Rufus Wainwright: Requiem for a queen

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“I’m never far from the centre of the storm,” laughs Canadian-American singer, songwriter, composer and musical polymath Rufus Wainwright. Calling in from Montréal, Dream Requiem adds yet another unexpected twist to a prodigious output that already includes eleven studio albums, two operas and a lightly controversial musical.

It’s just over a week before Wainwright closes out Black Deer, the Kent-based celebration of all things Americana, but even sooner is the debut of his new piece in Paris. Musing on the festival he admits, “I haven’t had time to really think about it too much, because my mind is so set on the requiem in this moment. I will definitely go back and I’ll explore some of my Americana-leaning songs, for sure.”

Launching at the Auditorium de Radio France with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Maîtrise de Radio France and the Choeur de Radio France, Wainwright has composed his own take on the liturgy, combining it with Lord Byron’s poem Darkness, which in Paris will be narrated by none other than Meryl Streep. “A requiem is a death mass in the Catholic Church, and it's done in Latin,” he explains. “There's a lot of obviously famous requiems like Mozart's Requiem and most notably for me, Verdi's Requiem, that's my favourite. His requiem became a concert piece and became more secular. Then, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a requiem at one point. I think it's one of the few religious masses that people can enjoy in general without being religious.”

For Wainwright, it marks another broadening of the disciplines within which he creates. The son of folk musician Kate McGarrigle and singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, he began playing piano at the age of six and toured in a family folk group, alongside his younger sister Martha and aunt Anna McGarrigle, from his teens. Since his early solo releases, which continue to evolve with exquisite songwriting, baroque decadence and rich composition, he’s penned two operas, adapted Shakespeare’s sonnets, reworked his music for the BBC Proms, and recreated Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall performance, to name a few career highlights.

With such unquestionable ability and clear ingenuity, it must require a certain seasoning to know which ideas are worth pursuing. “I'm a very instinctual person on many levels and I get this feeling and I just gravitate towards that. I've never been able to, shall we say, equate my artistic output with the state of affairs of the day. Therefore I don't have so many pop hits, necessarily. I don’t get a lot of music in Netflix shows or whatever, but in terms of grand projects, I have a nose for those,” he says. “I think the other thing too is that it makes it far more interesting for me when I return to my pop music, because I've taken a little hiatus from the grind of being a songwriter, so I'm sort of renewed for my day job, or my night job, I should say.”

Rufus Miranda Penn Turin

Wainwright was scheduled to release his ninth album Unfollow The Rules in the spring of 2020, but the record was pushed back due to the pandemic. Instead of touring and promoting the album he, like so many other artists, found themselves in the unusual position of holding spare time. “It was a terrible time in a lot of ways and I lost some friends to covid, I lost a lot of money, but I have to admit deep down, I miss that time so much because at least in my life, I was aching for the world to stop for a moment and just to be in one place and to be able to just focus on bigger things,” he says. “I immediately recognized that when everything shut down and all the tours were cancelled that this was a fabulous opportunity for me to deepen my artistic abilities in areas that I had neglected. There were problems too, obviously, and scary moments, but I got a lot out of the pandemic, artistically.”

As well as spending time with his daughter and running his brilliant #Quarantunes series, Wainwright also penned recent musical Opening Night and set about conceiving Dream Requiem. “I in no way hope for another pandemic, but I do feel that we should learn from those lessons and try as much as we can to just slow down. Because everything is going way too fast,” he says.

Inspired by Byron’s poem Darkness, the pandemic itself was an uncomfortable relation to the text. An apocalyptic story that describes ecological breakdown and pits man against one another, it was written in 1816, the Year Without a Summer. A volcanic eruption in Indonesia cast the Northern Hemisphere into darkness and led to an agricultural disaster. “They did think it was in fact the end of the world and that everything was over,” says Wainwright. “I’m not saying that's gonna happen tomorrow, but we're definitely on some sort of precipice now where we have to address these possible outcomes and the poem really lays a kind of vision that if we're not mindful, we're heading straight for it.”

With lines like, “All earth was but one thought—and that was death,” tackling the poem in the context of recent events certainly feels far too close for comfort. “With the Requiem Mass, obviously it is about death but that's also about new beginnings. We can only really come to life again once we've died, metaphorically,” Wainwright explains. “I think requiems have that pull because it's going right for the jugular. The Latin text itself is amazing too, because it's all about redemption and about forgiveness and about salvation and damnation and also paradise, so it's very current.”

After its world debut in Paris, Dream Requiem will continue with further dates around the globe, including LA’s Disney Hall next year. The Paris performance will be broadcast live on the France Musique website and ARTE Concert, and the concert will be recorded for release in autumn. For Wainwright, once the players have been signed off he likes, “To take somewhat the position of the dead composer and just kind of sit back and see what people come up with,” he laughs.

