When you are born into a musical dynasty it can go one of two ways. You can carry the baton or turn in a completely different direction, carving out your own niche, freeing yourself of the family tradition and finding your own form of freedom and expression. If you choose the former, you run the risk of being compared unfavourably to what your blood line has always produced, the latter and it’s like waving away your inheritance with the back of your hand.
In the case of singer/songwriter and composer Rufus Wainwright, he chose to continue in the family tradition. He is the son of singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and is the sibling of Martha Wainwright. No pressure then.
Fondly referred to by Elton John as “the greatest songwriter on the planet”, Rufus has established himself as one of the great male vocalists and songwriters of his generation, encompassing the great American song book tradition realised by the likes of Etta James, Frank Sinatra, Burt Bacharach and Cole Porter.
He operates in the classic Broadway tradition and I’m pleased to say he maintains the high quality singer/songwriting skills that have been handed down to him by his forbears. He has released ten albums and has appeared on various soundtracks and compilations, as well as collaborating with artists like Elton John, David Byrne, Rosanne Cash and Keane. His new compilation Vibrate is a collection of songs culled from all his previous works and is a wonderful compendium of his classic style and his experimental edge that makes him unique.
My favourite Rufus period was around the album Want One in 2003, his third album. I remember talking to him then and his excitement at finally breaking through was palpable. For me it’s probably his best work and a selection from that album can be found on this compilation.
Living in the shadow of his parents and especially his legendary singer/songwriter actor, Grammy award-winning father, the pressure was on to emulate and continue in his family’s tradition. Although there was a loyal audience established by his parents, he had to find his own voice and followers.
“I’m quite prolific, I take after my father Loudon Wainright III. He has made 36 albums and I’m only at ten, so I’ve got a bit to go yet,” explains Rufus. “I plan to be still doing what I’m doing now when I’m 80, so I have some time to go. I love writing and I’m branching out into opera, theatre and movies, so I’m very busy. I’m grateful to be around whether that be professionally, physically or mentally.”
Talking to Rufus, you get the impression that he absorbs the pressure of an artist in his stride, taking his life and career in good humour. “I have to make a terrible admission and I know it may sound weird, but it is true. When I have finished a song, I cry. If I cry, I know it’s done; it’s not like I’m crying because it’s good, I’m just relieved. I know its sounds mightily strange.”
Wainwright’s love of Judy Garland is legendary. The Wizard of Oz is one of his all-time favourite movies and when he was a kid, Rufus thought he was Dorothy. He performed a re-creation of Judy’s famous New York concert of 1961, titled Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall. In 1961 Garland had just recovered from a serious bout of hepatitis, and the show was hailed a triumph, receiving a handful of Grammy Awards.
The relationship between Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland is one of the great mother and daughter sagas of all time and the Wainwrights have a long-running relationship with them. Rufus’s latest recording, the only new composition on the compilation, is an ode called Me and Liza.
“I’m trying to be as chivalrous as possible here. I’m a big Liza fan and a big Judy fan and I can’t say that Ms Minnelli has been too thrilled by my ovations. When I performed the Judy Garland show, she really didn’t really get it. I could not tell you what’s wrong, I suppose anything to do with her mother makes it very difficult for her. My dad grew up with Liza for a couple of years in Beverly Hills, so they were friends as kids. I think I’ve become her recurring nightmare.”
You can hear Rufus Wainwright in conversation with Pete Mitchell this Saturday at 10pm on Absolute Radio. Listen here.