Raise the Rufus!

Taming the unruly world of glam singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright

I’m not at the psychiatrist’s office.”

Rufus Wainwright realizes that now, years later. There was a time, he acknowledges, amused by the notion, that interviews such as the one we’re engaged in passed as therapy. For that reason, the singer and composer is transparent, a book that never closes. That frankness has long marked his raw musings, windows into his life as a gay man, as a former drug addict, as a son, as a father. The personal catharsis of his latest work is less discernible.

Featuring guest collaborators Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher, William Shatner, Florence Welch and sister Martha Wainwright, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets adapts the Bard’s work within noticeably non-traditional sonic structures, because this is a Rufus Wainwright album.

Before we launch into a wide-ranging conversation — encompassing issues he sorted through while recording the Shakespearian project, how his “very wry” personality rubs gay people the wrong way and the Benedict Cumberbatch conundrum — Wainwright says “don’t worry,” reassuring me that even though this isn’t quite psychiatry, “I’m still pretty open.”

— Chris Azzopardi

Rufus

Dallas Voice: Just when I think you’ve reached peaked ambition, you release an album of Shakespeare sonnets set to music. Where do you think your desire to be so outside of the box comes from?  Rufus Wainwright: Well, I was never in the closet, I was never in the box… I was never in my right mind! I don’t know. This album, in a lot of ways, is kind of a miracle in the sense that it’s nothing that I ever really planned on or was working toward; it sort of made itself, and all in conjunction, of course, with the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

It just so happens that many years ago I was working on a project of the sonnets [Five Shakespeare Sonnets, in 2010] and somehow the work that I was doing with these poems really resonated with all sorts of people, whether it was the San Francisco Symphony wanting arrangements of them or Songs for Lulu [his 2010 album grieving the loss of his mother, Kate McGarrigle] or other singers performing them. In fact, there are a few dance choreographers now who have started to choreograph pieces to the work, so it’s just something that happened, and lo and behold it fell right in line with this 400th anniversary. I just had to facilitate that as much as I could. What a lot of people think is outside of my box is really just me following my brute instincts and going with that fully. I’ve never been able to work otherwise, so I suppose that will continue to be the case.

Yes, you seem a bit artistically restless.  Yes. Also, for me, music is where I really — I mean, speaking about being in a psychiatrist’s office — exorcise a lot of my demons and emotionally confront issues, and in order to do that I can’t really coast now. I have to crack the ice a little bit. That’s the way it is.

With this piece in particular, what issues are you confronting?  I think a lot of this is centered around my mother’s illness and death, and also aging is in here. I think one of the reasons “A Woman’s Face” is repeated several times — it’s really about an older man kind of fawning over a younger man and that’s a tradition that now I’m on both sides of [laughs]. I’ve been a younger man and I am that older man now, and so I see it from both sides. To have a woman [Anna Prohaska] sing it is very interesting, because that takes it into a whole other mirrored image, which is what’s amazing about Shakespeare — how many reflections we can illustrate depending on how old one is or how young one is or what gender one is relating to at that moment. It’s a vortex of possibilities.

When it comes to aging, what has been your experience as a middle-aged gay man who’s a public figure?  The catch-22 is that in 20 years — I’m 42 now — I’ll probably look back at this period as really my zenith, when I was probably the most attractive I’ve ever been. But now that I’m in the middle of it, I’m looking backwards to when I was 22… and when I was 22 I was really miserable! So it’s, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” as Joni Mitchell said.  But I think artistically in one’s 40s you do feel the joint rapture of both experience and still a sense of youth that can combine and really make you feel like you’re in the present.

Your cross-genre collaborations are constantly surprising people, and there are some unexpected ones on this album. Who is someone you want to work with that we wouldn’t expect?  The other day my sister Martha had her 40th birthday and we had some people up to the house. One of them was Sufjan Stevens, who I’ve admired for a long time and, yeah, he’d be fun to write a song with. I’ve given up on Björk. She’s not taken my lead. I’m like, “Hey Björk, let’s do this” and she’s, like, hanging out with aliens or something.

