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‘I’m now officially modern’: interview with Rufus Wainwright

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Prodigiously talented and rakishly elegant, the much-admired purveyor of operatic pop, Rufus Wainwright – son of Cambridge Folk Festival favourite Loudon Wainwright III – is now ready to “get back up on the horse”.

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser
Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser

Like many other musicians left at something of a loose end this past year due to a distinct lack of touring opportunities, the compellingly charismatic singer-songwriter composer has kept himself busy online.

However, rather than just simply performing virtual concerts for his many fans, the 47-year-old star recently put on something slightly more theatrical. In what may be an unsurprising move, given his lofty position at the more glamorous end of the showbusiness spectrum, Rufus staged a virtual concert, Rufus Does Judy, at the famed Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, on June 10.

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser
Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser

In it, he performed his groundbreaking 2007 tribute to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall – Judy At Carnegie Hall, the live album, came out in 1961 – in its entirety. The event celebrated what would have been Garland’s 99th birthday, and he was joined by special guests, actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth and actress Renée Zellweger, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Garland in the 2019 film, Judy.

Rufus performed the show – which features more than 25 American standards spanning swing, jazz, and pop – backed by a four-piece band. Zellweger was a member of the micro-audience, while Kristin Chenoweth joined in musically and in person on a couple of songs.

Rufus’s sister, Martha Wainwright, a successful musical artist in her own right, also participated from her home in Montreal. Rufus said of the experience: “The American Songbook and Judy Garland’s famed 1961 Carnegie Hall concert gave me a lot of hope after 9/11 and led to the idea for my first song-by-song recreation of that show at the same venue.

“It felt fitting to do the entire set again as the dazzling finale of my Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective and hopefully the beginning of the finale of this global pandemic. Once again, these songs revealed their healing power.

“To be able to sing them in front of Renée, to sing with Kristin Chenoweth and still have my sister Martha be part of these shows was particularly meaningful, although to sing them into the very microphone that Judy used for her recordings at Capitol Studios was the most mind-blowing.”

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser
Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser

Rufus’s first live album, released when he was 34, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, was recorded over two sold-out nights at Carnegie Hall, with a full 36-piece orchestra and special guest appearances from his sister, Martha, his mother, the late folk musician Kate McGarrigle, and Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft.

The album earned Rufus his first-ever Grammy Award nomination, for ‘Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album’. In support of his ninth studio album, 2020’s Unfollow the Rules – his first new pop album since 2012, which deservedly earned him a second Grammy nomination – Rufus is set to tour the UK in October. The Cambridge Corn Exchange is in the diary.

“We’re slowly getting back up on the horse,” says Rufus, speaking to the Cambridge Independent from Los Angeles, “and that’s a good feeling, but also mixed with some trepidation. But look, who isn’t in that position at the moment?”

As well as celebrating the great Judy Garland, Rufus has other musical projects on the go at the present time, noting: “I’ve recorded some stuff, I’ve written many songs... What has been fantastic during this period is for me to really focus on my theatrical ambitions, in terms of the West End or Broadway. I’m really starting to focus on how to conquer the stage.”

He says he is preparing “several things” in that medium but can’t really divulge much about them at the moment. “There’s always this thing about the world of Broadway... is that you have to attempt many, many projects and most of them don’t materialise in the end,” reveals Rufus, “but nonetheless, it’s a great opportunity to write songs!”

Weekly concerts from his living room were another aspect of Rufus’s lockdown life. “I have a German husband and let’s say the ethos around here is just to keep busy at all costs!” he laughs. Rufus says that the Judy Garland show was “kind of a finale for this whole online voyage which, on the whole, has been incredibly useful for the way the world works today in general, so I’m now officially modern.”

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser
Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser

Has the father-of-one, who has also popped up in films and TV series such as The Aviator and BoJack Horseman, missed performing in person? “I’ve missed it a lot... I always knew it would occur again so I never lost faith in that, and I’ve definitely enjoyed this time off, but I’m ready to get back out now and live that life. The timing is right.”

Unfollow the Rules is a most rewarding listen – some of it reminding me of the wonderful and sadly underrated music the Beach Boys made in the early 1970s. “There’s always been an affinity between England and California – more so than LA and New York!” Rufus responds.

“I mean certainly living in LA, I’ve worked with [songwriter and Beach Boys collaborator] Van Dyke Parks over the years. I’ve sung with Brian Wilson as well. He especially is a huge influence. I also loved his brother, the good looking one – Dennis Wilson.”

Although the LP was recorded before the pandemic, Rufus, who has also branched out into opera and dance music – he even put nine Shakespeare sonnets to music for the 2016 album Take All My Loves – feels that there is a connection, a sort of sense of foreboding, which often comes about through songwriting.

“You can sort of hear the pandemic in the distance, rising,” he explains. “There’s an ominous quality to this record, whether it’s songs like Alone Time or Trouble in Paradise... there’s a menacing force on this record which I think may have been apparent when people listened to it in the midst of the pandemic.”

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser
Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser

Rufus’ father Loudon Wainwright III’s last appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival was in 2017. “I’ve been going to Cambridge since I was a wee thing, as they say,” he laughs. “My parents used to play the Cambridge Folk Festival regularly, so I used to hang out at that event as a kid. Then I did my own shows in Cambridge so it has always been a real point of reference for me.”

Recalling some of his ‘rowdier’ exploits at the festival, he says coyly, “it was another era”. Does this mean Rufus indulged in under-age drinking? “Let’s keep it there!” he laughs. “As I say, it was a different era... they’re much stricter now than they used to be.”

While we look forward to the possibility of a Rufus Wainwright set at the Folk Festival one day, we can, all being well, catch him at the Corn Exchange on Friday, October 15.

Tickets: £38-£168. For more information, visit cornex.co.uk.

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