Rufus Wainwright’s Song of Himself
For those who believe the American songbook is still evolving, a strong case can be made for the exquisite, melancholy-joyful contributions of Rufus Wainwright. The Gen X singer-songwriter’s songs, with their echoes of predecessors like Leonard Cohen, belie his lineage as the son of folk music legends Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III.
Wainwright also bears distinction as one of the first LGBTQ artists to be out of the closet and have success in the industry from the start. Being out has informed the queer musical-icon legacy Wainwright has explored, including his triumphant performance of Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert program, which he recreated word-for-word and note-for-note at the vaulted venue, as well as on tour, on album, video and in a recent reprise. We talked to Wainwright by phone on the cusp of preparations for his debut in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, Rufus Wainwright: Songs That Built Me, on January 22 at Alice Tully Hall.
When we last spoke, you noted that, returning to the Garland repertoire, your second exploration was more focused on the great songwriters whose work she sang, than on the star herself. Is that what drew you to American Songbook?
Rufus Wainwright: There are several reasons I wanted to do it. One being that my dad did the series not so long ago and had a really good experience. The other thing is that in terms of songs, and American Songbook specifically, I have a very interesting perspective, being born into a kind of a folk-ocracy. I know the historical material. Doing the Judy offered me an exploration into the masterful work of the great classic American songwriters of the Golden Age of Broadway, their perfect union of lyrics and music—which has arguably not been repeated since. That being said, the main thing that benefited was my singing. Because I had this reverence for the material, I really focused on breath and on pronunciation and telling the story that each song was built around. So, for me as a musician and performer, it was very important.
What makes a song part of the Great American Songbook?
Wainwright: I think the words have to be as good as the music. Today, there’s not as much attention paid to the words, and that’s unfortunate. So, lyrics are what I would like to champion the most, although naturally I’m a melodist.
Which songwriters “built” you?
Wainwright: It would be hard not to honor the work of Bob Dylan these days because he’s still around, and he’s such a massive figure in the history of song in America. Being a huge opera fan, I also have to look at Gershwin because he straddled different genres, both classical and popular. And looking at my immediate family, my father is a great example of a current-affairs writer. And then we all grew up under the umbrella of Pete Seeger.
When you’re writing, do you ever think, “This song has a Leonard Cohen vibe or John Lennon feeling,” or whatever?
Wainwright: Yeah, sometimes I do, maybe more now, because I’m less concerned about establishing my Rufus Wainwright sound, as that’s already occurred. I’m attracted to the exercise of taking a great songwriter and trying to unmask them. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Gershwin, the mystery of how his songs work, how the music and lyrics sit together, and trying to raise the bar in my daily musical compositions, reflecting on those great artists.
What do you think of your work as material for other singers? In 2001 in the American Songbook series, Betty Buckley sang “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.” And Audra McDonald recorded “Damned Ladies” on one of her early albums. Are you surprised it hasn’t happened more?
Wainwright: I am totally for other people singing my material! I do feel sometimes that I’ve been a little bit shortchanged, but it might actually be my fault in the sense that my vocal style is so unique, for better or for worse. Whether you love it or you hate it, nobody sounds like Rufus Wainwright and so, therefore, the songs become connected to my vocal character. I would very much like for that to be unwoven a bit and played with. But I’ve always had just a very unique voice, naturally—biologically. But there was an interesting intersection around the time that I discovered opera at the age of 13. On one hand, I had this folk music background, but like every little kid, I wanted to be a pop star, and then I ended up emulating Maria Callas somehow. In this confusion, my unique sound was born. Your style lends itself naturally to, for example, Judy Garland.
Were there ever any other Broadway or American Songbook–type opportunities or ideas along your way
Wainwright: Now that you bring it up, I think I did get offered to play Hedwig at one point for some touring production. But I have to say one of my greatest fantasies has always been to be in a musical movie. Being a Judy Garland fan, I was more attuned to the MGM magic that she was the center of. I fantasize about being in a remake of Guys and Dolls, for the silver screen. I’m a big Frank Loesser fan.
Are there any contemporary theater writers whose work you like?
Wainwright: I am actually quite good friends with and a fan of Marc Shaiman (Hairspray). Also, my dad went to Carnegie Tech, to acting school, with Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) and I’ve also hung out with John Kander (Chicago).
Ever think of writing a musical?
Wainwright: Look, I’m at a point in my career now where I’ve fully focused on the popular music world. I have also lent a great deal of focus to the opera world. It would be stupid if I didn’t take a swing at Broadway, because it makes a lot of sense due to the character of my writing, along with the fact that I was a huge Broadway fan when I started. I mean, I was an Annie fanatic as a kid, and I would go all the time to the theater. Ooh, I should definitely sing a song from Annie!
Ben Rimalower is the writer and performer of Patti Issues and Bad With Money and host of the podcast Ben Rimalower’s Broken Records.
American Songbook Lead Support provided by Holland America Line.
Endowment support provided by Bank of America.
Additional support for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook is provided by Christina and Robert Baker, Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, The DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, The Shubert Foundation, Great Performers Circle, Lincoln Center Patrons, and Lincoln Center Members.
For more information, visit AmericanSongbook.org