Music News

The Well-Traveled Troubadour

When Rufus Wainwright hits South Florida this weekend for a two-night stint, prepare to swoon. This is one crooning troubadour who could probably turn a grocery list into a heartbreaking tale of terrible beauty.

Not that Wainwright has to resort to grocery lists, mind you. With a song-soaked career that dates back a decade and a heritage that encompasses a singing/songwriting father (Loudon Wainwright), mother (Kate McGarrigle), aunt (Anna McGarrigle), and sister (Martha Wainwright), he's got more than a few tunes running through his being.

But then, you already knew that, and you've known it since 1998, when Rufus released his self-titled debut. You knew it better in 2001, when Poses hit stores and you fell in love with the lead-off single, "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk." Of course, you might've also been swayed by Wainwright's cover of the Beatles' classic "Across the Universe," which appeared in Sean Penn's I Am Sam, but I'm thinking that came after that initial rush of nicotine and sugar.

By the time Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004) hit the racks, you were already sold. So the singles "I Don't Know What It Is" and a live version of "Chelsea Hotel" merely made you feel good about your purchase.

Then last year, when Rufus delivered a double-shot of drop-dead gorgeous song-crafting, you sold him to the few friends you had left who hadn't yet fallen for the song man. Of course, that album, Release the Stars, made it pretty easy, especially since the opener, "Do I Disappoint You," was about as universally melodious as a love song can get. And Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, in December 2007, made it easier still, no matter what kind of pills you pop before breakfast.

Now there's an opera, Prima Donna, originally commissioned by New York's Metropolitan Opera, that's been moved to Manchester, England. And word is Wainwright's next LP will be pared down to nothing but piano and man. This setup is what we'll see Saturday night as Wainwright wraps up his solo stand across America. Consider this a preview of the album to come. Better yet, consider it a privilege.

New Times caught up with the troubadour while he was holed up with his sweetheart in Berlin. Here's what he had to say:

New Times: Is it true that your opera, Prima Donna, was turned down by the Met because you wrote the libretto in French?

Wainwright: That's totally the reason. The fact that it was in French and the fact that I wanted it premiered a lot earlier than they could. It turned out that the Met could only do it around 2014. Premiering it next year, in July, at the Manchester International Festival gives me a chance to get it out there sooner, which is what I want.

But aren't most of the operas they perform in a foreign language?

Yeah, most of then are in Italian, French, German, or whatever, so I really don't understand the reasoning. But I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they wanted the works to be distinctly American, and of contemporary American sensibility. You know, I don't think they even have any European composers on the roster for this program. So somehow having it in French threw a wrench into that idea.

You're still on good terms with them though, right?

Oh, yeah. I am. I have to give [Metropolitan Opera general manager] Peter Gelb a lot of credit for really baptizing the project. He originally commissioned it, and the moment I had the Met behind me I immediately started writing a lot. So it kind of jump-started everything, which I'm really thankful for. But I had to go my own way.

Didn't you sing with [diva] Jessye Norman at the Watermill Center in Southampton, New York, this past summer?

Yes, I did, I did.

How was that?

That was amazing. We didn't sing together, per se. I don't think in any way she would have, because, you know, she's probably one of the last great divas — that being the full package. You don't just go up and sing with Jessye Norman; you have to go through the committee — and I mean the committee of her mind. And we didn't have time for that. [Laughs.] She did come up during my show and sing two or three lovely songs, though, which was wonderful.

Is she as intimidating in person as she appears on stage and screen?

Yes, she is, she is. She's the real deal. I think she eats, breathes, and sleeps opera and the whole universe that that encompasses.

You've also sung with Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons), Ann Wilson, Dido, Ben Folds, John Cale, your sister Martha — is there anybody you won't duet with?

(Laughs) Probably not, actually. I'm a cheap date. I just enjoy singing so much that it doesn't matter who it's with.

Is there anyone living or dead that you've dreamt of singing with but haven't?

I've always wanted to sing with Björk; it would be such a trip. And I also would love to sing with Tony Bennett, even though it's been done a lot of times, because he's sort of the last remaining crooner from another era, so it would be interesting. There's a bunch of people. One of the greatest privileges I had recently was singing with Renee Fleming; we sang together for a TV show [Spectacle] that Elvis Costello has.

You sang and helped produce Joan Wasserman's [Joan as Police Woman] last record, right?

Yeah, I did. She's a dear, dear friend of mine. I sing at the end of her album; there's a duet between her and me.

Didn't she used to play violin in your band?

Yeah, she was in my band for a few years and I miss her terribly.

Your current tour is solo, without a band. Why's that?

Well, several reasons, one of which is I recently came off a huge tour that ended at Radio City Music Hall with fireworks and a big bang. So that was the end of that period. And now it's time to sort of see who's behind the curtain, the little old man who actually turned out to be a gorgeous model type [laughs], so it's a bit of that — discovery for the audience. And also because I make a lot more money!

You've covered the Beatles, the Hollies, Leonard Cohen, and, of course, Judy Garland — what gives you the impetus to cover an artist or a particular song?

One of the most important facets of being a songwriter is learning other songs. I really think there's no way to gather the information as well as actually performing whatever song it is. So I feel like it's kind of a requirement in terms of being a songwriter yourself. I do it to get better.

Are there any other artists you plan to cover in the near or distant future?

I'd really like to make a French record at some point. I'm a big Serge Gainsbourg fan.

Will you be doing any covers on this tour?


Do you want to tell me which ones, or should people just be surprised?

Surprised, as usual.

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John Hood