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Rufus Wainwright's Personal Best

07 June 2023, 15:00

Rufus Wainwright has a lot to celebrate this summer: a big birthday, a big anniversary and a new album, Folkocracy, that returns him to the tradition he was born to. He talks to Alan Pedder about the journey away from and back to his roots.

When it comes to the art of self-mythology, few have done it better than Rufus Wainwright.

The Canadian-American artist may have softened his approach in recent years, more concerned with his place among the pantheon of songwriting greats than the persona-driven banquets of his earliest work, but the playfulness and knowing winks remain.

This summer he turns 50, having spent half of that lifetime in a dazzling array of limelights – first doubling down on the florid pop of his 1998 self-titled debut before diverting into everything from Shakespeare and opera to good old-fashioned Broadway razzle-dazzle and the glorious high camp of his Judy Garland act.

With new album Folkocracy, Wainwright comes full circle back to the folk tradition in which he grew up. The title isn’t so much self-mythologising as it is a plain and simple fact: when it comes to folk aristocracies, few families can compete with the Wainwright–McGarrigle bloodline.


Conceived as a covers record that reinvents classics of the genre – with a few surprises thrown in – Folkocracy is an endearing tribute to his roots. Partly inspired by his childhood memories of summers spent touring the folk festival circuit with his family, watching them on stage and interacting with other greats, it’s largely a group affair.

The lineup of course includes his aunt Anna McGarrigle, sisters Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, and others from the family’s inner circle, but there are big draws from outside as well with features from Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow, Susanna Hoffs, David Byrne, Chaka Khan, John Legend, and longtime collaborators ANOHNI and Van Dyke Parks, among others.

As birthday parties go, it’s one hell of a guestlist. Best of all, it feels like no one's taking themselves too seriously. Least of all Wainwright, who – even when singing a lullaby (“Hush Little Baby”) or murder ballad (“High on a Rocky Ledge”, “Down in the Willow Garden”) – sounds like he’s having a blast. To celebrate the album, as well as the recent remastered and expanded 25th anniversary edition of his debut, he steps up to the Personal Best plate to talk about his five favourite Rufus Wainwright songs... of the moment, anyway.

Rufus Wainwright fluffy coat

Wainwright famously got Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys to draft the initial tracklist for his 2014 ‘best of’ collection Vibrate, but with PSB currently engaged on their own trip down memory lane, he doesn’t get off that easily. “I love all my children equally,” he protests gently, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles where he’s visiting his daughter Viva and co-parent Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard.

“I can’t say that these are truly my favourites because it really depends on what mood I’m in and what I’m reminiscing about, or what I feel is exceptional and new. But I do think these songs have a link to my life right now, and also to where I’m headed."

"Going to a Town" (2007)

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: This song is also on Folkocracy, but that’s not why I gave it to you. Though, I do want to say that when we were making the record, I did think that it would just be weird to have absolutely nothing of mine on there. Mitchell Froom, who is the producer, said, ‘Well, you know Rufus, if I had to pick one song of yours that I believe will become a folk song in the future and go down the line, musically, I would pick “Going to a Town”.' And, sadly, that’s probably true because the subject matter of the song is kind of depressing in that this sort of frustration people feel with the United States used to be every 10 years or so and now it’s just perennial.

That being said, I don’t think “Going to a Town” is a negative song about the United States. I think it’s actually a love song. It’s like writing to someone you really care about. You want them to do better and you really want to keep them in your life, but you’re just so exasperated. So I think it’s imbued with a sense of… not necessarily hope, but positive dreams at least.

I wrote this song very fast, and it was really sparked by the invasion of Iraq by America. We had this very brief period after 9/11 where the whole world had sort of come together to support the United States and give us a helping hand. Then, lo and behold, we invaded Iraq, which was just ridiculous.

BEST FIT: Could you have imagined at the time that it would come to be one of the songs you'd perform most often, and become such an important part of your career?

No, I didn’t imagine it right away. But as I started to sing it for people, it grew incrementally in stature. I was definitely hooked into the zeitgeist at the time.

What’s interesting about this song is that when Obama won the presidency, I was still singing it occasionally and all of a sudden it was the Republicans who hated him and hated Democrats who were kind of into it. So I realised that the song can actually shift sides, which is a bit odd. Of course, I am on the more left wing.

You’ve said before that the ‘town’ in question is Berlin, and the funny thing about Release the Stars is that you originally planned to make a completely different album, stylistically, inspired by Berlin. What happened there?

