Tavis: Rufus Wainwright is a talented singer-songwriter whose latest project is called “All Days are Nights Songs for Lulu.” The disk is his first since the death of his mother, Canadian folk singer legend Kate McGarrigle. From the project, here is some of the recording session for the song “Zebulon.”
Tavis: Tell me about “Zebulon.”
Rufus Wainwright: (Laughs) Well, a lot of people think that it’s some sort of imaginary character or symbol or something, but it’s actually a friend of mine that I had when I was a young pre-teen in elementary school in Canada. So it was just this young guy that I knew as a kid.
Tavis: I mentioned this is the first project you’ve done since the passing of your mother.
Wainwright: Yes. Yes.
Tavis: How do you push this through when I assume you’re going through a very difficult period?
Wainwright: Yeah, well, I basically made the, I guess, unconscious choice of throwing as much work as possible at this situation. Before my mother passed away I finished my album and then luckily, I had a good month with her, just to be with her, and then she passed away. So I wasn’t multitasking at that point, which would have been terrible.
Right after I went on tour and my opera was premiering in London, my opera, “Prima Donna,” so I had a lot of stuff going on and then I had this tour. So I just – it just fell that way and I think the fates were on my side. Some higher force was looking after me, because it has really – it’s a little too raw to sit down and think about too much right now.
I just have to kind of get to point B. I do plan to take, after this tour is over, after Christmas, I do plan to take a good six months off and absorb the shock. But I do recommend working a lot after you’ve lost someone.
Tavis: To your point, and I can understand that and I’ve been there before, so it does help, I think, for some of us to pour ourselves into our work. But you’re right, it’s not either-or, it’s both-and.
Tavis: At some point it seems to me, my own experience is that if you don’t take the time, not that you ever close on the death of a loved one. It’s not like you close on a house, you never close on it. But if you don’t take that time, it will hit you when you least expect it and it will just destroy you.
Tavis: So I’m glad you’re going to take some time.
Wainwright: Yeah, I’m aware of that that fact and there’s also been so many things. My sister, Martha Wainwright, is a fantastic singer-songwriter as well, who’s actually singing with me now on my tour. She had a child right before my mother passed away, Archangelo is his name, and -
Wainwright: Archangelo, yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: No pressure.
Wainwright: Yeah, I know, I know, I know (unintelligible).
Tavis: No pressure, Archangelo. (Laughter)
Wainwright: I know. So he’s been – yeah, well, the pressure was on right away for little Arch. (Laughter) He’s been really fairing us through with his joyful light, his light.
Tavis: Tell me about the fascination with the Shakespeare sonnets, a few of them, at least.
Wainwright: Yes. Well, I did an amazing project with Robert Wilson, the theater director, in Germany at the Berlin Ensemble, which is this amazing theater where the three penny opera was premiered in the ’20s, and it was where Bertolt Brecht worked and his wife afterwards.
Anyway, we were commissioned to do a theater piece based on the sonnets, on the Shakespeare sonnets, and I put about 10 of them to music. On this album, there’s three of them. I knew of the sonnets before, like most people, and there are certain lines, “I am what I am,” which you can’t really escape if you’re English.
But then having dove into them and really spent some time in that territory, it totally changed my life, when you really – they’re just this endless, bottomless pit of brilliance that there’s no way of ever getting it all around in your head. So of course, some of it I had to put on the album.
Tavis: What’s the process, to the extent you can explain it, for putting music to a Shakespeare sonnet?
Wainwright: Probably the best thing to do is not to think too much. (Laughter) I have found whatever comes – because you’re not the genius in this situation. He is. (Laughter) For once.
Tavis: That’s a good place to start, huh?
Wainwright: I’m not the genius. That’s why I had to work with Shakespeare. (Laughter)
Tavis: Just got tired of being the genius, huh?
Wainwright: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I tend to do what comes instinctively and what stays out of the way of the words, and also what is most – what happens the quickest, and yeah, so I think it’s about just taking the back seat.