I saw you in Toronto in 2014 for If I Loved You: Gentlemen Prefer Broadway; I’ve seen you many times before, but not in that dynamic, with a bunch of men, many of whom were straight. So I was watching you and, of course, admiring the performances, but I was also noticing the way you interacted with the other fellas on stage and I’m like, “Rufus is such a shameless flirt.”  I know! I’m terrible!

Have you always been that way? 
I have. I’m just built that way. I’m sort of a gay Elizabeth Taylor.

When you’re singing a love song with Josh Groban, I can’t blame you.  Yes, yes. He’s a handsome man.

Rufus20163
Did you get a chance to meet Benedict Cumberbatch while recording the BBC’s The Shakespeare Show: Recorded Live from the Royal Shakespeare Company?
  Yeah! I’ve hung out with Benedict a couple of times. He’s… he’s quite the figure. Most amazing thing is, I can’t tell if he’s gorgeous or incredibly ugly. [Laughs] It’s a weird combination. At certain angles he looks like my aunt, and then at certain angles he looks the man who’s gonna ruin my marriage.

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to hear you say you didn’t think you had a big gay following. I’ve been following you since “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and I’m definitely gay.  Aww! Well, thank you. I guess I just feel with the gay community my kind of very wry and frank opinion on things can be misinterpreted. Us queers are kind of a sensitive bunch, so sometimes there’s a bit of a tempest in a teapot [reaction] when I put out certain concepts. Some people enjoy the dialectic of that and other people shy from it and, well, the gay community… it can get a little insular.

You never had to make a coming out announcement, so I wonder: How do you feel about famous people coming out making headlines in 2016?
  Yeah, well… I mean, it’s good that they’re doing it. … I don’t know. I just… it’s still to be applauded because the sad truth is we are living in reactionary times now and whether it’s Donald Trump or ISIS, there is this kind of tremendous backlash to a lot of the advancements that have been made in the last 20 years, and so I think it’s probably harder in certain places to be gay now than it was a while ago. The pendulum has started to swing the other way. So, as long as people are coming out and continuing the battle, then I think it’s good.

I know you have a lot of opinions on today’s pop divas. So Lady Gaga, Adele and Beyoncé: Which would you fuck, marry, kill? Fuck, marry, kill — oh boy. Dangerous. I guess I would marry Adele. Ahh, I would, you know, fuck Gaga and kill Beyoncé.

Did you not like Lemonade I just, ahhh… whatever. I was only given a few choices, so it’s not my fault.

You don’t have any tour stops in North Carolina, but what’s your take on how artists are handling the situation regarding House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill”? And if you did have a date there, what would you do?  This relates back to what I said before: I think that any kind of pushback against this rising wave of right-wing extremism coming from large sectors in the world is a positive act. What’s good about the North Carolina thing is, I mean, I think the artists are doing their part, which is great, but I think it’s also the business leaders who are really pulling the money out of the state that’s gonna really make a huge difference. It’s all people working in conjunction from all different fields that’s important. And yeah, I’d probably pull out.

So, no North Carolina shows anytime soon?  No, and I don’t have any gigs there. I’ll go to the ladies room one time in protest and scare everybody.

As we speak, you’re about to restage Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall [on June 16-17 in New York and June 23-24 in Toronto]. How will the music and the show reflect the way the world’s changed in the last 10 years since you first performed it?  The main reason I’m doing the show again is to see what condition my voice is in. I mean, I have an inkling that it’s at the top of its game, and the only way to really prove that is to sing that material, so it’s more of a practical exercise for me to do this show again. I’ve been working very hard on my singing over the years and I want to show that off, but on a more philosophical level: I originally did this show because of my broken feelings toward the Iraq War. I needed something to remind me of how great America could be when it wanted to be, and sadly we’re in the same predicament with Donald Trump and this racist, sexist blowback. I don’t know, it just seems to be something that occurs every 10 years in the United States and I’m happy that the Judy show is gonna be back out there again because it is all the good that this country can represent.