It’s true, I went to Berlin with the intention of doing some sort of cool, hip, avant-garde, grungy, rock and roll record – a Lou Reed / David Bowie type thing – but then I ended up being more affected by Potsdam and Sanssouci and Frederick the Great. Things from this kind of odd baroque period that left such a big impression, and as a result the album became much more florid and more about parks and palaces and stuff.

I’d also discovered the music of [Italian popstar] Mina around that time and she had sort of availed herself, artistically, and I think that was a big influence in shaping my ideas about production.

“Going to a Town” has been covered by some very notable people – Salma Hayek, Mandy Patinkin and, of course, George Michael. How did it feel when you learnt that George Michael was out there singing your song?

That was a great honour! I have a funny story about that, actually. I mean, in retrospect it’s kind of a sad story, but also funny.

I’d met George once, in passing, and I didn’t really even know him that well. I was told that he was going to call me, and one night, finally, I got this call at, like, three in the morning. I was up, because I was on the tour bus or something, but it was the middle of the night. I thought maybe he was in a different time zone, but it was also the middle of the night for him.

Anyway, he just talked and talked and talked about how much he loved the song and so forth. Of course, I immediately wanted to, you know, thank him and join in with the conversation, but it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t gonna be able to say a word because he was so high and just kind of rambling. He spoke for an hour, just going on and on about this and that until it became just a stream of consciousness thing. And then he fell asleep, still on the phone [laughs].

He later apologised for having done that, but whatever. Look, it was fascinating, but also sad because I would have liked to have spent more time with him. We miss him so much.

That’s a great story. He was a real gem. Going back to what we were saying earlier about the new version on Folkocracy, which you’ve done with ANOHNI, who you’ve worked with quite a bit in the past. Can you talk a bit about her involvement?

I’ve been friends with ANOHNI for about 30 years now. We started out as street urchins, basically, in the Lower East Side. I used to go see her play shows like Blacklips at the Pyramid Club. She didn’t know me so much, but I knew who she was and I followed her.

When I came back to New York after making my first record [in Los Angeles] we hung out at a lot of bars and clubs and stuff, and had a lot of friends in common. And then, you know, she had this meteoric rise at one point, after winning the Mercury Prize, and that was really exciting to watch and be a part of. Our common love of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed was important, too.

We’ve just had these different intersections over the years that have been very profound, and also kind of on the same level. It’s been wonderful to watch her career blossom in the way that she wanted, and my career in mine, so we can kind of admire each other. And, of course, it’s important that we get together every once in a while, so we did it for Folkocracy.

How did you find your way into the song as a duet? Had you done it as a duet before?

No, I hadn’t, and I don’t really qualify this version as a duet, per se. I did offer for her to sing a bigger part and make it more of a lead, but she felt more empowered to bring her own sort of environment and perspective to the song with some of the lyrics she added and the harmonies. I think we’re still very much in separate quadrants on this version, and I think that makes it pretty fascinating. It’s not your run-of-the-mill duet. I’ll be honest, I was a little taken aback initially because I didn’t quite understand what she was trying to do. But then once she explained it, and we kind of mixed it in, it made total sense. And I get to keep the lead, so I’m not unhappy!

She’s always been the type of person who if you ask her to do something, she’ll immediately do something else. That’s her. That’s the way she operates, and I think it comes from a real artistic place. She’s drawn to the unexpected, she likes to have that dangerous element. I just had to let her do it her way, and I think it probably makes the song far more interesting because we’re not just trading verses, which I also love by the way. But, yeah, she likes to do things uniquely, which is why we love her!

Rufus Wainwright Release the Stars

"Poses" (2001)

BEST FIT: You've chosen two songs from Poses next, starting with the title track. What does this song mean to you today?

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: I still sing this song all the time. It serves me well. For me, what's so important about that song is that it really defined the rest of my career.

When I put out my first record, it was very well received critically and it actually did quite well in terms of sales, too. It was a healthy offering. But I do think that the second album is the most important. There’s so much excitement around a debut album, where the artist has often had years to come up with the songs, and there’s also money – or at least back then there was – for it. But, really, the second one is the deciding factor. That’s the one that really defines the direction in which you’ll go as an artist.

As I said, after making my first album in LA, I subsequently moved back to New York and moved into the Chelsea Hotel, where I started writing songs. One of those was “Poses”, and I really credit that song with pointing the arrow towards the success I had, musically, because it did sort of take that boy-Rufus, kind of dandy character from the first record and make him into more of a romantic figure and into someone who’s more of a darker presence, which is kind of the name of the game.

