On May 19, Rufus Wainwright took to the stage at the Volksbühne to perform the songs of his new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, which was completed a month before the death of his mother, Kate McGarigle.
A singer-songwriter with folk roots, Wainwright’s shows have always emphasized performance, stepping out in drag to perform Judy Garland numbers, or bringing a big band to the stage. Now, he appears accompanied only by the piano and a collage of images of Wainwright’s kohl-smeared, green eye on a black background – a video backdrop by the Berlin-based video artist Douglas Gordon (who made the Zinédine Zidane movie Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle). It’s the latest in a number of collaborations with experimental artists, including an operetta, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, with director Robert Wilson at the Berliner Ensemble last year.
We spoke to him at Sadler’s Wells, where he was rehearsing the London run of his opera Prima Donna the day before beginning his album tour.
It’s a momentous task to produce an opera. How did you do it?
I’ve no idea. Really, I’ve no idea! I worked hard. I just wanted those characters to exist. But also, with the death of my mother, and not wanting to think about her illness, it was sort of a joy to immerse myself in the opera because I could just totally focus on my art instead of what was happening around me.
Your latest album is very stripped back. Just you and the piano…
It was a deliberate decision, but it was also a natural reaction to all the huge projects I’ve been involved with over the last few years. It’s a good time to get back to basics and examine the bones of the structure that is my career. To make sure that everything’s solid and move on.
Who is “Lulu”?
Well, my Lulu is Louise Brooks from Pandora’s Box, the movie by Pabst. And any sort of mythic, Beatnik femme fatale who we all want to be, and also are very afraid of being. I’ve been obsessed with that character since I was really young. It was a persona I always wanted to be – this innocent, destructive beauty who spells disaster for the world without lifting a finger. But, of course, I usually ended up being the victim of such people.
Yeah. I spent a lot of time around that character when I was going out a lot and being crazy. Which was a lot of fun, but at some point I had to… you know, become a man. And stop being some 20s slapper girl! But that girl still exists within me – I still see her occasionally, in the corner.
You described Lulu somewhere as “this dark female energy”. Do you see this destructive – or self-destructive – thing as inherently female?
Well, I do see it as inherently female, but I mean the female within all of us. It’s this kind of life-giving, life-destroying force. And that connects to where we all come from, which is a female. Talking about this, I also think of the loss of my mother, you know? Because she was where I was from. And watching her dying… I was with her for about a month. And as time passed, she became more and more like a child. And eventually I had to take care of her, as if she was my own baby. Then, in the end, she was in the foetal position. So it was interesting, this rebirth she was experiencing – going back to where we all came from. That all adds to the female energy of the album.
Did that experience change you?
It changed me completely. I’m a completely different person. In an instant. The moment she was gone, I was an old man. Or a very, very little boy, depending on how you look at it.
What do you mean in the album title – by “all days are nights”?
That’s from the sonnet [#43]. It’s a line from Shakespeare. There are three of Shakespeare’s sonnets on this album. That one line is something that really stuck with me, since I worked on the project with Robert Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble. It encapsulates… God! Everything! Whether it’s theatre, where it’s daytime on the stage, while it’s nighttime outside. Or if it’s as with the sickness of my mother, where time means nothing and days become nights. Or Lulu, partying like it’s the nighttime during the day. It’s silly, this concept of time we have. It’s the first thing to go.
Are you such a big Shakespeare fan?
Oh yeah. I love his plays. But coming into contact with his sonnets: that really changed my life. And I wouldn’t even say those are his best works. And they’re just light years ahead – of anything that’s ever happened. And they change constantly. And every line is its own universe. I’d nominate him for best poet ever. Best songs ever! Best collections of poems… EVER!
You’re appearing at the Volksbühne. Are you sneaking a political current into your work?
Hahaha! Well, you know if I’m gonna bring up Lulu, and then do a show at the Volksbühne, that’s quite a double bill – that theatre and this album. It’s all taking place in Berlin. There are so many connections with that very space and that very character, I feel – at least in the subconscious of Germans. So it’ll be a nice match.
Lulu’s creator, Frank Wedekind, was very critical of social attitudes towards sex…
Well, I live in America, which is very, very different from Europe: there, sex has always been extremely political. You still get the puritanical ‘whiff’. And there’s this backlash to Obama in America. During the Bushyears, because it was so conservative, it wasn’t talked about that much. But you get a Democrat in office, and sex becomes the first big rallying call.
Douglas Gordon’s video for the tour shows your eye opening and closing, fading in and out. It’s quite strange. How did you arrive at that?
My boyfriend Johann Weissbrodt, who’s from Berlin, recommended Douglas. One of Douglas’s great qualities is to be able to strip a thing to its essentials. And that’s probably the most important quality for any artist. That’s also what this album is – my material stripped to its essentials. So we went with that image of the eye: I finish the show with this enormous eye in the background. It’s eerie. It correlates to so many aspects of my work and of Shakespeare’s work, and then the eye is such a prominent symbol in the world… And when you have it up there, 30 feet tall – it, well, it ties everything together.
On stage, it’s just you and the piano. Do you have a very strong relationship with your instrument?
Oh yeah… I have a deal with Steinway. They supply me with a gorgeous piano. For this tour, it’s got to be the same piano every night. Though, during the off-season, if I’m just doing a gig here and there, I’ll play pretty much anything.
So you’re taking the piano with you, from venue to venue, all over the world?
Yeah. I’m like Franz Liszt with my caravan! My piano caravan!
So your piano tuner’s working overtime…
Yeah. Actually, I should learn how to tune it myself. Maybe I’d save a little more money…
You have to think about that, even now?
Well, no, I don’t. But I should think about it more, because I really don’t that much. And it’s gotten me into trouble. But I’m a bit more sensible now that I have a German in my life.