Rufus Wainwright on Poses, Opera and the Sword Over Donald Trump

Rufus Wainwright as seen in the video for "Sword of Damocles."
Rufus Wainwright as seen in the video for "Sword of Damocles."
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Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright has been out of the pop spotlight during the past few years, but he's back with a vengeance.

All These Poses, his current tour, which stops at the Boulder Theater on Saturday, November 17, marks the twentieth anniversary of his wonderful 1998 self-titled debut and also celebrates 2001's even-better Poses, both of which helped establish him as a composer with a rare talent for updating the verities of vintage songcraft for a fresh generation. (Click to read "Raise the Rufus," my interview with Wainwright from shortly after Poses was released.) But he's hardly resting on his laurels.

In recent weeks, Wainwright has released a video for "Sword of Damocles," a new song that is directly addressed to President Donald Trump; the clip's co-star is Darren Criss, the onetime Glee heartthrob who recently earned an Emmy for portraying serial killer Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. The cut is a harbinger to an album Wainwright is currently recording with producer Mitchell Froom, whose credits include works by Los Lobos, Richard Thompson and the tandem of Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie.

As if that isn't enough, he also oversaw the Canadian Opera Company's October debut of Hadrian, his second opera, which tells the tale of same-sex love involving the title figure, the emperor of Rome from 117 to 138 A.D. (The work will be aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on November 24; this link will allow you to live-stream it on that day from one of five time zones.) And earlier this month, Wainwright also took part in a tribute to Joni Mitchell to mark the Canadian tunesmith's 75th birthday, riveting the crowd with a performance of "Blue," among the most demanding songs in her formidable canon.

In the following conversation, which took place on November 13, Wainwright, who was born in the U.S. but spent many of his formative years in Canada, talks about all of these projects and more with wit, verve and passion. And while, as you'll see, I promised not to bombard him with the usual questions about growing up as the son of two great musicians, Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle (not to mention his gifted sister, Martha Wainwright), he brought up his mom anyway, by way of an amusing anecdote that reveals why it took so long for him to fall under Joni Mitchell's spell.

Rufus Wainwright during the part of his career when he released his self-titled debut and Poses.
Rufus Wainwright during the part of his career when he released his self-titled debut and Poses.
Photo by Greg Gorman

Westword: I'm a longtime fan, and I'm going to prove it by not asking any questions about your parents.

Rufus Wainwright: [Laughs.] You've done your research.

Your last few months have been insanely busy. First, I wanted to ask about the release of the video for "Sword of Damocles," which co-stars Darren Criss. After winning the Emmy for The Assassination of Gianni Versace, I imagine he's in incredible demand. Was it difficult to arrange his participation?

Not really. I've known him for a couple of years. I met him through Alan Cumming. He was immediately, unabashedly, almost embarrassingly in love with my music. He had no qualms about acting like a complete fanboy, which secretly I adore [laughs]. I pretend not to care, but it makes a world of difference — to have a beautiful, budding young movie star love what I do. So he was into it, and after I asked him to be part of the video, he was locked and loaded and ready to come in and do it. He's one of the most energetic and hard-working and game celebrities around today, and I'm very privileged to have had a chance to work with him.

The video starts with an introduction that says, "Dear Mr. President, this story from the 4th century reminded me of you." How would you summarize the story, and what specifically about it reminded you of a certain Donald Trump?

I leave it very open. Even when you read the lyrics, one could have several interpretations. The story of Damocles, in a nutshell, is that there's this sword hanging over the tyrant's head to illustrate that when there are rulers who are belligerent, there's always a chance for incredible danger for everybody involved. Yes, the song is directed toward Trump. But it's also, in a strange way, directed toward everybody, because I think no matter what happens, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

[Here's the video for "Sword of Damocles."]

I was going to ask you about that. I imagine there are many members of the public who feel there's a sword hanging over their head right now.

Yes. I think we're all envisioning the sword at this moment, and for better or worse, it's got to come down. We just have to be prepared for that and be willing to change. One of the great shifts that occurred with Trump is that we are now completely aware that there's a poison in the well and that we have to do something about it. It's going to be tough, but I think we just have to accept that.

You shared posts on social media about voting. Were you cheered by the results of the midterm election?

I'm incredibly encouraged by the election. It certainly wasn't all that we wanted, but I think it was a pretty strong shift. And what was really great about it is it renewed my faith in the American public. I think there are tools we can use to deal with the current mishmash, and these were the first indications of them working, with the House going Democratic and all of these recounts. I think we're going to be helped by the Founding Fathers from the past and the way the world has changed and the new face of America — more women and more minorities. So in the end, I think it's a great story about the United States.

Here in Colorado, we just elected the first openly gay governor in the history of the United States.

Yes. That's amazing. That's great. I think we're all aware of how dire the situation is. I live in California now, and with these fires, and the environmental issues that, in my opinion, are the greatest threat to everybody, it's important to see these positive moments and use them as inspiration to keep going. And certainly the governor's race in Colorado is one.

The arrival of your latest song prompts the inevitable question of whether you're working on a new album. Is there something on the way?

Yeah. I'm in the studio right now with Mitchell Froom, the great producer. We're working on a record that will probably be finished in the winter and released a few months after that. I'm kind of going back-to-back here with touring and getting my work out. The All These Poses tour is kind of like a primer to remind people I'm still around and getting ready for the main paint job, which is the new album.

In addition, you just had the debut of your second opera, Hadrian. Could you talk about the genesis of that project?

