In a recent interview, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright compared his family to the feuding Roys in Succession. He laughs when reminded. He also points out that the difference between his upbringing and that of the Roys was that the Wainwrights were never rich.
“The older I get, the more I realise how fortunate I am that I was never saddled with tremendous wealth. I know people who are – it’s nothing but toil, turmoil, and sadness. Our miniseries would just be called ‘Success’.”
The Wainwrights may have had little money. But there was plenty of talent, ego and envy. Rufus’s parents, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, were both acclaimed songwriters, as is his younger sister, Martha. And then there is Rufus, the golden boy in the clan who, in his 20s, was courted by record labels and proclaimed a superstar in waiting by Elton John.
Just like the Roys, the family were also accomplished at not getting along, nods Rufus, who is about to release an enchanting covers record, Folkocracy, and who returns to Dublin for a show at the National Concert Hall in July. Rufus adored his mother and feuded with his father. Kate, meanwhile, was perpetually disappointed in Martha – who, for her part, felt eclipsed by Rufus. In her 2022 memoir, Stories I Might Regret Telling You, Martha recalls losing her temper with her mother and physically brawling with her while on tour.
“Our mother was a wonderful mother, a wonderful woman and actually one of the most talented individuals that the world has ever known,” says Rufus. “But she also had a dark side and she was tortured. And somewhat traumatised, really, from her upbringing [in religious Quebec] and from her experiences with divorce and so forth.”
His mother had cancer and died in 2010, aged 63. Grief has been an ongoing journey for Wainwright. In 2011, he poured his feelings into the primal shriek of an album, All Days Are Nights (Songs for Lulu).
Folkocracy is a companion piece insofar as it circles back to the singer’s childhood and memories of his mother. With versions of Peggy Seeger’s Heading for Home, Moondog’s High on a Rocky Ledge and standards such as Shenandoah, it is a love letter to the North American folk tradition in which she raised him.
All these songs are close to Wainwright’s heart. He grew up with them in Montreal, where his mother returned after divorcing the perpetually unfaithful Loudon. The project is also a testament to the wonders of his Rolodex. There are duets with Anohni, John Legend, David Byrne and the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs.
“I’m trying to basically get to the bottom of things,” he says. “On my last album I revisited my relationship with LA and recording my first record there. This album seems to be some form of whiplash, where I went further back a little bit, and went to the root of my musical existence, which is of course folk.”
Wainwright is an old-school troubadour. Born in 1973, he is a throwback to the decade of whiskery tunesmiths married to the open road. You could easily imagine him knocking around with Harry Nilsson or Warren Zevon – or, indeed, with his dad, one of the post-Dylan songwriters who embraced the life of a dashing troubadour.
Folk was something he inhaled throughout his childhood. Emmylou Harris and Pete Seeger would pay house calls and lead singalongs around the fire. But as he got older and realised he was gay, he felt increasingly distant from the milieu. He was drawn to opera – it was ornate and fabulous, everything folk was not.
The first thing I said when we sat down to negotiate my record contract is, ‘I’m gay – I’m not going to pretend to be anything else.’ It turned out to be a good idea. Along the way it wasn’t easy
“There was a lot of rebellion I experienced as a teenager against folk music,” he says. “Mainly because it was so heterosexual. There was a real macho aspect with... how fast you could play a banjo and all that. There weren’t a lot of gay icons in that world. It was actually quite different if you were a lesbian. There is a rich history of folk lesbians. Anyway, that’s when I took my left turn on to the operatic stage.”
Coming out was difficult. Wainwright’s parents may have been musicians running with the cool set. Still, they weren’t thrilled at having a gay son, as he once told me. “They were as cool as they could be. I wouldn’t say they were particularly supportive. Really, they weren’t. I own that. Part of me has forgiven them, part of me hasn’t. I adore my parents. But no, they weren’t cool with the gay thing.”
His record label wasn’t delighted either. He signed with DreamWorks in the 1990s – the same decade Jason Donovan sued a magazine for incorrectly claiming he was gay (he lost). Queerness was still taboo. But Wainwright refused to pretend to be something he wasn’t. “When I first started out, I was totally upfront, and I didn’t want to get sick and come out in a Rock Hudson-type situation. Remember, I reached puberty in 1987. It was a treacherous time,” he told me in 2012.
“The first thing I said when we sat down to negotiate my record contract is, ‘I’m gay – I’m not going to pretend to be anything else.’ It turned out to be a good idea. Along the way it wasn’t easy.”
Opera has been his lifelong love, and Verdi and Strauss are an audible influence on his grand, baroque albums. He’s written his own operas – Prima Donna in 2009 and Hadrian in 2018. But folk was always in the background, a vivid carry-over from his childhood. It continues to hover at his shoulder today in Los Angeles, where he lives with his husband, German arts administrator Jörn Weisbrodt and 12-year-old daughter Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, who was conceived by sperm donation to Lorca Cohen, daughter of the late Leonard Cohen.
