Rufus Wainwright's Operatic Period: 'Stars'

Rufus Wainwright's new album, Release the Stars follows on the heels of his re-creation of Judy Garland's 1961 comeback concert, a flamboyant stage performance that played at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. Rebecca Roberts talks with Release the Stars, at times huge and operatic, was executive-produced by former Pet Shop Boys member Neil Tennant.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel,

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

And I'm Rebecca Roberts.

Rufus Wainwright does not shy away from spectacle. Despite his folk music parents, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright's music has a flair for the grand and theatrical. But when he decided to produce an album himself, he started looking for a leaner sound. He went to Berlin, hoping, perhaps, for a little dramatic asceticism to rub off. Instead, he came up with this.

(Soundbite of song, "Do I Disappoint You")

Mr. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (Musician): (Singing) Sensational. I'm gonna smash your bloody skull. 'Cause, baby, no, you can't see inside. No, baby, no, you can't see my soul.

ROBERTS: Rufus Wainwright joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Hi.

ROBERTS: So where did this big epic sound come from?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, it was basically not my fault. Once again, we must blame Germany, because I went there really expecting to have the sort of underground electro-clash paired-down experience with young people with strange haircuts and stuff and tin can noises. But once I actually arrived in the city and with staying with my boyfriend, Jorn, who live in Berlin at the time, I was overwhelmed by this German romanticism that has really survived wars and atrocities but still sort of exist.

ROBERTS: Well, there's these soaring harmonies, really lush orchestration - is there anything you dismiss as too much, too over-stuffed?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: No. I would say that on first listen, perhaps it does, you know, seem a bit overbearing. But on the other hand, everything is really meant to be there. And most people find that when they hear my album, within two or three tries, they'll start to get it. And that's just - that's the style of listening that I like myself. I'm a big opera fan mainly. And really, to get into an opera, you can't kind of hit a cold. You got to let it live with you for a bit.

ROBERTS: What are your favorite operas?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: By nature, I'm a Verdian. I'm a big "Othello" fan and "Traviata," that stuff. But recently, I've become a serious Wagnerian…

ROBERTS: Really?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: …especially after being in Germany and I went to Baruth and saw "Parsifal." I'm actually been hanging out a tiny bit with the Wagner family. You think my family is a saga?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: The Wagners make you look…

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Getting a little of perspective there.

ROBERTS: On the album "Release The Stars," one of the other things you realize after a couple of listenings is this epic orchestration is accompanying raw, sometimes even sort of harsh lyrics.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

ROBERTS: Do you see a conflict there?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: No. I mean, I think the relationship is when lyrics and music always has to have some kind of friction. Both elements are so powerful in themselves that if one is overshadowing the other, it just doesn't make a complete artwork. In fact, I would even argue that lyrics are more important and that words - the words should mean more than your music.

(Soundbite of song, "Going to a Town")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I'm going to a town that has already been burned down. I'm going to a place that's already been disgraced. I'm going see some folks who have already been let down. I'm so tired of America.

ROBERTS: I read that this was one of those songs that occasionally come to artist in a flash.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

ROBERTS: That you wrote it in a hurry.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

ROBERTS: And it certainly starts sort of like someone kind of chilling around on the piano, though

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

ROBERTS: But it gets - it gets picked…

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. Yeah. No. It flowers as well, a big flower of disappointment.

ROBERTS: When you're writing it, do you hear the orchestration in your head?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: A little bit. I mean, certainly with "Do I Disappoint You," that first song, I heard a lot of that. But now, I tend to be very, very open minded when I go into the studio, and I allow a lot of musicians to sort of fox around for a bit and then, you know, when I hear something like a thread, I'll jump on it like a panther. But it is all in there. I mean, I'm a strong believer, whether it's lyrics, or orchestration, or painting, or whatever that it's all already finish. It's been created and that the job of the artist is to just sort of summon it.

(Soundbite of song, "Going to a Town")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Tell me do you really think you go to hell for having loved? Tell me and not for thinking every thing that you've done is good, I really need to know. After soaking the body of Jesus Christ in blood. I'm so tired of America.

ROBERTS: This is one of the songs with very dark lyrics.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

ROBERTS: What does it mean? What are you tired of?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I mean, as I said before, I never intended to write this song. I, in no way, sat down and said I'm going to now write an anti-American, political manifesto. I had 10 minutes to spare for dinner and I sat down and five minutes later, this - it was written. It arrived.

I guess what I'm trying to say is there is a general fatigue worldwide over the Bush years. We desperately have to start picking up the pieces. But in order to do that, we have to admit a certain amount of defeat. It's - we're in the grieving process right now. I'm just trying to, you know, move the process along for all of us, and when I mean all of us, I don't only mean America, I mean the world.