Regarding your voice: Haven’t you already proven yourself as a singer?  Well, I’m a big opera fan and in the world of opera, you don’t really hit your stride until you’re in your 40s vocally. That’s when you get all the big roles, so it’s just more of a personal thing. I’m not trying to prove it to anybody; I’m just proving it to myself, and also just to be really on top of the material. I loved doing Judy the first time because it was this kind of mad rollercoaster ride that I just attached myself to with handcuffs (laughs) and went along with, but this time I feel like I can hold onto the reigns a little better and just really nail it.

You’ve done Judy and Shakespeare. Which other legendary figures intrigue you enough to make you want to dedicate an entire album’s worth of material to their work?  The figure that’s kind of looming all of a sudden — I’m just hearing little squeaks of this in my psyche, but I’m a big Blake fan. I love Blake. Who knows. Maybe something like that. I’d also like to do a French record at some point to just sort of, you know, loosen it up a bit. And of course there are my own songs from my own life, so there are a lot of possibilities.

And the Shakespeare character you call your spirit animal?  Oh, gee. I would say I’ve always wanted to be Titania from a Midsummer Night’s Dream, because I’m a sad queen, really.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 24, 2016.

—  Dallasvoice

CD reviews: Elton and George, gayer than ever … plus Rufus and more!

It’s the old and the new in music this week.

EJ_Std-Sleeve-PS_300dpi_rgb-(3)-smFirst the old: Sir Elton John wasn’t officially out (neither was he a “sir” yet) when he released his two-LP milestone recording Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in 1973. Newly reissued by Mercury/UMe/Rocket in an expanded 40th anniversary deluxe edition, GYBR was the most glam album of his career to that point, a style he would continue to explore on a few more albums. “Glam” didn’t necessarily mean “gay,” but Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was also his gayest album until then. The titular reference aside (we know Elton was a Friend of Dorothy now), EJ heaped on the hints in songs such as the Marilyn Monroe memorial “Candle In The Wind,” as well as “All The Young Girls Love Alice” and the sexual ambiguity of “Bennie and the Jets.”

A source for several hit singles in addition to songs that would become instant classics, GYBR kicked off Elton’s musical reign, which would last throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The deluxe edition includes one remastered disc with all 17 songs from the original. The second disc features nine songs, “highlights” from the December 1973 Hammersmith Odeon concert. The remaining nine songs on the second disc fall under the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Revisited heading. An odd assortment of artists including Fall Out Boy, Emeli Sande, Miguel and The Band Perry, all try their hands at interpreting Sir Elton. Thankfully, someone thought to include John Grant, an openly gay artist, among the performers. As it turns out, his rendition of “Sweet Painted Lady” is the best of the cover versions.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Another view: 2012’s best music

In last week’s Year in Review edition, we ran a list of our writer Rich Lopez’s top 10 discs of 2012. Well, he’s not the only contributor who likes to write about music: Chris Azzopardi has his own ideas. And while there is some cross-over (Frank Ocean, natch), it’s interesting to see how they differ. Here, then, are Azzo’s favorite CDs of last year:

10. Cat Power, Sun. Clocking in at just under 11 minutes, “Nothin’ But Time” starts simple enough, with just piano and fuzzy static — then there’s some man chants, and Iggy Pop. On paper it’s a hot mess, but the heartfelt coming-of-age mantra (during which all things seem infinite and possible) beautifully builds into a euphoric mind-release that breezes on by. For the musical oxymoron “Ruin,” Chan Marshall’s a world traveler singing over a bouncy drum beat, chiding fussy Americans. The hallucinatory “Manhattan” drops you in the bustle of a big city, where you’re just a speck of broken dreams and memories. On “3, 6, 9” she’s so drunk that her looseness translates to the song’s rhythmic punch. And to your ears. Forever and ever.

9. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange. Can men who love men make it in the supposed anti-gay realm of hip-hop? Frank Ocean answered that question when he came out via Tumblr and topped the charts with his solo debut, rightfully earning him kudos, a rabid fan base and Grammy nominations. And it’s not just hype. Channel Orange renders his poeticism — about sex, drugs, love and longing — into progressive hip-art beats. The music, though, is only the half of it: Frank’s voice rolls over your sound holes like the “buttercream silk shirt” he sings about on “Lost,” an acid trip that will have you trying to find your way out. This is the gem, though, that’ll go down in the books: “Bad Religion,” so painfully pointed it hurts.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

This week’s takeaways: Life+Style

For gay music lovers — or lovers of gay musicians — there couldn’t be a better weekend for you. On Saturday, Melissa Etheridge arrives at the Majestic, performing songs off her new highly-acclaimed album 4th Street Feeling. The same night two miles away, Diamond Rings opens for Stars at the Granada. A Sophie’s choice, perhaps, but two very different styles. (If it helps make up your mind, you can enter to win free tickets to see Diamond Rings.) A third style requires less decisionmaking: Rufus Wainwright will perform Live at the Meyerson on Sunday night with his inimitable sound.

This is also a busy weekend for movies, with already-heralded horror movie Sinister likely to be the weekend’s big hit. It will be competing again The Paperboy (with a great gay twist and strong performances) and the studio prestige picture Argo, both of which could be Oscar contenders come January. Atlas Shrugged (not screened for critics — that says a lot) and the action-comedy from Oscar winner Martin McDonaugh, Seven Psychopaths, are also out there.

For theater lovers, there are no major openings this weekend, but Uptown Players continues its run of Hello Again, a dark but unexpectedly funny idyll on sex. Also unexpectedly funny: The Addams Family, featuring a charismatic performance by Douglas Sills as Gomez. Best of all: Freud’s Last Session, a whip-smart and fascinating, quick (75 minute) imagined meeting between atheist Freud and Christian novelist C.S. Lewis, with great performances by Jac Alder and Cameron Cobb.

Finally, in the lead-up to the World Gay Rodeo championship next weekend, Friday and Sunday mark the public events for the titles of Mr., Mrs. Ms. and MsTer TGRA 2013, with the competition Friday at the Rose Room and the sashes passing from last year’s royalty to this year’s winners on Sunday at the Round-Up.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Rufus Wainwright: The gay/Gaga interview

In this week’s edition of the Voice, we review Rufus Wainwright’s new CD of pop music, which comes out Tuesday. But you can read even more about the gay singer right now with this interview by Chris Azzopardi.

BACK IN THE GAME

There are bad romances, and then there’s the kind that Rufus Wainwright had during the making of his latest album, Out of the Game. The troubadour got smitten with super-producer Mark Ronson, who added a pop bend to Wainwright’s classical leanings. Love at first sight? Just about.

“One day, we finally hung out at this party — at the U.N., of all places — and we were just completely enamored of each other,” Wainwright says. “Needless to say, we went into the studio and struck up not only a great musical relationship but a great friendship … and, at least from my end, a huge crush.”

And the singer doesn’t just give his love away: He recently slammed Lady Gaga for being “predictable and boring,” setting off a media (and gay mafia) frenzy.

In our interview, after the jump, Wainwright talked about those comments, the eyes that comforted him during his mother’s death and the evolution of his gayness.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WATCH: Rufus Wainwright’s “Out of the Game”

While the public awaits the release of Rufus Wainwright’s newest album Out of the Game this spring, he has released the title track as the first single and video. He ventures back into the pop music side of things on this seventh studio album of original work.

The video stars Helena Bonham Carter as a frustrated, maybe even repressed librarian “singing” Wainwright’s words. Wainwright gets in on the action in a multitude of characters include one in some Dressed to Kill drag. He even makes love to himself. Ironically, I think Carter anchors the video more and Wainwright is somewhat distracting in his own little movie. But you decide for yourself after the jump.

Out of the Game is scheduled for a May 1 release.

