Rufus Wainwright, solo in Aspen
December 29, 2010
ASPEN – After creating a series of the most ambitious pop-music recordings in recent memory – ambitious in everything from melody, lyrics and concept to instrumentation and production – Rufus Wainwright went for a stripped-down approach on his latest album. “All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu,” which was released last spring, is a solo effort – just Wainwright, just vocals and piano.
But Wainwright doesn’t do stripped-down the way most musicians do. So “All Days Are Nights” features arrangements of Shakespeare sonnets, lyrics in French, detailed characters and narratives, operatic vocal gestures, and piano parts so complex that Wainwright worried that he would not be able to tour the album. He did, in fact, tour the album which only added to the density of “All Days Are Nights.” The shows featured Wainwright performing the entire 12-song album in sequence, with projections by a video artist, outfits created by a fashion designer, and no applause permitted between songs. The tour lasted nine months, hitting Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall.
That tour came to a close two weeks ago. When Wainwright performs Wednesday, at Belly Up Aspen, it will be without the feathered cape, without the album played in its entirety, in order. Speaking on the day before the final concert, in Northampton, Mass., Wainwright sounds relieved of it.
“So after tonight you can clap whenever you want,” he said. “‘Lulu'”s going to bed for awhile.”
Where most artists go the stripped-down route as something of a break, from bandmates, producers, equipment and the people to handle it, the 37-year-old Wainwright was looking at it more as a challenge. In fact, “All Days Are Nights” may be properly seen not as going small, but as setting a higher bar. Wainwright – whose last musical project was composing his first opera, “Prima Donna” – calls “All Days Are Nights” a song cycle, putting it more in the neighborhood of Schubert than, say, Neil Young.
“It’s definitely the most challenging work I’ve ever produced,” Wainwright said. “So it’s a bit of a paradox [to call it stripped-down]. Technically, the piano parts are above and beyond the call of duty. It’s an engrossing song cycle, which is one of my favorite genres. Whether it’s Schubert or Faure, it is kind of a ferocious genre.”
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After five albums – beginning with a self-titled debut in 1998 and on through 2007’s “Release the Stars” – a body of work that earned him critical acclaim and a devoted audience in the upper reaches of the pop world, Wainwright says he had come to a point where there was little more to accomplish in the pop style. That realization roughly coincided with the debut of “Prima Donna”; a concert at Carnegie Hall that recreated Judy Garland’s famous 1961 performance at the same venue; and, most significantly, the death of Wainwright’s mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle. All signs pointed toward a serious moment.
“It was time to face the piano,” Wainwright said. “I always knew I wanted to do a solo voice and piano record, but knowing there would be a certain weight attached to it. It had to be a climax of my career. Whoever knows piano/voice music knows it can be the grandest, most complex, regal form of expression. It can match a symphony orchestra. I knew that, and knew it had to have that intensity.”
Wainwright addresses multiple themes in “All Days Are Nights” – desire, disappointment, resilience. But the whole of the album is animated, he said, by thoughts of his mother, who died last January, and on a grander scale, by the feminine sensibilities that Wainwright has often explored.
“I think it’s about my mother; she’s definitely in there,” Wainwright, who is gay, said. “I think it’s about female energy – Prima Donna or Kate or Lulu. It’s a dark river of female power that has always flowed very strongly through my life. It’s about got me washed down shore. But it’s always me surviving in the end.”
Wainwright noted that “All Days Are Nights” proved more popular outside the U.S. than in it. “Americans hate death. Oh boy, do they hate death,” he explained.
Wainwright himself is ready for something a little lighter than “All Days Are Nights.” The end of the tour finds him “satisfied, though completely drained.” For a break, he looks ahead to another of those highly orchestrated, ornate records he made in the past.
“I’d like to make a pop record, frankly,” he said. “Something that would get on the radio for two seconds.”