The wizard of awes: an interview with Rufus Wainwright
Mon. June 23, 2014 by Gregg Shapiro
As we all know, I was pretty obsessed with The Wizard of Oz...
The handsomely packaged deluxe edition of Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright (Interscope/Geffen/Decca/UMe) consists of 34 tracks covering the period beginning with Wainwright's 1998 eponymous debut through 2012's Out of the Game (although it excludes 2010's All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu). There are also two new songs, including the marvelous "Me and Liza," as well as a healthy portion of live recordings. Of course, Wainwright's legendary recording of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is present, although his own "Gay Messiah" is absent. More of Rufus in a live setting can also be found on the new Live From the Artists Den (UMe/Artists Den) album (and separate DVD). In the spring of 2014, I spoke with Rufus about his new releases and upcoming projects.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) In the liner notes for the deluxe edition of Vibrate you express your gratitude to those who actually purchase the CD, which you describe as "an act that in this day and age has become wholly altruistic," describing yourself as an "avowed ‘album guy'." With the revival of vinyl, do you think "album guys" and girls will be making a comeback?
RW: (Rufus Wainwright) I've definitely heard the news that vinyl is on the rise again. I don't think it will ever regain the prominence that it once held. But it's promising, I guess. I like vinyl for the sound, but also my face looks bigger [laughs] on the cover. From a visual standpoint, it should come back in any case.
GS: You are literally flooding the market, with the release of the different editions of Vibrate as well as both the Live from the Artists Den CD and Blu-ray. What was the thought behind that?
RW: I don't know how much thought there was behind that. What's going on right now is that I'm at the end of my record contract with Universal. I'm about to embark on a new opera about Hadrian and I'm also in the process of raising money to make my next album which is a classical recording of Prima Donna, my first opera. I felt like in this interlude period it was good to clean house and be retrospective about my career so I could figure out how to move forward. I'm 40 and I have another 40 years to go [laughs].
GS: I hope you have more than that, but that's a good start. So, was it a daunting task to compile songs for Vibrate or was it easier than you expected it to be?
RW: I enlisted the help of my friend Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys. I asked him to do the first round. I really feel like he has the perfect balance between pop culture and highbrow entertainment. He did the first list and then I tinkered with it and we came up with what we have today. I thought it was really important that the release be something that can be given to a complete unknown, a fan who had no sense of what I do at all, and can then become acquainted quickly with my vast repertoire [laughs].
GS: You have been a familiar voice on movie soundtracks since the late 1990s, with your version of "Hallelujah" from Shrek, included on Vibrate, becoming an instant classic. What does the reception that that song received mean to you?
RW: That song has always been a golden thorn in my side. Because on one hand, even (the song's writer) Leonard (Cohen) says it's overplayed and over-covered, although I was one of the early people to present it. I'm proud of that fact. That being said, people love it all over the world. There's always a reaction and there's a kind of lift in the room when I sing it. You can't really shoot that down [laughs] when you're a struggling musician. I think at the end of the day, I'm really thankful for the song. It definitely took a period of frustration to get to the peaceful acceptance that I'm at right now [laughs].
GS: There are two studio versions of "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," from Poses, one of which features a beat box. Why did you choose to include the version you did on Vibrate?
RW: The one on Vibrate and at the beginning of Poses is really the ultimate version, the classic long version. The second one was more something to present to radio, a little more palatable for the everyday listener. I went with the tough material as usual.
GS: There are studio recordings of new compositions "Me and Liza," as well as "Chic and Pointless" (on the deluxe edition), on Vibrate.
RW: "Me and Liza" is a playful ode to an American legend, Miss Liza Minnelli, who I sort of know, in a sense. We know of each other. We have yet to really bond properly. But we have been whizzing around the same universe for a while. The second one, "Chic and Pointless" is about a bad review I got from the The New York Times.
GS: "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" seems to be custom-made for Liza. Wouldn't it be great if she covered it?
RW: That would be great. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
GS: You have a history of live recordings, beginning with the Live at The Fillmore DVD on Want Two, Rufus Does Judy, followed by Milwaukee At Last. Vibrate also contains several live tracks and as the title suggests, Live from the Artists Den is also a live recording.
RW: I'm actually particularly proud of the live recordings on the deluxe edition of Vibrate. Whether it's the Artists Den set or the Kenwood House performance, I feel like they capture the answer to an equation that has been a long time in the making. I've always had an interesting voice, but it has taken years to refine it into the instrument it is today. I feel like those live recordings are very much a testament to that; to a lot of hard work [laughs]. I think live recordings matter the most, in a lot of ways, for a singer. There's something palpable about it that you can't get in the studio. The studio is a whole other thing, too. But live is where it's at.
GS: Before launching into "Out of the Game," you don a mask of Helena Bonham Carter, who appeared in the video for the song. As you say yourself in the liner notes, you "like costumes." Is this something that started in childhood or later and do you think you'll ever lose your love for dressing up?
RW: [Laughs] It's something that started in childhood. As we all know, I was pretty obsessed with The Wizard of Oz, and that included either dressing up like Dorothy when it was a good day or the Wicked Witch when I was in a bad mood. It started with that. It seems to have progressed. I think that vanity has its perks. It's good for show business. You like looking at yourself in the mirror, therefore you can change clothes a lot [laughs]. You might as well let the public in to that wonderful experience.
GS: Will the tour dates that you are doing be structured like a live Vibrate set, a best of/hits kind of show, or will it be a little looser?
RW: It's quite loose. It's just me alone at the piano and with a guitar. I think my sister Lucy Wainwright Roche will be with me. I even sing some new material to whet people's appetites. On the one hand, it's to go over the material and have a fun, intimate evening. But it's also, I have to be honest, to make some good money [laughs]. When I'm alone, I do significantly better. I have to write this next opera, which is basically a financial nightmare.
Rufus Wainwright and Cat Power perform at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park on Wednesday, June 25. For more information and tickets visit ravinia.org.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.