(Soundbite of song, "Going to a Town")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I got a life to lead. I got a soul to feed.

ROBERTS: As your fan base grows - this CD is doing very well.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

ROBERTS: You're getting better known, has your sense of what political messages or sort of how much your audience can handle evolved?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I mean, I just - I think the nature of who I am: A. Being gay, and B. Being willing to talk about issues on which a lot of artists are just not. They just want to talk about, you know, their heels. But just those two factors throw me into that arena whether I like it or not.

But that being said, I don't - I think when you come to see one of my shows, or you listen to one of my albums, it is about the music. And you can always, you know, flip to the next track and usually it's just going to be about some park somewhere. I just like to sing about interesting things, and politics happens to be one of them.

ROBERTS: At the risk of asking you about your heels, tell me about the lederhosen. I'm so so curious about the lederhosen.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I can't let the heels go because that's the surprise of the show. But, yeah - no, I do wear lederhosen in my show. I had this amazing pair made where I had to actually go to Austria three times, climb a mountain, and have fittings with a crusty old German guy - Austrian guy, and…

ROBERTS: That's an opera right there.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, you know, it's the maestro singer Von Rufus Ruthenberg(ph). And I wear them in the show and stuff. They're very, very sexy.

ROBERTS: Rufus Wainwright, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Rufus Wainwright and his lederhosen, perform live in New York City tomorrow night. To hear that show as it happens, go to NPR.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Tiergarten")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Won't you walk me through the Tiergarten? Won't you walk me through it all, darling? Doesn't matter if it is raining. Won't you walk me through it all?

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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Operatic Pop Singer Rufus Wainwright in Concert

CD: Release the Stars

hide captionRufus Wainwright's latest CD is Release the Stars

CD Tracks

WNYC

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This live streaming concert is a production of NPR Music's All Songs Considered and NPR station WNYC.

rufus wainwright live

hide captionRufus Wainwright performing live at the Gramercy theater in New York.

Joel Didriksen for kingpinphoto.com

Note: Audio for this performance is no longer available at the label's request.

Rufus Wainwright makes richly orchestrated, theatrical pop music inspired by the traditions of cabaret, musicals and opera. His latest CD, Release the Stars, is his most impressively ornate album to date, with 12 new songs that are at once grand and intimate. Wainwright performs selections from his new album in a stunning, two-hour performance from New York's Gramercy Theater, originally webcast live on NPR.org Jun. 9. This streaming concert is a production of NPR Music's All Songs Considered and NPR station WNYC.

Rufus Wainwright is from a family of gifted artists. His parents are folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. His younger sister, Martha Wainwright is a pop-rock singer-songwriter. As children, Rufus and his sister toured with their mother in the group The McGarrigle Sisters and Family.

Rufus Wainwright released his self-titled, debut solo release in 1998. It was a critical favorite and established his place as a notable artist in his own right, regardless of his family. Release the Stars is his fifth studio album.

When he entered a studio in Germany to record his latest CD, Rufus Wainwright says he planned to produce something spare and subdued, moving away from the lush sounds of his previous albums. But once he started, he couldn't silence the symphony in his head.

"Some people go to Berlin to get more cutting edge, I went and started wearing lederhosen and going to visit baroque palaces," Wainwright says. "The Germany I was enthused with was more old fashioned and kind of romantic. I just got there, and the next thing you know, I had this huge gilded album. It was kind of an amazing experience because I didn't intend it to be that way."

For previous albums, Rufus Wainwright has collaborated with producers like Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Sam Phillips) and Ethan Johns (Ray LaMontagne, Kings of Leon). But Release the Stars is the first record he's produced himself.

"In retrospect I was unwise to think that my lifelong affiliation with operatic curlicues would subside once I was at the helm," Wainwright says. "The record didn't end up being a bare bones affair, but it was important that I had that image in mind. Even though I have some of the biggest moments of my career on this record, there are some of the most intimate moments too."

Rufus Wainwright says Release the Stars is a message for listeners to act on dreams and desires, "to fulfill your destiny... ...to use your good side.

"The album is dedicated to my mother, who during this whole process, had a rather serious operation. That brought home a real sense of urgency about what I want to accomplish. There are feelings around us all the time that we never come into contact with until there is a traumatic experience. I went to rehab before Want One and I had this kind of personal inventory situation where I had to recreate myself, go through all these different levels of reconstruction, and that was large, arduous, intense and dramatic. But once my mom had that operation, the other thing looked like a mole hill. The moment something happens to one you love, it's twenty times more intense. You experience pain and enlightenment on a much vaster scale."

This concert is co-hosted by All Songs Considered's Bob Boilen and Jad Abumrad, host and producer of WYNC's Radio Lab.

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  • Album: Release the Stars
  • Artist: Rufus Wainwright
  • Label: Geffen
  • Released: 2007
 

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