I'd wanted to write an opera on this subject for about twenty years. I started in earnest about ten years ago, and really, the last five years has been intensive. It was premiered by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and people are really, really reacting well to it. There's been a lot of talk about it going to other opera houses, and there will be a broadcast on the 24th of November on CBC radio, so one will be able to hear it as well. It was a great artistic voyage that arrived at its destination.

[Here's a video containing excerpts from Hadrian.]

Your first opera, Prima Donna, came out in 2009. What did you learn from that experience that informed the new one?

I learned to adjust to the climate of the opera world and also to stick to my guns. I think I was somewhat naive when I wrote my first opera and expected that world to embrace me because I was so enthusiastic, and because I was bringing in a whole other audience. And I was very, very knowledgeable about opera. I know a lot about opera. But I was mistaken. It's a very ivory-tower kind of thing. Of all the musical avenues, it's probably the most treacherous critically and so forth.

Were you looked at as a usurper? A dilettante?

All of the above. A usurper, a dilettante, a lightweight. But I knew right away, with my first opera, that the singers in the orchestra and the director really loved my work. And of course I got another commission, and other people want to keep doing work with me. In the end, I think it will be a successful story. But the opera world has always notoriously been tough. So I'm probably where I need to be, which is halfway up the hill [laughs].

Just mounting an opera is such an incredible chore. Is it difficult after writing a work actually getting it on a stage?

That's the most fun part: the rehearsals and getting to know the singers and everybody in this bubble of creating these mythical creatures. That's what it's all about. Certainly when it premieres and the audience members see it, that's wonderful, too. But there's certainly something unique about the period right before that, where everybody is in sort of a fantasy land. I think that's the most fun part.

In just the last week or so, you also took part in a tribute to Joni Mitchell on the occasion of her 75th birthday. What kind of influence did she have on your work?

I have an interesting story about that. My mother was another great Canadian songwriter, Kate McGarrigle. On the one hand, she kind of pooh-poohed Joni Mitchell, but on the other hand, I think she was secretly jealous of her success. So we didn't hear a lot of it in the house. I knew the hits, of course, but it wasn't really around. But then my husband, Jörn [Weisbrodt, the artistic director of ALL ARTS, a platform affiliated with New York's WNET], became a rabid fan and really immersed both of us in her material. We became very close to her. So her work has been sort of a late arrival for me, which has been amazing. I'm so happy that I got it in there. But sadly, I had to wait for my mother to pass away to do it [laughs]. You know these Canadian divas....

The song you covered that I've seen on video is "Blue," which is the sort of composition that could intimidate just about anyone. Why did you choose it?

My husband said I should do it, and I listened to it. I will admit to being a little bit apprehensive at the outset, because it's so particular, the way she performs it, and uses so much space, and the vocal has so many unusual turns. But I stayed diligent, and at a certain point it really clicked, and I was able to make it mine. I think I picked the best song I could have done. It certainly speaks to me in terms of the subject matter. I've struggled with addiction my whole life. And also, it's a ballad, and I'm good at those.

[Here's a video of Rufus Wainwright covering "Blue."]

In critical analysis of Joni Mitchell's music, there's so much focus on the lyrics and often not as much attention on the music, which is fascinating and very complex. "Blue" is certainly an example of that.

Yes. This is something she insisted on before tackling on the song — that you have to think more like a jazz trumpet player, like Miles Davis, rather than just a singer, especially on those opening lines. It requires depth, for sure.

That finally brings us to the All These Poses tour, which celebrates your first two albums twenty years after the release of your self-titled debut. Did you name the tour after the second album because calling it The Rufus Wainwright tour wouldn't give people much of an idea what was going on?

Yes — that would be a bit confusing. There are several reasons. "All These Poses" is a better title, first of all. I didn't want to call it "Poses," because people would think it would be just that album. I don't want to give away too much about the show, but we do a lot on the first album, and we do all of Poses. The way it's presented is very, very charming — I'll just say that much.

I imagine in preparation for this tour, you really immersed yourself in those two albums. Were there any songs where you thought, "This is better than I remembered?," or, conversely, "This one hasn't aged that well"?

Some of the songs I've done for years, whether it's "Poses" or "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" or "Foolish Love." These are all songs that I've been performing in my repertoire. But the other ones I was more curious about investigating, and I will say what I'm most happy about is that I feel that Poses was a great album in the old-fashioned sense of what an album was: You sat down and listened to the whole thing and immersed yourself in that world. I think Poses is that kind of audio experience. It's nice to know that I created that for the listener.

Multiple angles on Rufus Wainwright.
Multiple angles on Rufus Wainwright.
Photos by Greg Gorman

Those albums struck me as incredibly sophisticated and hardly mainstream fare. Is there any part of you that marvels about how you got a major record label to let a young artist be that creative and so out there?

I think in retrospect, certainly I do. But I'm also reminded often that at that time, I was incredibly ambitious and really hellbent on making my mark. I was working overtime in terms of touring my material. I'm like, "Wow, I wonder how that happened." But I also think back to how I was back then, and that makes me even more amazed. I was so driven. I still am sometimes, but at that age, I wasn't going to let anything go [laughs].

A lot of artists are uncomfortable looking back on their past work. But do you feel that doing so is going to pay dividends when it comes to the music you'll make in the future?

Last night I did the show in Portland, Oregon, and afterward, there was a whole family that had come to see me: parents and the kids and stuff. Kids with teenagers and the parents were my age and a little older. My stuff has always been intergenerational. So I think it's been a nice opportunity for families to come and see the show.

It's not a family show, in that sense. You have to be a teenager, at least. But nonetheless, it's a bit of a carpet that people can walk down and then come into the main event, which will be my next album.

Rufus Wainwright, 7 p.m. Saturday, November 17, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, bouldertheater.com.

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