Blasblog: Rufus Wainwright May Let Karl Lagerfeld Make Him Over
I’ve seen Rufus Wainwright perform in all sorts of places: the great outdoors over a year ago at the Last Song of Summer fundraiser for Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center, and then an elementary-school gymnasium a couple months back for the same benefit. There was the rousing revival of Judy Garland hits at Carnegie Hall, and then a gay piano bar on the L.E.S. In each one, the singer-songwriter and, as of this summer, opera composer, was the same: engaging, funny, and truly terrific. Tomorrow night, Wainwright returns to Carnegie Hall with a group of musicians including sister Martha Wainwright, Courtney Love, and Scarlett Johansson for a Gavin Friday and Friends concert to benefit (RED). On his playlist will be many of the songs from Milwaukee at Last!!!, his recording of a live performance in the Midwestern town, released last month. I sat down with Wainwright to talk about that concert, the Albert Maysles documentary that coincides with it, and, of course, his relationship with fashion.
On October 4, you’re back at Carnegie Hall. I saw you in your Judy Garland tribute there a few years ago. Do you particularly like that venue? Or do you just like Judy?
No, no. I am so proud to have called Carnegie Hall my New York home for many years now, whether it’s my Judy tribute, the Christmas shows, assorted benefits, and so forth. It’s a dream to many to play the venue. And before anyone asks me, I do know the way to get to Carnegie Hall: “Practice! Practice! Practice!”
You just released the album Milwaukee at Last!!!. What is it about performing live that you like? Is the interaction with an audience better than the bonuses of recording in a studio?
It’s really about the paycheck! Ha! I don’t mean it like that. What I’m trying to say—and I mean this in a good way—is that I’m an old-school musician who very much treats my work like a day job. And the better I do, the better I get paid. I love my job, I really do. It’s very capitalistic in a good way.
As someone who performs live so often, in so many different places, why did you pick this specific performance in Milwaukee?
For three reasons: First is that we had toured for a long time and the band was slick as oil and ready to go! Second, we were able to secure Albert Maysles—one of my all-time fave filmmakers—to film it. Lastly, the Pabst Theater is truly one of America’s great treasures. It used to be the center of opera for the Midwest, and it’s just a beautiful opera house.
Tell me more about Albert Maysles. How did you get hooked up with him?
I’ve been a Grey Gardens fanatic for way too long now, not to mention Albert’s other work. The idea of having the same eye that captured the magic that is Edie Beale trained on me and my shenanigans is overwhelming to say the least! I was introduced to Albert through Sean Lennon.
This summer, Manchester, England saw the debut of your first opera. Talk to me about that process: Was that something you wanted to do for a while? The drama, the length, the French!
Opera is my religion. My Yom Kippur is the Ring cycle. So, for me to write an opera was, in essence, paying the piper. The fact that it survived the critics and that it will be performed in all of the major Western cities is incredible.
I saw you perform last month at Watermill’s Last Song of Summer, which I know was sponsored by Viktor & Rolf, a label you have collaborated with on fashion-show music and on your outfits at the Judy tribute. How do you view the relationship between fashion and music?
Fashion and music are one of the great nuclear—as in splitting the atom—relationships of all time. When it really works, it’s truly explosive; and when it doesn’t, it’s so small you can’t see it. Fortunately, I look good with clothes on, so in addition to Viktor & Rolf, fashion is my friend! I love Maison Martin Margiela and Burberry. Karl Lagerfeld told me he wanted to give me a makeover, so I might take him up on that!
So we’ve done fashion, opera, live performance, and studio work. What’s the next hurdle for Rufus Wainwright?
The next hurdle is a solo piano and voice record. I’ve actually finished writing all the songs for it and just need to record. But, of course—in true Wainwright fashion—it’s turning out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Between a single piano and a 70-piece orchestra, I’ll take the orchestra any day!