, but yet it’s also very personal and retains a certain mystery. It always has that mystery.
“Another thing about this song is I made an album in 2017 of Canadian songs (Northern Stars). It isn’t available and you can only buy it at my shows, but it has my version of “Suzanne” on there. One of my main goals was that Leonard had just passed away and I wanted to honour his passing and I did that by singing “Suzanne” in the church that it’s written about.
“It’s in old Montreal, on the harbour and it’s called Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours - ‘Our Lady of the Harbour’. I ended up doing an evening of Canadian songs, but the crowning moment was to sing “Suzanne” in the church that he’s referring to. That, in a lot of ways, was my goodbye to him and my personal prayer for his deliverance.”
“This is a very famous French folk song, but it’s equally famous in France and Quebec. It’s an ancient song, “À la Claire Fontaine” is arguably a thousand years old.
“I’ve sung this song, and we’ve sung it in the family for years. It goes on and on and on, but it becomes like a lullaby, it lasts a good seven minutes - or ten minutes if you take your time - so it’s a good thing to sing for a child. It’s also easy to remember, because the end of each verse is the beginning of the next.
“It’s an interesting song, because when you really analyse the story it’s actually one of those great folk songs that’s completely sexual. It’s completely about this very adult subject but its covered with these ancient symbols, like ‘putting my roses in your garden, but you wouldn’t allow me to do that’, so it’s very touching.
“The most profound element of this song for me now is that I had this incredible experience with it when my Mother was dying. She had lost consciousness and was basically in a coma and we were all sitting around her singing and telling her how much we loved her. She was probably there in a sense, but she was on her way somewhere else. We all started singing this song and she came back… for like a moment.
“The song is was what brought her back to us for an instant and then she went back again. It was sung to me as a child, it was sung to my Mother as a child, and down for many generations of people with French backgrounds. It was definitely because of the generational power that a folk song has in culture. It was very intense, so this song represents that.”