by Jessica Price -
SGN A&E Writer
ALL THESE POSES
ANNIVERSARY TOUR 2018
When Rufus Wainwright's eponymous debut album was released in May 1998, a uniquely compelling new pop star was born. Or so it seemed at first listen. Only one or two lines into 'Foolish Love', it was clear that Rufus's singular talent hadn't really come out of nowhere - by that time he had been writing songs professionally for a dozen years and was already an accomplished young vocalist and songwriter. At a time when dandyish boys with cabaret sensibilities were few and far between, Rufus Wainwright graced the pop lexicon with a much-needed double dose of richness and romanticism. Following up with Poses in 2001, Rufus's grandiose visions were more refined and elegant; his vocals warmer, perfectly suited to the aching melodies of 'Poses' and 'Tower of Learning' as they were wistfully frivolous in 'Greek Song' and 'Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk'.
Rufus Wainwright will appear at The Moore Theatre on November 14 for the 'All These Poses Anniversary Tour 2018', coinciding with the 20th anniversary of his acclaimed debut. He will perform material from both Rufus Wainwright and Poses. The tour begins on the heels of the world premiere of his second opera, Hadrian, which debuted at the Canadian Opera Company in October. Telling the story of the first-century Roman emperor's love affair with Antinous, a beautiful young Greek man, the opera's subject matter and partial male nudity sent mild shockwaves through the opera world, garnering enthusiastic (and cautious) reviews. Though he may be more refined 20 years on, Rufus has thankfully never lost his grandiosity.
Jessica Price: First of all, congrats on the world premiere of Hadrian! You must still be basking in the glow of that experience.
Rufus Wainwright: Thank you. Yes - on one hand it was an incredible musical journey working with Thomas Hampson and Karita Mattila and all these great superstars of the opera world, but also in terms of gay content it was certainly important, being that it's arguably one of the first ever totally romantic, classical-inspired gay operas, rooted in a sort of traditional sense. It was fun to add to the repertoire.
Jessica: A very punk rock concept for an opera...
Jessica: Do you think that could've happened 20 years ago?
Rufus: No, I don't think it could have. And even today, I think I will encounter pockets of resistance still; certainly with the way the world is wavering at the moment. I think it's a great time to get out there and really fight for what we believe in. I think that Hadrian is a piece that will add to that arsenal of looking for justice.
Jessica: How long did Hadrian take, from concept to staging?
Rufus: I thought of writing this opera almost 20 years ago. But I think in earnest it's been about 10 years that I really started to focus on it, and then the last four were pretty intense. It's been a long-term project, and I'm pretty confident that it will have a life after Toronto. In fact, Seattle would be a great home for Hadrian. You guys have a great opera company, so... (laughs)
Jessica: Your self-titled debut album was released in May 1998, when you were 24. What was your life like at that time?
Rufus: Well, I'd mostly lived in Montreal and also in upstate New York - that's where I went to boarding school - but other than that I was brought up by my mom, Kate McGarrigle, in Canada. I had started really young writing songs; my first professional release was when I was 12. So already at 24 I had arguably been in the business for a good 10 years and needless to say I had a lot of material and a lot of experience to communicate, and I was rarin' to go. So when I finally did get a record deal in Hollywood and landed in L.A., I wouldn't say I was fully formed necessarily, but I was kind of armed with some tricks.
Jessica: I've read that you had over 50 songs in your arsenal at that time & how did you narrow it down to a single vision to present on a debut?
Rufus: Well, I worked with some of the greatest ears in the business, right off the bat. There was Lenny Waronker, who signed me at DreamWorks, who was responsible for Randy Newman, and a big part of The Beach Boys, and stuff like that, so I had him, Van Dyke Parks, and even Mo Ostin [of Warner Bros. Records] was around, who discovered Frank Sinatra. So I was kind of hurtled into this sea of big fish, you know? So I had to quickly grow myself, or I'd be gobbled up!
Jessica: When did you move to L.A.?
Rufus: Around that time, I was 22, 23, and that's when I got down to business in terms of making my first record. I had spent a lot of time in and out of Manhattan, shooting down from Canada to try my luck at the downtown scene. Sadly, I was utterly kind of rejected from that. My operatic, dandy/gay-boy piano persona was not really fitting with the more nihilistic heroin-chic of the Lower East Side. So it was really when I went to Hollywood and got more in touch with the Harry Nilsson-esque tradition and the more psychedelic world that exists on the West Coast that I could sort of figure out a strategy.
Jessica: Right, your music isn't really dark in that way ...
Rufus: I mean, later when I made Poses and I went back and lived in New York for a while and reinstated myself there; that record's more New York, but my first record is very, very West Coast, for sure.
Jessica: In New York you lived in the Chelsea Hotel for a bit, which has a glamorous and tragic vibe. Did that find its way into your music, or suit you at that time?
Rufus: That was for my second album, for Poses. Very much, I mean - I had this hilarious experience of aching for attention and recognition and friends and so forth in Manhattan as a very young man, and not getting an ounce of it. Getting kind of drunk and collapsing alone, in bars & then coming back from California with a record deal and recognition and a certain amount of power and having the entire island sort of genuflect towards me all of a sudden ... (laughs) So I took FULL advantage of that and installed myself in the Chelsea and became a New York fixture.
Jessica: By that time Poses had been released, and you'd lived on both coasts - what direction did you want to go next?
Rufus: It's interesting because you know right when Poses was released it was right before 9/11, so in a lot of ways Poses was a kind of last gasp of a forgotten world, at this point. We got into the whole Bush era right after that. So I think there's a sort of almost, how can I say this...kind of a decadence to Poses, which is quite moving, because it really was before the terrorist attacks. It's imbued with a certain naiveté, which is always nice.
