Rufus Wainwright is one of those artists who seemingly emerged with a fully formed, idiosyncratic sensibility that is uniquely his — a deep sense of song tied as much to cabaret, baroque pop, and glam rock as to the folk leanings of his parents, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III. Wainwright’s is an opera-tinged delivery with a rich, eclectic arrangement style that led the singer to critical acclaim by the late 1990s/early 2000s.
But unsurprisingly, for someone whose formula is also so varied, Wainwright has shown a penchant for artistic roving. Whether that means reprising a Judy Garland live album in its entirety (2007’s Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall), composing and recording honest-to-goodness operas (Prima Donna in 2015), or adapting Shakespeare sonnets in a dramatic and varied fashion (last year’s Take All My Loves – 9 Shakespeare Sonnets), he clearly follows his own muse down whatever side alley appears in front of him.
“I always have five or six ideas I might follow,” he admits of his left-field projects and digressions. “It’s not really following down a rabbit hole — I’m more a monkey climbing up the jungle tree, leaping from branch to branch.”
The latter metaphor does in fact make sense for Wainwright, particularly given how each project, as eclectic as it might be, tends to be imbued with multiples of his own diverse interest set. Take his most recent effort on Shakespeare’s sonnets — Wainwright says he feels like he’s tried to set the bard’s poems to music since he was a teenager.
“Finally, when I was on the classical record label Gramaphone, people suddenly realized we were coming up on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and I [already] had this series of [his] sonnets I had written music to,” he explains. “So it just made sense to get those out. They were all over the map in terms of style, whether it was cabaret or classical or punk. So we just went for it.
“It became evident that this album was ready to arrive,” he adds. “It was really kind of a breeze.”
Wainwright’s ease at thinking across centuries of popular culture has also been one of his unique hallmarks as an ostensible pop-rock artist too, particularly in his love for opera.
“I became enamored of opera at a very young age, 13 really, and it became my main source of inspiration,” he says. “On one hand, I was just so excited to discover this treasure trove of material. And on the other, I was really excited to have this secret weapon, this arsenal that nobody else from my generation had any idea about. So I was very cognizant of that when I started writing songs.”
Wainwright’s opera-tinged singing style and theatrical impulses were evident even on his more traditional, early records, which also hopscotched other pop styles from different decades with aplomb. With his full-fledged dive into composing operas in recent years, though, it’s clear how central the influence has become. Wainwright says he’s currently finishing up a second opera based on the Roman Emperor Hadrian before returning to more traditional songwriting.
“Over the last few years I’ve definitely been allowed to stretch the borders a bit and my fans have very lovingly come along on this journey, this theatrical excursion,” he admits. “But I’m getting the sense now that it’s time to get back to my roots a bit.”
The current tour has Wainwright playing solo and stretching across the full breadth of his catalog.
“I might do a couple of the arias that I’ve written, but it really depends on the day. There’s so much happening now politically that’s so frightening, that I’ve found myself doing a whole protest section of my oeuvre that I’ve been dipping into a lot,” he says of his current tour. “Plus, with the death of Leonard Cohen, there’s some covers I’m bringing back. I call the set ‘my greatest possible hits.'”
As for making politics more central to his sets, Wainwright points out that’s always been a cornerstone of his work as well, something made clear by Lily Allen’s semi-viral performance of “Going to a Town” at the Women’s March in London.
“I’ve always been very vocal — mainly because being a gay man growing up in the AIDS crisis, activism is kind of in my blood,” he says. “I always get some complaints, and there’s this kind of group of people who say, ‘Shut up and sing, don’t talk about politics.’ But my opinion right now is that everybody has to talk, doesn’t matter who you are. There’s really no room for anybody to be silent about this. There’s just too much at stake.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.