We’ve heard a lot of tales about people's experiences of living at the Chelsea Hotel. What was it like for you?

Oh, yeah, at the time it was still famous for lots of partying, lots of crazy people. Stanley [Bard, manager and part-owner of the hotel] was still there at the time, and he was famous for letting all kinds of people in. I guess I was there during what was sort of the last gasp for what the Chelsea Hotel had been like for a while, so I’m very, very happy that I got to witness that.

You’ve talked about how you wrote a song about this guy that you were kind of in love with.

Yeah, there was this kid that I was obsessed with. He was this very tragic, sort of gorgeous, drug-addled prostitute figure, and I guess he’s probably dead now. It’s so weird to think about because he seemed so young to me at the time, but he actually wasn’t that much younger than me. I think I was 25 and he was around 22, but I was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s a child and I’m an ancient man!’

Rufus Wainwright Poses

"Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" (2001)

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: This, to me, is very much an accompanying song to “Poses”. They are part of a set – a diptych or something. On one hand you have “Poses”, which is the interior monologue, and on the other you have “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, which is the sort of the exterior presentation.

This song comes from the same period that was really the last gasp for me in terms of drinking and doing drugs, and not caring at all about anything. It was towards the end of me totally being this happy, willing slave to the night and feeling like it was nothing but fantastic, nothing but marvellous.

So, yeah, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” comes from me sort of inhabiting that sacred space for what was gonna be sort of the last time. I mean, not totally. I didn’t stop right after that song or anything. I still had many more years to go and a lot of fun to have, but it was maybe one of the last moments where it was completely innocent.

You can even hear me reflecting on that in the song, which I think is interesting because at the time I wasn’t really thinking seriously about quitting drugs or taking care of my health. It was just a little trick, but it did sort of foretell a path that I would have to choose at some point later on.

I used to have this aching desire for chocolate milk. I don’t know why. I’d see it in a shop and just start salivating. This song was written after one time I went out hungover to get some chocolate milk, grabbed the carton and just downed the whole thing furiously. Then I lit a cigarette and was like, ‘Oh my god, my stomach is going to explode!’

You have to imagine me doing this in front of the Chelsea Hotel, in the middle of the New York summer. It’s boiling out outside and I’m wearing practically nothing, just dripping in jewels and wearing eyeliner and stuff. But, really, it was just a great period that I’m so happy that I had.

BEST FIT: There are two versions of “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” on Poses. What was the significance of having it as both the opening and closing track?

That was significant in the sense of the fact that Lenny [Waronker], who was my A&R person and the head of the record company at the time, absolutely loved that track. He was just obsessed with it, and I think he wanted to hear it again.

I think we also wanted to have something that we could bring to radio that was a little less, you know, cathedral-like. That’s the other thing about this song. When you look at the original version – the first one on the record – the structure of it is astounding. I’m sorry to brag, but there’s this insane break and a bridge that just becomes this whole other kind of moment. Then the song kind of retracts into this very sad moment of contemplation. It’s a very beautifully built song, I must say. It’s complex.

I still end pretty much every show of mine with this song. Not just because it’s a way to enliven the audience, but also because it sort of reminds them that I’m a little bit broken as well. I like that it has kind of got both elements to it.

Rufus Wainwright Poses

"Heading for Home" feat. John Legend (2023)

BEST FIT: This is a song written by Peggy Seeger at the end of the ‘90s, from her 2003 album of the same name. Why did you choose to cover this song for Folkocracy?

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Well, Peggy Seeger has always been a huge figure in my musical life. I must have first come into contact with her music when I was around 10 years old. I think I first met her at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in Canada. In those days, and still now – in fact, I’m doing it this year! – they have these workshops where they invite a bunch of singer/songwriters to get up and sing and talk about songwriting and music. They’re quite wonderful.

I remember I was up there singing backup for my mum, and Peggy Seeger was there and it was like being in the presence of an empress or something. She had this regal presence that people just felt so affected by. Both as a musician – she has a beautiful voice and she played the banjo so incredibly – and just as this figure in the folk world as a Seeger, as the sister of the emperor Pete, who was obviously such an important figure, historically, on many levels in America.

So, yeah, I was just very impressed by her. I think my mother was also a little intimidated, which I didn’t often see her being, you know? But I also know that Peggy really admired my mother too. It’s that thing where you have two queens in a room and they’re kind of eyeing each other up. They’re not going to mark their territory, necessarily, but there’s something very electrifying about that energy. That whole experience affected me deeply and I really got into her music after that.

