Mike Atkinson

Interview: Rufus Wainwright.

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 9, 2010

(An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

(Photo taken by soulrush)

Many of us were very saddened to hear of the recent loss of your mother, Kate McGarrigle.  In this sort of situation, does writing and performing music become more of a burden, or is it more of a release? 

It’s a double-edged sword.  Emotionally it’s quite taxing, and at some point I definitely need to do nothing for a while.  I don’t know if now is that time, because with mourning you sometimes feel like a shark who thinks that without swimming they’ll die.  So I have to keep going.  But on the other hand, nothing quite fits as well as death and music!  (Laughs)  It’s uncanny, the similar emotive power of both those worlds.  So it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. 

Somewhat inevitably, your audience are going to hear your new album (All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu) with the knowledge of that loss in mind, so I guess that might colour their interpretation of the material.  To what extent is the album a response to, or a premonition of, those recent events? 

None of the songs were written or recorded after her death.  The whole process was right up to the end of her life, so it’s definitely a centrepiece to the project.  But on the other hand, it’s not technically about that.  So it makes for an emotional but surreal experience for the listener, because it’s like this elephant in the room.  It’s not really touched on that much, but it’s just so obvious.  It’s what dramatic situations are made of. 

There is a direct reference to your mother in the album’s final song Zebulon, which is also addressed to a former crush.  So there’s a mixture of past and present in there.  How do those themes link together?

Zebulon is about a vision that I was gifted with, while taking care of my mother in the hospital.  All of a sudden, these floods of memories from the past came back to me.  I was reminded of how innocent and idyllic my life was as a child, and how I’m very lucky to have had that.  But I’m also robbed of it at this point in my life, because things have gotten so dark.  So it’s a sort of bittersweet feeling, of having a beautiful childhood: you can lean on it, but also miss it terribly at the same time.

Zebulon is preceded by a song called Les Feux D‘Artifice T’Appellent (“The Fireworks Are Calling You”), which is taken from your recent opera Prima Donna.  What role does that song play?

 It’s the last aria of the opera.  The prima donna sings it to herself, while she watches the Bastille Day fireworks going on outside her window.  It’s a symbolic moment, as the fireworks really represent life itself.

 You’ve also set three Shakespeare sonnets to music.  What were your reasons for choosing this particular set of three? 

I’ve actually put ten of them down to music, for a play that I did with Robert Wilson in Berlin, based on the sonnets.  It’s still running at the Berliner Ensemble, which is where the Threepenny Opera was premiered, and where Bertolt Brecht was the director.  These specific three were ones that I enjoy performing alone with the piano.  The middle one, number 20, is my favourite of all the sonnets.  

That was a fascinating one to read.  I knew there were theories that some of the sonnets were addressed to a male lover, but I had no idea that any of them were so direct and unequivocal. 

It deals with all of those kinds of homoerotic feelings, that I think every man goes through. (Laughs) I actually don’t think that Shakespeare was gay, especially after reading the sonnets.  But I do think that he had a sort of homoerotic event occur in his life, that really took him off guard. 

In this sonnet, Shakespeare mentions that Mother Nature has given his object of desire one particular body part, which precludes him from going any further.  That’s not a very gay sentiment. 

Yeah, and he’s sort of dumbstruck by this event.  And I’ve done it many times!  (Laughs)  

Sonnet 10 sounds as if it’s addressed to a rather complex and conflicted character.  They’re “possessed with murderous hate”, but their presence is also “gracious and kind”. 

That’s a very important sonnet, because it’s the first sonnet where the poet admits his love directly to the subject.  I always equate it with a kind of blubbering, blundering, over the top professor, who loses his grip and spills his marbles for the young student (laughs), while trying desperately to keep it together.  It’s like The Blue Angel, that movie with Marlene Dietrich, where the professor ends up going to the dancehall every night, and falls in love at the ripe old age of 65 or something.  So it’s Reason being thwarted!

Your last three albums were lavishly arranged and orchestrated, but this one takes things right back to essentials: voice, piano and nothing else besides.  How did that simplicity of approach affect the recording process?   

It was much faster to record, but the mixing ended up being a lot trickier than we thought.  Pierre Marchand, who also mixed Poses, was somewhat surprised by how complex the relationship is between piano and voice – especially when you have a whole album of it.  You really have to bring out the subtleties and polish the product, so that it’s really brilliant.  So it was a very subtle process – but that being said, I’ve done this for years, and I was definitely ready to emote and deliver this type of product.  I have been locked behind my piano for eons, and I know what I’m doing. 

With every album, I try to accomplish some ulterior motive.  The Judy project (“Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall”) was a period to really focus on my voice, the opera is dedicated to my classical aspirations, and so forth.  This album is really about cornering the piano, facing my ability as a pianist and as an arranger for that instrument, and fleshing out my legacy in that form.  

You’re playing the Royal Concert Hall later this month.  When you played there in 2005, the show ended with you and your band performing a striptease, after which you put on a silk sash which said “Miss Nottingham”.  Do you have any similar surprises in store this time round? 

The show that I’m bringing is twofold.  The first half is the new album, and it’s very austere and tragic.  I don’t want any applause between songs.  I want to perform it as a song cycle, so the audience can really get lost in the music.  But I will come back again in the second half and do the old favourites, and make every attempt to lighten the load!  (Laughs)  So, who knows what will happen?

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