Rufus Wainwright has seen a lot in his wildly eclectic and colorful music career the last few decades — but never what happened last month in Minneapolis.
The oft-outspoken singer-songwriter was performing with the Minnesota Orchestra when he introduced his 2007 song “Going To A Town” — a track in which he declares, “I’m so tired of you, America.”
Wainwright lamented to the crowd that the night before, Congress passed the Republican tax overhaul championed by President Donald Trump.
“It’s a call to arms,” the 44-year-old dual citizen of Canada and the U.S. said before playing the song. “We have to fight for this country.”
But then, one of the trumpeters in the orchestra stood up and walked off stage in protest. (“The evening was already too snarky,” the musician, Manny Laureano, later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “It got incredibly self-indulgent.”)
Wainwright — who will appear in concert in Bergen County later this month — had a different word to describe the event.
“I was horrified,” he told Culture Vultures in a recent phone interview. “I had never heard of anything like that before, either in the pop world or the classical world.”
“But needless to say, these are extraordinary times,” Wainwright added. “And I think everybody’s feeling the heat, you know. So, it certainly emboldened me to continue my mission.”
“Emboldened” is a fitting word for Wainwright, who this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of his striking 1998 self-titled debut album.
Over the last two decades, Wainwright has not only released a load of critical lauded music — bolstered by his acrobatic voice and outsize melodies — but he’s also become a gay icon, covered Judy Garland’s music at Carnegie Hall, composed operas, set music to Shakespeare sonnets and repeatedly shared the stage with everyone from members of his musician-laden family to Sting and Billy Joel.
In preparation, Culture Vultures spoke to Rufus about his catalogue, his second opera set to debut in Toronto in October, that incident in Minneapolis and the next record he’s set to make.
Culture Vultures: Is there an album you’re most proud of?
Rufus Wainwright: It’s interesting, because this year — 2018 — is the 20th anniversary of my career. It was 20 years ago that my first album was released. So yes, I’ve been very contemplative on that whole situation. I don’t particular like picking out one over the other because they’re all like my kids, these albums.
But I will say “Want One” and “Want Two” for me were really such seminal works that really kind of put me into the next level of where I wanted my career to be — which was to have worldwide success. So I owe a lot to that period in terms of really crossing the bridge, and that record had that kind of confidence and that kind of power to it. It’s not necessarily my favorite record, but it’s definitely the most, sort of, thrilling. (laughs)
CV: You always had an eclectic sound, but those albums really delved into being eclectic. Is that something you strive for? Is that a goal?
RW: It’s not really a goal. It’s my nature. I just am drawn to variations. And I guess at the end of the day, I do feel strongly enough that my voice and also my harmonic decisions are distinctive enough that there’s still this thread that you can follow and you can kind of piece it together still.
I think a lot of it has to do with my voice. It’s sort of a creature of its own. And it has a very big appetite (laughs) — and a real combination of dishes.
CV: Your first record cost about $1 million to make. Is that right?
RW: Yeah, it was right up there.
CV: Would it be a much different situation if you made it now, with how recording and the industry have changed?
RW: Oh god yeah. I don’t think it’s feasible. There are other things I’m doing that cost more than $1 million. Certainly now that I’m in the opera world — raising one of those productions is right up there in terms of price tag. I’m not out of that ballpark yet.
But in terms of actually making pop records, at least in my strata of the music business, I think those days are gone. They could appear again, I suppose. But I don’t know. Who knows?
CV: Opera is actually my next topic. Your second opera is going to premiere in Canada this year?
RW: Yes, Oct. 16 in Toronto, and there’s several performances after that this year. It’s called “Hadrian.” It’s about the emperor Hadrian and his boyfriend Antinous and a whole host of other delicious subject matters.
CV: Your work has always had operatic flourishes. But coming from the pop world, was it daunting to tackle opera?
RW: It’s incredible daunting, the opera world. Thankfully, I’m kind of dumb sometimes (laughs), and I don’t really process necessarily the reality of what I’m about to do. And that’s kind of what it takes with opera. You just have to be blinded by passion, really, and want to do it for really the love of it. I’m very much imbued with that still, thankfully. And it’s starting to yield results.
But certainly when my first opera came out and also composing that opera and also at times this one, I would look around and be like, “What the f**k am I doing this for? This is ridiculous.”
CV: Do you have a different writing process with opera compared to your pop work?