Tavis: When you spend that much time with Shakespeare’s sonnets, given with the project was, you come away with what appreciation, what new appreciation, what new regard for Shakespeare’s brilliance, for his genius.
Wainwright: Well, just to further what you said about getting a lot out of it and working with them a lot, I’m also, as well as being on my album, three of them, I’m also premiering in November five of them -
Tavis: This is in San Francisco with the -
Wainwright: Yeah, with the San Francisco Symphony. I’m going to sing that with the orchestra. So I’ve gotten several projects out of this.
Tavis: So you’re getting real bold.
Wainwright: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: So one, you’re going to take his work and put music to it, now you’re going to perform the stuff.
Wainwright: I know, I know, I know. I’m going to be dressing up like him pretty soon. (Laughter) All weird. I think what I’ve learned is that it’s kind of – (laughs) I don’t know, it’s a curse and a blessing that he existed, because on one hand it is so beautiful and it’s so fantastic and so deep and never-ending, but on the other hand, nobody will ever be as good as that, and I can see how, almost like in music with Mozart or Bach, where you just – it’s just mind-boggling how that happened, and I guess you just have to be thankful that you’re the recipient. But as an artist, you do get a little jealous, too. (Laughter)
Tavis: I can see that. This name, Rufus. Your mama gave this to you?
Wainwright: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Did she tell you why?
Wainwright: Well, I was just having a lovely time with – who’s your makeup artist again?
Wainwright: With Sheila. Sheila. We had a lovely time talking about this very -
Tavis: Did she pay you to say this on TV, call her name on television.
Wainwright: (Laughs) Well, I should have tried that. (Laughter) But I’m working on my air. No, what happened is that my father’s name is Loudon Wainwright III, so his dad was Loudon and his grandfather was Loudon as well.
He had always resented that, that third thing, so he didn’t want to give me the fourth, the title. But he still wanted something unusual, as my mother did, because you can really put anything with “Wainwright.” That’s the great thing about Wainwright. You can be called, you know -
Tavis: Anything goes with Wainwright.
Wainwright: – Bonobo Wainwright. It kind of works, whatever. (Laughter) So they had a contest, and my dad knew someone in high school who had the weirdest name that they’d ever known, and my dad knew someone named – no, my mom knew someone named Oscar Tarbucks, so it would either have been Oscar, and my dad knew someone named Rufus Batsoe. So Rufus won and I became Rufus.
But there’s a very funny story that I was telling Sheila earlier, because I was in a cab once in Washington, D.C. and there was this old, Black cab driver and he was driving around, he was real nice, we were talking and stuff. At one point he said, “So, what’s your name?” I said, “Well, my name’s Rufus,” and he went, “Your name’s not Rufus.” (Laughter)
And I said, “Yes, it is,” and he’s like, “No, it isn’t.” (Laughter) He’s like, “If your name’s Rufus, I’m Michael Jackson.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, I want to get that out, because I think most brothers, we only know a couple of Rufuses.
Wainwright: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: We all know the Rufus and Chaka. I grew up in a church, my whole life I grew up in a church, and my minister’s name was Rufus – Rufus Mills. I grew up with a minister every day, seven days a week, who was named Rufus, and here you come now.
Wainwright: Yeah. (Laughs)
Tavis: So anyway, since anything goes with Wainwright, we’ll call him Rufus Wainwright. The new project from Rufus is out now and we’re glad to have you on the program.
Wainwright: Thank you.
Tavis: You’re going to perform something for us.
Wainwright: Yes, yeah.
Tavis: Which is really cool.
Wainwright: I’m going to do one of the sonnets.
Tavis: Perfect (unintelligible) sonnet. So here we go. We can all judge (laughter) how music and Shakespeare go together, courtesy of one Rufus Wainwright. Good to have you here, Rufus.
Wainwright: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Nice to have you. Stay with us, we’re back with Rufus in just a moment.
From his critically acclaimed CD, “All Days are Nights,” here is Rufus Wainwright performing “A Woman’s Face.” Enjoy.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.