After all the turbulence that has dogged Rufus Wainwright‘s adult life, the rock at the centre of his universe was ripped away at the start of 2010 when his beloved mum Kate McGarrigle passed away. He’s thrown himself into his career; his sixth studio album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, emerges into the light just ahead of the London premiere of his opera Prima Donna.
Stripped back and dominated by just his voice and a piano, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu is a departure from what’s come before. It’s a darker, more difficult project than the relative comfort of the lavish arrangements on the Want albums and 2007’s Release The Stars.
“It’s a brave move,” proclaims Wainwright, speaking to us on the eve of a lengthy European promotional tour. “Not only is it just me and a piano, but it’s me and some of the most difficult piano parts I’ve ever written.” After a pause he continues, “And that possibly have ever been written for someone to sing with at the same time.” He giggles before adding that “it will all be proven at the live concerts”.
Is there a risk that, without the grandeur for which he’s become known, his new stripped down approach may alienate some of his fans? “I don’t think so, although it might not necessarily pick up any new ones. But for me this album has so many bigger meanings.”
By this he alludes to death, a subject unsurprisingly on his mind. An artist who’s never shied away from revealing his inner torments, he volunteers the subject of his mother’s passing while I’m still unsure as to whether to broach it at all. “None of the songs really talk about her death per se, because it was all written before any of that happened. But nevertheless you can hear me preparing emotionally for the event.”
He’s being literal when he says this. On Zebulon he sings directly about his mother being in the hospital. Will that be a difficult lyric to perform? “I don’t know. I’ve had experiences recently of doing shows, where I was performing and I got up there and thought I was fine, and then all of a sudden, like a Moby Dick attack or something, you’re just shattered from God knows where or how or why. So it’s really grief, of this magnitude. And we all go through it with someone in our lives, but it has a life of its own, and you just have to sort of ferry your way through it.”
Laying himself bare and subjecting himself to the less comfortable aspects of performance seems part of his process, as he explains. “You can hear me preparing emotionally for (her death) and now the tour is an opportunity for me to really exorcise some of that heavy emotion, and I need heavy emotion. I mean, there’s no way I can go out there and be all ‘tra la la’ or whatever. It’s been a pretty intense year, so I have to translate that in my work.”
“I’ll also have this 17-foot long black veil with feathers and crystals. It’s like the death of Gaga.” – Rufus Wainwright on costumes for his upcoming tour
Death seems to be everywhere. We talk about fellow Montrealite singer Lhasa de Sela, a friend of his who succumbed to a protracted battle with breast cancer on New Year’s Day. Talking of her 2009 album Lhasa, he says, “There’s a song on it called I’m Going In, where she basically sings about her death. She was sick for quite a long time and it was really the only kind of perspective that I could imagine my mother was looking through. My mum decided at the end not to really talk about death. She wanted to focus mostly on life. And Lhasa’s music really enlightened me on perhaps what she was really going through herself without wanting to scare her children and loved ones.” He adds: “And Lhasa’s voice is one of the greatest voices ever.”
Yet he’s philosophical. His nephew Arcangelo, born to sister Martha prematurely in November 2009, really has proven to be an angel. “When he was born so early, it seemed like this little nightmare and vindictive act of the heavens. But in retrospect it was a blessing because my mother got to meet him. He really came early to meet her. And once she passed he immediately started to get his shit together and now he’s a normal little baby. So I guess there is some sort of God.”
And while death looms over his latest album, it’s not the only theme in evidence. “It’s all about women. There’s Shakespeare’s dark lady, there’s prima donna, there’s my mother, there’s a song called Martha about Martha, and of course there’s Lulu, who I always imagine to be Louise Brooks from Pandora’s Box – a dark female force that I on one hand adore, and am also a little afraid of. As we all are.”
As for his tour, it would appear that he’s still got some staging tricks up his sleeve. “There’ll be an amazing video piece by my friend Douglas Gordon to accompany, and I’ll also have this 17-foot long black veil with feathers and crystals that my friend (Michael Jackson/Lady Gaga outfit designer) Zaldy made. It’s like the death of Gaga.”
“In terms of a novel pop experience I don’t know how many other recording artists will put on an opera and (put out) a solo album at the same time.” – Rufus Wainwright on a Unique Selling Point
“Come to the opera too,” he adds, doing some press for his labour of love that premiered in Manchester last year. “In terms of a novel pop experience I don’t know how many other recording artists will put on an opera and (put out) a solo album at the same time.” Prima Donna enjoyed a mixed reception on its first outing but Rufus is keen to point out that it’ll be tweaked and that he’s got a new director and conductor on board who are both “much better than the last ones”.
“The opera premieres at Sadler’s Wells, and then my show is on the very next night at the same theatre,” he boasts. How do they relate to each other? “One obvious relation is that they’re pretty much polar opposites. The opera’s the grandest and most extroverted demanding-of-manpower creation that I’ve ever produced. So much so that I can’t even be in it. I just give it to other people to do. And the solo show is the most introverted and kind of wildly complex, emotionally charged personal show I’ve ever done. So they’re sort of opposite ends of each other, but they’re mirror images in the funhouse.”
Despite his maternal loss, Wainwright seems relaxed. He talks about his back catalogue (he thinks of Want One as his best work, but regards Poses as a miracle) and he sounds ready and eager to get on with the next chapter.
So, yes, do go and see Prima Donna. But with so much emotion charged into All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, and those intensely difficult piano/vocal arrangements, it’s his solo tour that promises something really spectacular.
Rufus Wainwright’s new album All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu is out on 5 April 2010 through Polydor. His opera Prima Donna debuts at Sadler’s Wells on 12 April. His solo tour starts at Southampton Guildhall on 11 April. Full tour dates can be found at rufuswainwright.com.