Jessica: How does it feel now with all your life experience and the world as it is now, to revisit those songs?
Rufus: Well, some of the songs I've sung for years, whether its 'Foolish Love', or 'Poses', or 'Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk', they've served me well over the last 20 years. To reexamine other material that I haven't touched in years is pretty thrilling. So far it's standing up really well. We'll see in a couple of weeks if that is, in fact, the case when an audience comes in to experience it. But so far it feels pretty well built. (Laughs)
Jessica: I think that as a fan, when an audience grows up with an artist it's so nice, almost bittersweet, to listen to songs you connected with at a particular moment in time.
Rufus: In a weird way what I've always noticed about my work is that there is a kind of clairvoyance that occurs where often times I will write about something that is yet to happen. I mean I don't claim to be mystic or anything. But I do believe that there's a strange kind of ... if you are a really good songwriter you kind of hook into fundamental shifts that are occurring, that have echoes, both echoing back at you and echoing away from you. And so oddly I think when Poses came out and then 9/11 happened I think strangely it did make sense for certain people to get more emotional, and more fragile, which that album very much is.
Jessica: Throughout your career you have very successfully moved between genres and collaborators, from so many types of musicians and such varied material, to working with visual artists like Cindy Sherman. Do you think since the time of your first two records, performers have been able to expand their scope, artistically?
Rufus: Well, I think that thankfully I was able to make lemonade out of lemons in the sense that when my first albums came out, that was the beginning of the end of the recording industry, and there was no real guarantee financially that you could just sort of drift through once you were installed in the lexicon. So I had to be more agile, and be more diverse in my art in order to really maintain an existence. So on one hand, it was through a certain crisis, which wasn't great. But on the other hand it is through those crises that we learn how to survive.
Jessica: And that kind of artistic growth should continue for a lifetime, not be limited as it often is in the realm of pop music.
Rufus: Well, that's also where opera and classical music were very helpful to me. Unlike the pop world where it's really measured by youth, and figure, and freshness, classical music is more about experience and wisdom and time lapsing and so forth, so I was able to get a better perspective of where I could be in a few years, as opposed to where I had to be at that moment.
Jessica: It's almost as if you're beginning a third or fourth stage of your career now! So, during the Bush years you were outspoken and active in social causes like Blackout Sabbath, and with Obama's election you were incredibly positive and excited. Now that we've gone backwards in so many ways ... how do you keep yourself on track, and connect with humanity? How do you cope?
Rufus: What I have to constantly remind myself of is that I'm very, very honored and very humbled and very fortunate to be able to bring happiness to people. I just did a bunch of shows in the deep Midwest, so I was in North and South Dakota singing, and you know, that's really the battleground for the soul of this country. I was able to on one hand speak my mind in a respectful way - I didn't go in there and tell them what to do necessarily, my strategy was to let them know that my initial feeling every time I go to that part of the country was that people are innately good there, and they're decent, and they have Christian values for the most part ... and we should start to really, you know, live by that (laughs) in this tempestuous time. Then I kind of give out the message, and I sing a nice song, and they're comforted by that, or inspired, or it makes them think a little bit more. I think at the end of the day just being able to bring happiness to people means that I'm doing good. Not a lot of people get to do that in their lives, in their work.
Jessica: As someone that has struggled with addiction and sexual assault, is it heartening to see that despite the current infighting in our country, people are speaking to each other more openly about their traumas and experiences?
Rufus: I think the rubber is definitely hitting the road in terms of recognizing the reality of the way the world is for most people. Whether the tires are going to spin off the car I'm not sure. But we have to get to the bottom of this, and whether it's the environment or women's rights or gay rights, all of this must be fought for, and won over. That's just the way everything is in life. Nothing just happens, it has to be created.
Jessica: And how is it raising a daughter?
Rufus: Oh, it's amazing! That's the one area in life where I thankfully have no idea how it's going to turn out. I have been so cognizant of my moves over the years. It's nice to have that little bit of chaos that you can never put your finger on. So kids give you that constant surprise, which is important.
Jessica: Do you think it's more difficult or scary now than when we were kids?
Rufus: I think it's very different; I also think it's very the same. I think the one variable though is technology now. A child growing up with the world being so digitalized, I do worry about what that does. But I don't know. I suppose us having TVs was the same situation, so we'll see. Just as long as they practice the piano a little bit too.
Jessica: So next up for you is the 'All These Poses Anniversary Tour,' and then the 'Noel Nights' shows in New York City and tours of Australia and Europe. Is there a new album in the works?
Rufus: Yes, yes! Throughout all of this I've been in the studio with the great Mitchell Froom working on my new record, which I'm very excited to release, probably next year at this point. I think it's important that I remind both myself and the world that I am a songwriter and I have been processing this whole rigmarole. (Laughs)
Jessica: From all this chaos, certainly we'll be seeing a lot of remarkable art and music. We're counting on you, Rufus.
Rufus: Yes, a lot of music, a lot of art, let's see if it sticks to the wall.
Jessica: Do you feel like the landscape has changed for artists putting themselves out there today?
Rufus: Well, I think that everything has changed, and nothing has changed. Certainly, there's more opportunity in terms of technology and the Internet and really getting your material out there. A lot of the old constructs have now dissolved and you no longer need to be courted by an industry. But that being said, I think at the end of the day it really still boils down to practicing, and focusing on what you want to do, and forgetting about your position or what you think you deserve and what you think the world owes you. Just really working on the art itself. I think if you just stick to that latter concept, you'll be fine.
Jessica: One final question. What piece of advice would you give to yourself 20 years ago?
Rufus: What piece of advice ... hmm. I would say just, I mean this is going to sound really gay, which is probably appropriate: Go to the gym more, it's not that hard. (Laughs)
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