—  Rich Lopez

Rufus Wainwright to (finally) release a pop CD

Rufus Wainwright is one of those recording artists about whom his fans always assume he is more popular than he probably is. His lushly overproduced albums — portmanteau CDs of lush, wrenching ballads and retro-glam set-pieces — are beloved by his supporters, but probably lead to head-scratching among the rest of the music-buying public. I can’t recall the last time I heard one of his songs on the radio.

But apparently Rufus is aware of that — and wants to fix it. His new album, produced by Mark Ronson, will be his “most pop album … ever,” he says. Out of the Game will be released May 1.

Not familiar with Rufus? You should be. Watch this performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WATCH: Rufus Wainwright and Sean Lennon cover Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ at OWS

Queer singer Rufus Wainwright has been hanging out apparently with the Occupy Wall Street crowd as evidenced in the below video posted Sunday. He and Sean Lennon teamed up with surrounding protestors for an acoustic version of Madonna’s hit “Material Girl,” as a sort of ironic anthem for OWS.

Hopefully Madonna won’t sue for a cut. That would be so “1 percent” of her.

As for the best YouTube comment award, that would go to SuperIdelfonso for asking, “Are they occupying wall street or repealing ‘don’t ask don’t tell’?”

Watch it below.

—  Rich Lopez

REVIEW: Twist Dallas on Thursday night at LBG

While Thursday night’s Twist Dallas music event had to compete with the Dallas Mavericks for attention, organizer SuZanne Kimbrell was nonetheless impressed with the show. A small turnout at Lakewood Bar & Grill didn’t take away from the fact that the talent was top notch.

Starting with Natalie Velasquez, a 19 year-old guitarist out of Denton, the night was destined for dive bar greatness. Her jazzy sound and smoky, deep voice exuded nice poise for such a young performer. At times, she recalled Meshell Ndegeocello. Her voice has a beautifully aged soul tone that belies her tiny build. Her backing band, which apparently was partly cobbled that day, was also a strong, solid package. Please, Velasquez, keep this lineup together.

Check out part of performance here.

I worried that follow-up Danny Siuba might underwhelm with just him and an electric piano. Even he told me later that he worried a tad about following up Velasquez’s performance, but he met the challenge. His work on the keys was so sharp and pristine that they tickled every nerve ending in my ear. He’s classically trained according to Kimbrell so this shouldn’t surprise, but he also played with great assertion that proved his confidence with his instrument. I heard traces of Rufus Wainwright and Owen Pallett in him, but his voice was a bit gravelly. Singer Sonya Jevette was there filming for SoundByte and tried to convince me he was a young Neil Diamond. I wasn’t hearing that so much. In certain registers, he sang well, and in louder ones, he just needed some polish. But he’s only 21 and his pop-piano tunes were well constructed. Plus, the guy, 21, drove here from Santa Fe to perform and handmade his own CD covers with handwritten lyrics. So it’s hard to fault the guy for much.

—  Rich Lopez

Joan as Police Woman at Dada tonight

With queer cred to spare, Joan as Police Woman is no musical cop out

Joan as Police Woman plays Friday at c­lub Dada, bringing her indie sensibilities to town, but not without some major queer cred behind her. Having worked with Antony Hegarty in 1999 and then with Rufus Wainwright on his 2003 tour, she came out of her shell as a solo artist. Shattered by her boyfriend Jeff Buckley’s death in 1997, she and a new band tried to release an album, but it was a scary time for her and the songs were kept to themselves.

Then she joined Antony and the Johnsons. With some budding confidence, she eventually dipped her foot in the waters of going solo. Then Rufus happened.

“He had asked me to join his band to tour with and also open as a solo artist,” she says. “I had to take the chance at some point and opening in front of his crowd — a crowd of music lovers would be amazing.”

Four albums later, her latest release The Deep Field finds Wasser at her most confident. The package of experimental indie pop is challenging yet accessible. She’s mellow without being boring and she can rock without trying to prove something. But mostly Field reflects a newfound fortitude and poise.

For the entire article, click here.

—  Rich Lopez