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The Catalyst interview: Rufus Wainwright

Bill DeYoung

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Rufus Wainwright wil perform a solo concert Oct. 7 at the Sraz Center's Ferguson Hall. Photo: Tony Hauser.

Of all the versions out there of Leonard Cohen’s transformative song “Hallelujah,” few reach the emotional peaks of the one recorded by Rufus Wainwright. Cohen could have written it for his fellow Canadian to perform (he didn’t).

Wainwright, himself a formidable songsmith, was called upon to sing “Hallelujah” at a memorial service for Queen Elizabeth II Sept. 19, in Ottawa’s Christ Church Cathedral.

It was just the latest in a series of remarkable life moments for the 49-year-old son of folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle.

He’s on his first tour in several years (thank you, Covid-19) and will perform, solo, at Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts Friday, Oct. 7. The Ferguson Hall concert will feature Wainwright alternating between piano and guitar.

His discography is full of left turns, speed tables and detours – along with numerous albums of original material, he’s written and recorded an opera (Prima Donna), a spoken-word and musically-adapted collection of Shakespeare sonnets (Take All My Loves) and, most famously, a song-for-song live performance of Judy Garland’s landmark 1964 album Judy At Carnegie Hall, with orchestra.

Not so long ago, Wainwright performed the entire Carnegie Hall album again, with a small jazz combo, in Capitol Records’ famed Hollywood Studios – the same placed Garland made most of her records. He even used her original microphones.

That’s just how he rolls.

 

St. Pete Catalyst: What was it like singing at the service for the Queen?

Rufus Wainwright: It was kind of bizarre, I have to say … I was very happy to be there, I felt honored that they chose me. And I met the Queen, years ago once. But really, in essence I really didn’t know her at all. But then when I got up to sing, I actually got quite emotional – and was struck, more I guess by the power of pageantry, and the idea of a formal mourning period for a people. I felt like I had to go there, so I did. I shed a couple of tears – it wasn’t for the Queen {chuckling}, it was just sort of in general to release some emotion. It was interesting.

 

Do you identify as Canadian?

Yeah. I was born in New York State, then I moved to Canada when I was 3 with my mother, who was Canadian. And I was there until I was in my mid 20s. I have citizenship to both countries. There’s a side of me that feels very Canadian at times, and then the opposite.

 

Unfollow the Rules, your most recent album of original songs, came out just as things were closing down in 2020. Is this, technically, a tour to promote that record?

I’d like to clarify this, because I think this (tour) might be under the Unfollow the Rules banner, but if I was to name this tour, it would be called the Just Doing My Job Tour. {Laughing} Where I go out and sing songs from all over my repertoire. And also that kind of relates to where I might be, or what’s going on that day in the world. It’s kind of my “trouba-tour” {Laughing}.  

 

Attitude asked you this in another interview, and so I will too: Why is Judy Garland such an icon in the gay community?

There are several elements, one being that certainly she was at the epicenter of the Hollywood machine, at a time when it was at its most virulent, and had the power to turn people into gods. Whether it was Judy Garland, or Clark Gable or whoever, all of those actors were deified essentially. So I think that kind of puts her in the worship position.

On the other hand, I think she very much – I think, personally – was so magnetic without having to be beautiful. I mean, she wasn’t ugly or anything. She wasn’t a bombshell. She had a very human side to her, and a very vulnerable side, obviously. And it was really more about her charisma. I think that’s something that gay men of her era especially had to really rely on – they had to both be beautiful with what they were given, but also be really, really smart and charismatic. So I think it was a way of navigating the rough waters of life, which gay people have really had to do for a very long time.

And then, of course, there’s Dorothy, and the whole idea of living your life in color as opposed to black and white {Laughing}.

 

What was the genesis of the Capitol Studios project?

Once Covid hit, everybody had to re-arrange their lives. So one of the things that I had to do was look at other avenues for how to express myself artistically. We had the idea of going through all my studio records and doing them live, from my living room. We did all of that, and we thought it would be a great finale to do the Judy show – but maybe take it out of the house. But not too far! I don’t live so far from Capitol Studios, so we did that …

And it just so happened to coincide with her 100th birthday. Which was in June. It wasn’t to the day or anything, but this is her centennial year. So yeah, all the stars aligned and I just walked down Hollywood Boulevard and made the record.

 

You and the combo cut the entire thing live in the studio with an audience of one: Renee Zellweger. I assume this had something to do with the movie she made about Judy?

I’ve known Renee for a long time. I wouldn’t say we’re close, but we’ve always admired each other. When it came time for her to do her movie, and she released an album with it as well, she did a couple of duets – one was with me and one was with Sam Smith. So that sort of sealed the deal.

And then when it came time to film my renditions of these songs at Capitol Records … I like having a celebrity guest. Just as an audience member, not to get up and sing or anything. That’s one of the perks of living in Hollywood! You can have a famous person come down, sit in the corner and smile. They love it.

 

I’m looking at your diverse discography. As an artist, are you fearless?

Well, I don’t know that it’s so much that I’m fearless, I think I seek out danger. {Laughing}. I need there to be some sort of risk involved. I certainly have fear, but at the same time I seek out danger and I like it to be something that really electrifies me – and that is conquering the odds. I’ve always had to do what I want to do, for better or for worse.

Tickets for the Straz Center concert are here.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mindy colton

    October 1, 2022at4:15 pm

    Good interview. Glad to learn more about him. Wish I could get there.

  2. Avatar

    monah

    October 1, 2022at8:47 pm

    I had no idea he was going to be in Tampa until I saw this. Just bought two tickets! It will be a nice escape from the heartbreaking news in the wake of the storm. He’s one of my favorite singers!

  3. Avatar

    Sylvia Rusche

    October 2, 2022at4:54 am

    I’ve loved Rufus for many years and listen to him almost daily. Great interview Bill and I’m looking forward to seeing him yet again.

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