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Rufus Wainwright's Operatic Period: 'Stars'


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel,


And I'm Rebecca Roberts.

Rufus Wainwright does not shy away from spectacle. Despite his folk music parents, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright's music has a flair for the grand and theatrical. But when he decided to produce an album himself, he started looking for a leaner sound. He went to Berlin, hoping, perhaps, for a little dramatic asceticism to rub off. Instead, he came up with this.

(Soundbite of song, "Do I Disappoint You")

Mr. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (Musician): (Singing) Sensational. I'm gonna smash your bloody skull. 'Cause, baby, no, you can't see inside. No, baby, no, you can't see my soul.

ROBERTS: Rufus Wainwright joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome.


ROBERTS: So where did this big epic sound come from?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, it was basically not my fault. Once again, we must blame Germany, because I went there really expecting to have the sort of underground electro-clash paired-down experience with young people with strange haircuts and stuff and tin can noises. But once I actually arrived in the city and with staying with my boyfriend, Jorn, who live in Berlin at the time, I was overwhelmed by this German romanticism that has really survived wars and atrocities but still sort of exist.

ROBERTS: Well, there's these soaring harmonies, really lush orchestration - is there anything you dismiss as too much, too over-stuffed?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: No. I would say that on first listen, perhaps it does, you know, seem a bit overbearing. But on the other hand, everything is really meant to be there. And most people find that when they hear my album, within two or three tries, they'll start to get it. And that's just - that's the style of listening that I like myself. I'm a big opera fan mainly. And really, to get into an opera, you can't kind of hit a cold. You got to let it live with you for a bit.

ROBERTS: What are your favorite operas?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: By nature, I'm a Verdian. I'm a big "Othello" fan and "Traviata," that stuff. But recently, I've become a serious Wagnerian…

ROBERTS: Really?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: …especially after being in Germany and I went to Baruth and saw "Parsifal." I'm actually been hanging out a tiny bit with the Wagner family. You think my family is a saga?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: The Wagners make you look…

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Getting a little of perspective there.

ROBERTS: On the album "Release The Stars," one of the other things you realize after a couple of listenings is this epic orchestration is accompanying raw, sometimes even sort of harsh lyrics.


ROBERTS: Do you see a conflict there?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: No. I mean, I think the relationship is when lyrics and music always has to have some kind of friction. Both elements are so powerful in themselves that if one is overshadowing the other, it just doesn't make a complete artwork. In fact, I would even argue that lyrics are more important and that words - the words should mean more than your music.

(Soundbite of song, "Going to a Town")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I'm going to a town that has already been burned down. I'm going to a place that's already been disgraced. I'm going see some folks who have already been let down. I'm so tired of America.

ROBERTS: I read that this was one of those songs that occasionally come to artist in a flash.


ROBERTS: That you wrote it in a hurry.


ROBERTS: And it certainly starts sort of like someone kind of chilling around on the piano, though


ROBERTS: But it gets - it gets picked…

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. Yeah. No. It flowers as well, a big flower of disappointment.

ROBERTS: When you're writing it, do you hear the orchestration in your head?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: A little bit. I mean, certainly with "Do I Disappoint You," that first song, I heard a lot of that. But now, I tend to be very, very open minded when I go into the studio, and I allow a lot of musicians to sort of fox around for a bit and then, you know, when I hear something like a thread, I'll jump on it like a panther. But it is all in there. I mean, I'm a strong believer, whether it's lyrics, or orchestration, or painting, or whatever that it's all already finish. It's been created and that the job of the artist is to just sort of summon it.

(Soundbite of song, "Going to a Town")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Tell me do you really think you go to hell for having loved? Tell me and not for thinking every thing that you've done is good, I really need to know. After soaking the body of Jesus Christ in blood. I'm so tired of America.

ROBERTS: This is one of the songs with very dark lyrics.


ROBERTS: What does it mean? What are you tired of?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I mean, as I said before, I never intended to write this song. I, in no way, sat down and said I'm going to now write an anti-American, political manifesto. I had 10 minutes to spare for dinner and I sat down and five minutes later, this - it was written. It arrived.

I guess what I'm trying to say is there is a general fatigue worldwide over the Bush years. We desperately have to start picking up the pieces. But in order to do that, we have to admit a certain amount of defeat. It's - we're in the grieving process right now. I'm just trying to, you know, move the process along for all of us, and when I mean all of us, I don't only mean America, I mean the world.

(Soundbite of song, "Going to a Town")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I got a life to lead. I got a soul to feed.

ROBERTS: As your fan base grows - this CD is doing very well.


ROBERTS: You're getting better known, has your sense of what political messages or sort of how much your audience can handle evolved?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I mean, I just - I think the nature of who I am: A. Being gay, and B. Being willing to talk about issues on which a lot of artists are just not. They just want to talk about, you know, their heels. But just those two factors throw me into that arena whether I like it or not.

But that being said, I don't - I think when you come to see one of my shows, or you listen to one of my albums, it is about the music. And you can always, you know, flip to the next track and usually it's just going to be about some park somewhere. I just like to sing about interesting things, and politics happens to be one of them.

ROBERTS: At the risk of asking you about your heels, tell me about the lederhosen. I'm so so curious about the lederhosen.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I can't let the heels go because that's the surprise of the show. But, yeah - no, I do wear lederhosen in my show. I had this amazing pair made where I had to actually go to Austria three times, climb a mountain, and have fittings with a crusty old German guy - Austrian guy, and…

ROBERTS: That's an opera right there.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, you know, it's the maestro singer Von Rufus Ruthenberg(ph). And I wear them in the show and stuff. They're very, very sexy.

ROBERTS: Rufus Wainwright, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Rufus Wainwright and his lederhosen, perform live in New York City tomorrow night. To hear that show as it happens, go to

(Soundbite of song, "Tiergarten")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Won't you walk me through the Tiergarten? Won't you walk me through it all, darling? Doesn't matter if it is raining. Won't you walk me through it all?

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.