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Rufus Wainwright


Born Rufus McGarrigle Wainwright, July 22, 1973, Rhinebeck, New York; the son of LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III and KATE McGARRIGLE, Rufus was raised in Canada following his parents’ divorce. Steeped in music from an early age, by the time he reached his teens he was touring with his folk-singing family. He listened to the likes of Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich et al, which found a place in his heart whilst attending the upper-crust Millbrook School in upstate New York; from there he briefly studied music at Montreal’s McGill University.
It’d be the lure of classical, torch, cabaret and opera; however that was to really fire the piano player through his formative years performing on the local club scene. These were influences which he carried over to his pop career, which received an early boost after his father passed – via the legendary VAN DYKE PARKS – a demo to an impressed DreamWorks Records head honcho, Larry Waronker.
The label subsequently issued the eponymous RUFUS WAINWRIGHT {*8} debut album in May 1998 to almost unanimous critical acclaim; his incredible voice investing the record’s intimate, baroque chamber pop – arrangements by that man PARKS – with a profound emotional charge similar to that of JEFF BUCKLEY, RANDY NEWMAN and THOM YORKE. Rufus’s sense of sexuality marked the singer out in his own right; never mind his family ties, and in the cabaret pop of `April Fools’ (a rare single), `Beauty Mark’ and opener `Foolish Love’, there was a new WAINWRIGHT in town.
Sophomore set, POSES (2001) {*8} – also produced by Pierre Marchand – featured contributions from his sister MARTHA WAINWRIGHT and another second-generation musician, TEDDY THOMPSON (son of RICHARD and LINDA THOMPSON), as well as the likes of PROPELLERHEADS’ Alex Gifford. Less personal then than his debut, but cut from the same singular cloth and basking in that same neo-operatic glow which surrounded Rufus’s songs: songs in the key of his life a la `Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk’, `California’, `Grey Gardens’, the title track and a reading of his dad’s `One Man Guy’. Note that on the UK version of the set, he covered The BEATLES’ `Across The Universe’, whilst he’d already contributed his take of LEONARD COHEN’s `Hallelujah’ to the first “Shrek” movie.
Commercial success had eluded WAINWRIGHT so far, but in touring as support to TORI AMOS (and by himself), audiences found out there was more to him that simply being his father’s talented son. Like his pater he’d no lack of ambition, and emerging from a studio in Woodstock, New York, he’d enough output – produced by Marius De Vries – for a double set. Swaying against the latter format, single-set WANT ONE (2003) {*7} cracked the Top 100 on both sides of the big pond, confirming his unique position in contemporary pop. A slow-burning album that rewarded the listener with each bittersweet tale of love and loss (and everything in between): the sheer petrified beauty of `Go Or Go Ahead’ (think RADIOHEAD), `Vibrate’ (digging BRITNEY SPEARS) and the rock opera dint, `14th Street’. Rufus brought to life his characters and places like some North American JACQUES BREL; without copying the Belgian’s chanson/cabaret traits, and with treasures `Natasha’, `Dinner At Eight’, `I Don’t Know What It Is’ (a minor UK hit) and `Want’, he went deep, very deep.
WANT TWO (2004) {*8} was as one would expect, pretty much a continuation of the same, quasi-religious, soul-scouring themes: conflicted sexuality, love lost and found, sin and redemption. Opener `Agnus Dei’ was a Latinate plea for slate-cleaning communion with God, executed as a Gypsy lament; `Little Sister’ dressed his projections up in classical garb; and `Gay Messiah’ addressed the vagaries of homosexual iconicity like a profligate THOM YORKE. Not your average singer-songwriter album then, but another rakish, regal minor masterpiece from a man who was still more appreciated elsewhere than his homeland: released in Britain the following March 2005, the record narrowly missed the Top 20.
2007’s Geffen-endorsed RELEASE THE STARS {*7} finally garnered the artist enough support to merit a home soil Top 30 place, whilst in Old Blighty the set reached No.2. Under the executive production umbrella of PET SHOP BOYS’ Neil Tennant (and a plethora of session people, an orchestra, family and friends), somehow ex-pat Rufus rose above the pulpit to lament on `Going To A Town’ (a minor UK hit), `Tiergarten’ and a tinge of glam-rock for `Between My Legs’.
Shunning modern fame for a nostalgic kick, RUFUS DOES JUDY AT CARNEGIE HALL (2007) {*6} – a double-CD concert recorded the previous June at Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall, NY – belied just where WAINWRIGHT was in terms of commercial ambitions. Somehow he must’ve known that a tribute set to gay icon Judy Garland was never going to excite his alt-mainstream audience fully, but nevertheless he’d made his mark, and recreating a time in 1961 when the lady in question was in vogue, his heart and soul was in the right place; augmented by his mum on `Over The Rainbow’, his sister Martha on `Stormy Weather’ and Judy’s daughter Lorna Luft on `After You’ve Gone’.
Decca Records were now behind Rufus for his next in-concert venture, MILWAUKEE AT LAST!!! (2009) {*7}, an album portraying him as crooner personified as he careered through `Release The Stars’, `Going To A Town’ and a cover of Noel Coward’s `If Love Were All’.
Having ventured to the far side of the talk of the town, WAINWRIGHT and his subtle piano combined classical hue with that of contemporary singer-songwriter for ALL DAYS ARE NIGHTS: SONGS FOR LULU (2010) {*7}. His mother had been ill for some time and sadly died a month before the album’s moderate chart entry that spring, but in `Martha’ he shared his pain and grief with his half-sister. Rufus never shirked intimacy and emotion, so injecting the odd Shakespeare “Sonnet” (Nos. 43, 20 & 10) on the back of the ruminative `Who Are You New York?’, `True Loves’ and `Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now!’, it was all deeply intuitive and profound.
2012’s OUT OF THE GAME {*8} once again pleased his pop/soft-rock base, and its MARK RONSON production values reaped rewards with its Top 40 spot and UK Top 5 dint. Obviously upbeat as only Rufus could be, his BOZ SCAGGS-meets-RON SEXSMITH mood swings were on display on the opening title track, plus `Jericho’, `Rashida’ and `Welcome To The Ball’. Possibly encouraged by ELTON JOHN’s same-sex civil partnership which later led to marriage and the surrogate conception of a child, Rufus wed Jorn Weisbrodt on August 23, 2012; a daughter, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, had been born the previous February to proud father Rufus and LEONARD COHEN’s daughter, Lorca.
Meanwhile, on the back of a concert recorded in May 2012, WAINWRIGHT released LIVE FROM THE ARTISTS DEN {*6} for Universal Records, in March 2014. Filmed for PBS at the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village (with Teddy Thompson in support), there was also room for the guitar work of the aforementioned MARK RONSON on encore piece, `Bitter Tears’, which followed a cover of his mum Kate’s `On My Way To Town’.
On the back of WAINWRIGHT’s PRIMA DONNA (2015) {*5}; his debut 2009-recorded French-sung opera released by Deutsche Grammophon, the label was also the outlet for the up-to-date, TAKE ALL MY LOVES: 9 SHAKESPEARE SONNETS (2016) {*7}. Also starring FLORENCE (Welch), Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher, Fiora Cutler, Sian Phillips, William Shatner and his sister Martha, the classical/sonnet set was another reminder of the man’s dexterity and grace. To balance the books; though a little limited in its public spin, the live August 2017 covers set for the Kate McGarrigle Foundation, NORTHERN STARS {*6}, was issued in 2018; among other songs it concentrated on the works of JONI MITCHELL, LEONARD COHEN and NEIL YOUNG.
© MC Strong/MCS 2004-2006/BG/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2019

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