When the song “Heading for Home” came out, I don’t know why but every time I would listen to it I would start crying. I just related to it so much, so to put it on this record and to sing it with John Legend is such a thrill. I’m just really happy to be continuing that folk tradition and keeping her flame alive.

Can you put your finger on what it was about the song that touched you so much?

Well, I think it has this poetic acceptance of death. You know, where you’re not running away from it, and you’re not fearful of the imminent end, but there’s still a melancholy there. There’s a bit of sadness but you’re starting to actually long for death a little bit. It’s interesting because in a way that’s something that I’ve been familiar with for my whole life.

Growing up, I hit puberty when AIDS was so prevalent, and really for a good 10 years I thought I was probably going to die, as did most gay men of my age and a little older. Death was always close, and after a while you did sort of have to accept that it was a possible outcome. At the time, I found that incredibly difficult, but in retrospect there was something so valuable about being able to mill over that stuff at such a young age. To really start to measure my life according to that rather spooky yardstick. And I think that this song is sort of a gentle way of doing that.

Going back to your mother for a minute. After Kate passed, I remember that Peggy did a wonderful version of the McGarrigles’ “Tell My Sister” for the tribute record.

Oh, yeah, that was a really incredible version. Honestly, Peggy is the kind of musician that I would like to be, and that sadly I am not. The kind of musician who can get on almost any instrument, sort of fiddle around with it a bit and come up with a really exacting and beautiful version of a song that’s so direct, so unfiltered and unflowery. I try so hard to be this dramatic svengali or whatever – and that's who I am, and that's fine – but sometimes there's a directness that Peggy has that I admire very much.

You touched on John Legend a minute ago. Can you tell me how he got involved and how you kind of approached the song together?

I’ve known John for quite a while, and I do admire his work. Certainly his is one of the most beautiful voices in music, and, you know, he’s also quite a beautiful man. So, yeah, I was thrilled to have him come in and sing with me. It felt very sort of old-fashioned Hollywood doing this song, having this star in the room, and I think it was fun to kind of capitalise on that in the song, in a playful way. I think he also respects me a lot – he was a fan of mine when he was just starting out – so I think we were both sort of just vibing off of each other and enjoying the fabulous view [laughs].

I think it goes almost without saying that Black American music is really what makes America great. It’s always so amazing for me to sing with Black artists, whether it’s John Legend, Chaka Khan or whoever. It’s something I’ve really been thinking of a lot the past day or two, with Tina Turner just passing, which was very sad.

Rufus Wainwright Folkocracy

"Montauk" (2012)

BEST FIT: I know this song has a lot of personal significance for you, so it’s good to see it here on the list.

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, this is a song I wrote for our daughter Viva, who’s now 12 years old. I wrote it for her when she was just being born, and it was really about imagining her coming to the house we have in Montauk. What’s interesting about this song is that it’s not just about Viva but, at the end, it also refers to my mother, who had died soon before Viva was born. There’s something about that whole death into life transition that’s always so fascinating, and actually I think it’s quite common. So often you hear about people who have lost a parent and then given birth to a child in the same period.

Everything I wrote in this song has come true. Viva did come to Montauk and I do wear a kimono out there and we hang out at the ocean. And, you know, my mother did visit me from the sea a few times, as a seagull [laughs]. My mother adored Montauk. I’d actually never seen her happier than when she was there.

For me, “Montauk” is a bit like “Going to a Town” in that it’s a good example of a song that just came to me very quickly as a sort of message from wherever, and that I feel very blessed to have received. Another thing that I think is quite touching about the song is that it mentions Viva having two dads, because it was written at a time when all of that legislation was still pretty new. Gay people were finally allowed to marry and were starting to adopt, so it was really at the dawning of this very powerful period of time and, for me, I think that’s part of the electricity there. I mean, the idea of getting married and having children was, for the longest time, the furthest thing from my mind, so it’s a meaningful one.

You and your husband got married at the house in Montauk, right?

Yes, we were married there, and we're gonna have our joint 50th birthday there next month. But I don’t need to be buried there or anything, don't worry [laughs].

What are you looking forward to most about your 50th?

Well, I’m grateful for the fact that I’m in good health and that my family will be around me. I’m looking most forward to beautiful sunny weather, since the show is going to be outdoors at the lighthouse. Everyone’s welcome to come! Maybe I should just be hoping that it’s rainy and stormy so that I’m pleasantly surprised when the sun’s out…

Rufus Wainwright Out of the Game

Folkocracy and Rufus Wainwright (25th Anniversary Edition) are out now on BMG and UMe/Geffen, respectively.

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