RW: It’s very much different. They’re totally different animals. How can I say this? I think my songwriting is probably more effected by my operatic tendencies. Though, when you writing a song, you sort of have to tailor it to these kind of requirements that most people can relate to. But the elasticity of that situation is pulled by my love of opera. It allows me to go out on certain limbs.
But one thing I’ll say about the opera world: That’s where I really have to be super-flexible and super-uncompromising in terms of attaining an effect on all levels — whether it’s dramatic or musical or spiritual or technical. I think opera has always ruled the roost in a lot of ways.
The thing about songwriting is: You actually have to be more restrained. And that can actually be harder sometimes.
CV: How did the opera come about? Why this subject matter?
RW: I fell in love with the book. There’s a book called “Memoirs of Hadrian.” It’s a famous book from the ’40s, by Marguerite Yourcenar. And it’s a very important book for gay men of a certain generation — older than me and also my age — who didn’t necessarily have a lot of literature to lean on that was written in modern times about gay relationship. Certainly, “Memoirs Of Hadrian” was about an emperor, so it was kind of an iconoclast setting. (laughs) So I fell in love with that book, and it sort of haunted me for years.
The opera itself is not based on the book. But once I dipped into that period of history, I was struck by how much we’re dealing with all of those things today. Specifically Israel — Hadrian was the emperor who created Palestine. So a lot of the borders we fight over — whether it’s between Scotland and England — that was created by him, as well. And these kind of religious wars that we’re still plagued with, those things started to really appear in his time. And also the decaying of an empire, which we’re very aware of these days. (laughs)
CV: Speaking of politics, I know a trumpeter walked off stage at a recent concert of yours in Minnesota when you mentioned politics before playing “Going To A Town.” What was your reaction to that?
RW: I didn’t know it had happened immediately, but I was told later. And yeah, I was horrified. I had never heard of anything like that before, either in the pop world or the classical world.
But needless to say, these are extraordinary times. And I think everybody’s feeling the heat, you know. So, it certainly emboldened me to continue my mission. (laughs) Because, obviously, it had an effect.
I think what really bothered the guy was the reaction of the audience, personally. I don’t think it was really what I was saying. I think it was the fact that when I said it, I basically got a standing ovation from the crowd. So it’s like the will of the people.
CV: Do you think “Going To A Town” takes on even more resonance now amid what’s going on in America?
RW: Oh yeah, it’s definitely experiencing a renaissance, that song, for better or worse. And I’m happy to be here to help in whatever way I can. (laughs) That song really speaks volumes these days.
CV: Do you get annoyed when you hear people say, “I don’t want to hear artists talk about politics”?
RW: Yeah, I have never understood that. To me, the theater is supposed to be a dangerous place. It should always be somewhere where you’re forced to become somewhat uncomfortable or — how can I say this? — be enlightened, be fearful, fall in love. It’s not television. (laughs)
My major point with all of that, though — and this is what my line will be — is that above everything else, and this is what I’d say to any right-wing person in America, the fact that I’m up there and I’m saying something and I’m not being dragged off the stage by the police, which would happen in other dictatorial countries, is proof that we live in a free society. So they shouldn’t be too upset about me expressing my views because that is a sign we live in a decent place. (laughs) And the minute I shut up, there’s no way to know that anymore.
CV: You’ve put on a number of different kind of shows over the years. What can the audience expect in Bergen?
RW: Not that anything is ever typical, but this is my job as a troubadour. I come from a family of musicians, and my sister Lucy will be appearing with me and singing with me, as well. But needless to say, all of us in the Wainwright and McGarrigle clan are roving musicians, and this is sort of our job. (laughs) We go out and do this. This is how we punch in. So that’s sort of the auspice I’m under for this appearance.
CV: What’s next for you? Do you have another project lined up?
RW: Yeah, I’ve got to make records. I’m gonna make another pop record now. A Rufus Wainwright pop record. It’s time. It’s time. (laughs)
CV: Is it written? Or do you still have to write it?
RW: Oh, I’ve written tons of things. I’ve written enough for probably four records. I’m always writing. Material is never really the issue. But picking the right material and presenting something that’s relevant is where the delicacy comes in.
CV: Last question: Is there music you’re listening to right now?
RW: I’m doing a show with Jane Birkin in New York at Carnegie Hall (on Feb. 1). So I’ve been listening to a lot of her new album, which is called “Birkin/Gainsbourg: Symphonique.” It’s her singing Serge Gainsbourg songs with an orchestra. And it’s absolutely gorgeous.
See Rufus Wainwright and special guest Lucy Wainwright Roche perform at Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood on January 21, 2018. Learn more.