Working between classical and pop genres, the two disciplines might feel disparate, but for Wainwright they can at times play into each other. “Some of the melodies that I've composed for operas, like in Prima Donna and also actually in Hadrian, I have turned into songs that I’ve performed. Not a ton of it, but I tend to mine my operatic tendencies for pop purposes,” he says. “There is actually one movement in the requiem, it's a sanctus, which is sort of one of the few happy moments in the piece, where I totally lifted a pop song that I didn't know what to do with because it was too out there. They feed off each other in certain ways, but they're very different worlds.”

Delving into a new world altogether, Wainwright also used the time he was afforded by the pandemic to pen his debut musical, Opening Night. An adaptation of John Cassavetes' cult 1977 film of the same name, it was directed by Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove who had previously adapted the movie as a play.

Starring Sheridan Smith, the musical opened in March at London’s Gielgud theatre to good reviews, but was forced to close two months early. In the aftermath of the play’s closure, Wainwright blamed a narrowing of cultural openness post-Brexit, a comment which was widely picked up by the UK press. “I learned somewhat of a lesson with my Brexit comments,” he says. “I think probably what I said has some grains of truth in it, but it's also such a complicated matter and something that is in flux, obviously. It's very testy… and not necessarily a battle that I even feel, let's say, qualified to fight in.”

The show's last four performances were recorded, and will be released as an album in the near future, adding yet another bow to Wainwright’s bright catalogue. Reflecting on the experience with a little highsight, he continues, “This was my first West End experience and my first experience with a musical. There were a huge number of critics who were incredibly in awe of the work, so I feel somewhat vindicated in my own personal experiences. That being said, when your musical has to close early and all the actors who've been working so hard are let go and they're ripping up your set on stage, it's an unfathomable heartbreak that you experience. I think in that whirlwind of emotions and anger and sadness and dashed hopes, you become somewhat nuts, so that's just also part of the game. I always say what I feel when I do interviews, so I'll often say things that are not run of the mill, but I hope people still like me.”

Rufus Wainwright credit Penn Turin

Heading to Kent this weekend for Black Deer Festival, while the majority of the county voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, the nearby town of Tunbridge Wells did buck the trend to vote remain. So there’s a very strong chance that Wainwright will be welcomed with open arms as Sunday’s headliner.

Coming from a folk music family, it’s surprising that he’s only recently been embraced by the growing Americana/folk festival circuit, playing at Americanafest in Nashville with the Nashville Symphony and taking the main stage solo at Cambridge Folk Festival last year. “I feel very blessed to have this relationship with that genre now and honoured to be able to be part of its voyage over to the UK,” he says. “If you really boil it down, a lot of Americana does come from the UK. The origins of a lot of country songs are in fact folk songs from the British Isles and Ireland. We're all a part of that thread and it seems to be pretty sturdy which is nice… It's more of a rope.”

Bringing a solo performance to the main stage of Black Deer, he’ll share the lineup with legendary names and fresh faces from across the Americana canon, including the likes of Divorce, Dylan LeBlanc, Courtney Barnett and Saturday headliner Sheryl Crow, who Wainwright partnered with last year on his Folkocracy album, a record of collaborative covers and reimaginations. “I've met Sheryl in person a couple of times but oddly enough when she agreed to perform on my Folkocracy album I wasn't around and she did it from her studio in Nashville. We weren’t actually in the studio together per se, but she's amazing,” he says. “I am all for the present explosion of female pop divas, whether it's Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga or whoever. My daughter, for instance, is a big Swiftie, so I'm someone bound to it as well, but it keeps you more in awe of people like Sheryl Crow who really, it's first and foremost about being a musician. I'm not saying Taylor Swift doesn't do that either, but you really get the sense with Sheryl that she came up through all the different ranks of what it was being a studio musician; being a backup singer, working with a lot of other artists and then finally she had her incredible breakthrough. I think that's such a valuable story and she’s such a valuable figure in the history of music.”

Going back to the roots of the Americana tradition, whether it’s a celtic murder ballad or African American folk song, it all comes down to the story and its telling, a craft which Wainwright has mastered across genres throughout his diverse career. “I’m getting older. I turned fifty this year and I don't want to turn into that curmudgeon who complains about the state of things at the moment, but I do feel that there was a time when I started out in the industry where there was this kind of idea that it wasn't necessarily about making money,” he says. “Making a lot of money was certainly a perk and certainly something that was exciting and you tried to do, but it wasn't the main objective. Now it just seems so commercial the whole thing. But whatever, things go in cycles and I'm still around and people are still coming to shows, so I actually feel like things are tipping back maybe a little bit too.”

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