“Folk always remained a deep part of me. Kind of the fibre of my being,” he says. “The older I get, the more I appreciate the education and the technique. I wanted to seek out the purity of the sound and celebrate music that works immediately and is real and true.”
Much of what we think of North American folk originates in Ireland, and that connection surfaces throughout Folkocracy. Down in the Willow Garden, on which Wainwright duets with Brandi Carlile, is an Appalachian murder ballad with Irish roots and which, melodically and lyrically, shares its DNA with Down by the Sally Gardens, as immortalised in verse by William Butler Yeats.
Elsewhere on the album, Wainwright and Martha, together with their half-sibling Lucy Wainwright-Roche and their aunt Anna McGarrigle (Kate’s sister), cover the old Northern Ireland-Scottish track Wild Mountain Thyme. I jokingly tell Wainwright that the song has become a source of trauma for Irish people by dint of the dreadful 2020 movie of the same name, with its Quiet Man levels of tweeness.
“I haven’t seen it,” he says. “I’d love to. I love the actress. Am I blanking on her name? Emily Blunt. Yeah, I would love to see that. The first time I sang that song, I was about 14. It was with Emmylou Harris, Aly Bain [a famous Scottish fiddler], my mother, and my aunt. At that point, it was a ‘folkocracy’ – a circle of folk. That was a very intense and affecting experience that I’m tipping my hat to on the record.”
This thing of cancel culture in general is tricky. We live in revolutionary times. Everything is up in the air. Everything is up for grabs, everything up for question. That’s just the way the world is. Nothing is certain
He also covers Arthur McBride, an old rebel song popularised by Paul Brady in the late 1970s, when it featured on the cult folk record he made with Andy Irvine. It is Brady’s version to which Wainwright pays tribute on Folkocracy.
“Paul Brady used to sing that to me when I was a kid,” he says. “We would visit him occasionally in Ireland. We would always end up singing. I asked him to play Arthur McBride three times one evening because I was so obsessed with it. It was very much tip of the hat to him.”
Brady was on stage with Wainwright in December 2019 when he and Martha brought their semi-regular Christmas revue to the city. It’s a travelling seasonal celebration that they have hosted around the world. In London that same year, they sang with Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys and Guy Garvey of Elbow. In Dublin, Rufus and Martha were joined, We Are the World-style, by Brady, Conor O’Brien of Villagers, Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy and others.
It was a great show – with one wrinkle when they covered the Fairytale of New York. When it came to the controversial “F” word sung in the original by Kirsty MacColl, Martha hummed over it.
“We were not aware when we arrived of the controversy surrounding that song,” Wainwright told me in 2020. “We weren’t. And then it was brought to our attention very late in the game. And then Martha decided to sidestep it. We still performed the song, and she didn’t go there. You know, you’ve got to choose your battles in this world.
“And so we chose to perform the piece and edit it slightly and move on. I don’t know... this thing of cancel culture in general is tricky. We live in revolutionary times. Everything is up in the air. Everything is up for grabs, everything up for question. That’s just the way the world is. Nothing is certain.”
Three years later, he looks back on the incident with a degree of bafflement. “I don’t know that ‘we’ have issues with it,” he says of Fairytale of New York. “But certain people do. It’s on the blacklist for sure. But, you know, different periods call for different blacklists, I guess.”
In addition to Folkocracy, he’s been overseeing the reissue of his 2003 double LP, Want. It was an artistic and creative breakthrough for Wainwright and a critical hit. It also came at the end of a period of frightening excess, during which he was addicted to crystal meth and went temporarily blind before, on Elton John’s advice, going into rehab.
“I went off the rails because I wanted to go off the rails,” he told me in 2020. “I would say the vast majority of the time it was thrilling and exciting. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s not a time I look back on with remorse. There are moments I would not like to repeat. I did make a lot of mistakes.”
He must look back and wonder how he managed to be so productive while just about hanging on to his sanity.
“I was wildly ambitious, from a very young age,” he says. “I remember being so blinded by my desire to be successful and to write great music and to make records and stuff. Also, perhaps, my great passion and love for opera and classical music gives me a sense of [perspective]. What would have been amazing to me at that age would be to write a Mahler symphony. Or the Goldberg Variations.”
His retreat into folk was motivated by several factors – not all artistic. When his last album, 2020′s Unfollow the Rules, was nominated for a Grammy, and he went to the ceremony, he was struck by how many folk records were in the running – most notably Taylor Swift’s Folklore.
He knew he could do folk well as anyone: cut him, and he bled acoustic guitars. In that regard, what did he make of folk’s “stadium” period, when artists such as Mumford & Sons bestrode the genre?
“I admire their success and their hard work. It’s pretty catchy, and I get it. When it comes to contemporary artists, I go a little more for the dancefloor. I go for people like Perfume Genius or Lana Del Rey. I tend to go a little more ‘nightclub’. But only because I was so spoiled as a child. We grew up hanging out with Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Pete Seeger coming around. Our cup runneth over, as they say.”
Folkocracy is released June 2nd. Rufus Wainwright plays the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on July 22nd