Interview - Rufus Wainwright: "I'm David to Lady Gaga's Goliath"


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I got in touch with Rufus just a few hours before Prima Donna (his first opera work) premiered in London, eager to steal a little piece of his mind on the recent controversial reviews, his latest CD release [All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu] and his tumultuous upbringing, all the way backwards to his cherished icon of teenage sexual awakening, Judy Garland. The recent loss of his mother [the Canadian singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle] often covers his voice with a discreet veil of melancholia, but he sure laughs a lot. Primarily, with his own self.

Do you feel nervous getting ready to face the discerning British audience?
Well, I've enjoyed the ride so far...The experience remains something beautiful, but it's time to let Prima Donna take its course. I've been rehearsing All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu at the same time, and I have to say that makes me way more nervous! Staying alone with my piano feels much harder than playing with an orchestra or a band.
Prima Donna divided the critics, to say the least. Do you feel that it was a satisfactory attempt on your part?
It came out exactly the way I wanted it. I'm very satisfied with the production. It was received with a standing ovation, the audience applauded enthusiastically. A big part of the audience had never been to the opera before – and that is always a good thing. Look at Verdi's or Wagner's first operatic attempts – and Prima Donna, of course, stands right up there with them [laughs]! Well, you could at least say that it's way better than Verdi's first attempt [no laughs]. We all have to start somewhere... The orchestra and the singers say that they love performing my music and that's all that counts in the end.
All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu is a minimalist work. Did you conceive it as an answer to Prima Donna's operatic baroque?
They both came naturally. It's in my nature to constantly question myself: “Are you really that good or is there a hidden trick there somewhere?”. Writing on my piano has been a real challenge. And it happened at a time when some catalytic events dominated my life, whether that was my first opera, my mother's deteriorating health, or my collaboration with Robert Wilson [Rufus and the acclaimed avant garde director staged Shakespeare in Brecht's theatre in Berlin]. The creative rush has been amazing – and, sometimes, also very traumatic. My piano became my only refuge, my cocoon, a place where I could retreat alone with everything that was happening at the moment in my life. Like a good sword, it had two sharp edges! I had to put a lot of strength behind this solo album.
Could you say creativity was for you a sort of therapy? Is music a medicine?
The role of music as medicine worries me: Sometimes it makes you even crazier than you used to be! What I know for sure is that from where I'm standing right now – and this has to do with my mother, above all I have to move on. Music is the vehicle that helps me to go through the sadness and lifts me up. Music carries all my emotions with it. It's very helpful in a lot of ways, but it's only a vehicle. It's not a magic potion that will chase all the nightmares away.
Both your parents are famous folkies [father Loudon Wainwright III is also a respected singer/songwriter] and that immersed you into music from a very early age. When did you first feel that you have come into your own?
A catalytic event, that helped me find my voice musically, was accepting my homosexuality, somewhere around the age of 14. When I realized without a doubt that I was gay, becoming part of the folk scene was no longer a piece of cake – you know, the planet Bob Dylan, where my parents lived, was a heterosexual world above all. I ended up doing more “devilish” things: singing Nina Simone, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Judy Garland. I felt the need to identify with much more feminine, romantic, mythical characters, as opposed to the very pedestrian, macho folk and rock 'n' roll music.
A lot of people say that poor economic conditions go hand in hand with poor creativity. How are things looking to you from the inside in the current state of financial affairs?
I have to say I admire Lady Gaga for her direct attack on the world of music commerce and the way she managed to capture everyone's attention in one fleeting second. You have to give her that! On the other hand, my own idols are much more human and vulnerable. I want my music to be David to Lady Gaga's Goliath... Well, I don't think that'll be too successful! But anyway, I just hope that, many years from now, my last album will be a point of reference for singer/songwriters to say that something different was happening back then. 
You have won a lot of awards, but lately it's been common knowledge that very few of the winners actually deserve them. How much of a reward are they to you personally?
Well, my father waited till 2010 to win a Grammy and he's sixty-three. He's been waiting his whole life. I suppose something similar will happen to me... Life begins at sixty!

Interview by Danai Molocha for Athinorama weekly, Athens, Greece, June 2010

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