Rufus Wainwright Shares Songs, And A Few Stories

Apr 19, 2014
Originally published on April 19, 2014 9:40 am

Rufus Wainwright creates music that is theatrical, emotional and operatic. Listening to his albums can feel like experiencing a Shakespearean play, with wit, tragedy and heartbreak all side by side. And in a career spanning more than two decades, he has delivered on the promise of his pedigree — his parents are Loudon Wainwright III and the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle — releasing seven studio albums, channeling Judy Garland on a tour of her work, writing an opera and collecting a few awards along the way.

Wainwright is currently on a world tour to showcase his latest release, a career retrospective called Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright. He stopped by NPR's studios in Washington, D.C. to chat with guest host Wade Goodwyn and perform a few of his hits. Hear their conversation, and the music, at the audio link.

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Rufus Wainwright creates music that is theatrical, witty and emotional.


RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I twist like a corkscrew. The sweetness rising...

GOODWYN: Rufus Wainwright's father is Loudon Wainwright III; his mother, the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle. So it's no surprise that he has a talent for music. In a career spanning more than two decades, Rufus Wainwright has released seven studio albums. He channeled Judy Garland when he re-created her famous 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.


WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) If you're blue, and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sells. Puttin' on the ritz...

GOODWYN: He has also composed and written an opera, and collected a few awards along the way. Rufus Wainwright stopped by our studios to perform for us when he was in Washington, D.C., earlier this week. He's currently on a world tour promoting his latest album, "Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright." With a discography so vast, I ask him how he picked the music for this record.

WAINWRIGHT: I actually enlisted the help of a couple of friends of mine - one is my fabulous publicist in London, Barbara Charone; and also, my good friend, musician Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys - with the idea that the CD would be something that someone who knew nothing about my career would be drawn to. So it was stuff that was essentially accessible and that perhaps they had heard at other places. It's a nice way to kind of bait them.

GOODWYN: You're going to sing a couple of songs for us.


GOODWYN: The first one is "Pretty Things." Before you play, what's this song about?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, the song is actually about a guy that I had a crush on years ago. You know, it's a nice, little love song. Desire - a lot of desire.


WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Pretty things, so what if I like pretty things? Pretty lies, so what if I like pretty lies? From where you are, to where I am now I need these pretty things, around the planets of my face. Everything's a sign of my astrology. From where you are, to where I am now is its own galaxy. Be a star and fall down somewhere next to me. And make it past your color TV. This time will pass and with it will me. And all of these pretty things. Don't say you don't notice them.

GOODWYN: You have an amazing tenor. It's such a clean, unaffected sound.

WAINWRIGHT: (Laughter).

GOODWYN: There can be kind of a tone of sadness or regret that seems to come without too much effort. Can you talk to me a little about how you've developed your voice over the years?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. I was very much drawn to the stage at an early age. My mother even claims that I started singing harmonies at six months, which I highly doubt. The other thing is that at 14 years old or 13, 14, I developed this real, intense passion for opera. And I just ended up listening to opera all the time. I mean, that's always - that's pretty tenuous sadness so I think that that's probably where a lot of that longing comes from.

GOODWYN: And has this always been your tone or was there a time when you experimented with trying to sound...

WAINWRIGHT: I think my tone's improved. I had the classic experience of having this gorgeous soprano as a very young boy. And then I hit puberty, and it all came crashing down pretty hard. And - but I still thought I could sing, and I really kind of couldn't. And it's interesting 'cause when you listen to my first album, I sing very differently than I do now. And it was really, actually when you brought up the Judy Garland work, that after singing - during that concert and singing those songs and really concentrating on getting those lyrics across and the sentiment and the acrobatics of it all. That really put my voice into a much better state.

GOODWYN: You mentioned your love of opera, and you're writing a second one now. This is kind of an attempt by you to lend your talent to a form that many perceive...


GOODWYN: ...Is not thriving...


GOODWYN: Let's just put it that way.


GOODWYN: Can you talk to me a little bit about why you're spending...


GOODWYN: ...Your precious time?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, I - I mean, I - there's two reasons. One is very personal because the form itself gave so much to me. I mean, opera really, honestly I can say, saved my life three times or at least greatly improved it. You know, once when I was facing drug abuse, you know, it really helped me out. And then also with my mother's death, it was very helpful. And then coming out of the closet when I was very young 'cause it was around - I was around 13, 14 when that happened. So opera's always been there as a kind of support system.

So that's sort of the personal reason why I want to do it. But the public one I think also is that opera, I think, is one of the last remaining forms and bastions of where it is totally about live - the live music experience and you go. It's not being thrust upon you with massive speakers. It's very intimate still. And it's demanding, and it's all engrossing. And it's about people making music together. And it's been happening for a thousand years almost. So it's very - I think it's very, very important. And it must be saved.

GOODWYN: One of my favorite songs is one you sing about your disappointment in America. It's called "Going to a Town."


GOODWYN: And I know you have a performance tonight, and you want to save your voice.


GOODWYN: But I wondered if you'd be willing to sing a little of that song for us.

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. I could do a bit of it. We're in the capital.


WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I'm going to a town that has already been burnt down. I'm going to a place that has already been disgraced. I'm going to see some folks who have already been let down. I'm so tired of America. I'm going to make it up for all of the Sunday Times. I'm going to make it up for all of the nursery rhymes. They never really seemed to want to tell the truth. I'm so tired of you, America. Making my own way home, ain't going to be alone. I got a life to lead, America. I got a life to lead. Tell me, do you really think you go to hell for having loved?

Tell me, enough of thinking everything that you've done is good. I really need to know, after soaking the body of Jesus Christ in blood. I'm so tired of America. I really need to know. I may just never see you again or might as well. You took advantage of a world that loved you well. I'm going to a town that has already been burnt down. I'm so tired of you, America. Making my own way home, ain't going to be alone. I got a life to lead, America. I got a life to lead. I got a soul to feed. I got a dream to heed, and that's all I need. Making my own way home.

GOODWYN: Rufus Wainwright joined me in Studio One. He's currently on a world tour performing music from his latest album "Vibrate" The Best of Rufus Wainwright." You can hear more of his performance at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.