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An Intimate Conversation With Rufus Wainwright

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I feel as if I have grown up with Rufus Wainwright. Although we are not exactly of the same generation, it is through his willingness to portray his life and emotions in music and on stage, that I have benefited, re-lived certain emotions and gone with him on his journeys so well expressed over the years. Affectionately dubbed, "the best songwriter on the planet" by Sir Elton John, it is hard to take issue with this if you have followed Rufus from his songs "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," "Beautiful Child," and "Go or Go Ahead" to his opera, Prima Donna, his original music for choreographer Stephen Petronio's Bloom, and his celebrated recreation of Judy Garland's fabled concert at Carnegie Hall. Through his classical underpinnings and witty, emotional forays at every stage of his life, it is hard not to feel as if one is witnessing a beautiful peacock spread its full glory.

Intelligent, raw, uncontrived emotion in life is rare and in art, it is even more rare.

Thus, it was with particular heartfelt admiration that I was able to sit down for a telephone conversation with Monsieur Rufus and chat about his newest oeuvre, Out of the Game, at the onset of his world tour promoting the same.

The past few years have been tumultuous for Mr. Wainwright. The death of one's mother, getting married and having a baby are certain to affect even the most stoic of artists. I asked Rufus if the relatively recent death of his mother, the renowned singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, had forced an air of acceptance of life on life's terms upon this noted free-spirit. "It wasn't just acceptance of the cycle of life and death, but the cognitive reinforcement for me of the brevity of life. My mother had so much life unfinished, so many dreams yet to experience. If anything, I feel this call to action, this desire to be pro-active; to pull myself up by the bootstraps and get to the next step [in my music]."

When asked about how the birth of his daughter has affected his songwriting he mentioned that he has an unusual way of writing, and referred back to his classical training. "I draw from many genres: country, jazz, classical. More than anything, I just want to get better as I get older. It isn't always the case with pop music; but, it is often the case with classical music and I go for that ideal." He then referenced his Father, Loudon Wainwright III, whom he noted is singing better than he ever has at age 65.

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Photo credits by Barry J. Holmes and Alex Lake

For me, listening to Rufus Wainwright's voice and his incredible range, often during difficult vocal arrangements, is like bathing in chocolate velvet. I asked him what he does to exercise and keep his voice in good shape. No surprise: he goes to extremes. "The best way to keep my voice in shape is experience. I go to the extremes in work and then the extremes in rest."

For many artists, they keep a notebook with them at all times, jotting down every experience, every thought, every notion. Rufus commented that he needs to be inspired to write songs, and that he finds inspiration from the real world, either through collaboration with other artists and genres or from his own personal experiences day to day. Every thing from deciding to grow his hair long to his personal life is fair game.

Since he plays so much of his life out on stage, I asked if he sees his life as musical theater. To this he replied, "Whose life isn't? Some performers keep their creative life separate from their personal life; but, I am the same person throughout: from the sidewalk to the stage, there is no distinction." In addition, he noted, "It's genetic, a family tradition."

Rufus kicked off his world tour of Out of the Game on the July 24th and will travel through the Eastern and Midwestern U.S., stopping in major hubs like Chicago on August 8, before heading to Australia. Out of the Game is decidedly a pop CD and its fun to trip back to the 70s, as he and producer Mark Ronson do on this album. Yet, there is still much classic Rufus here: compelling and honest lyrics ( yes, its a pop album, but it is not insipid as some pop can be), challenging vocal acrobatics and interesting musical arrangements. I have many favorite tracks on the CD, particularly, "Respectable Dive," which beautifully captures the intricacies and trickiness of relationships and "Sometimes You Need", which, for me, sings to the things which miraculously and unexpectedly pull us through difficult times. I was surprised to learn that Rufus' favorite is a different track. The lead track, "Out of the Game," is really what has stayed with him. "It is a much more complex song than people realize."

The mark of a great artist is one who continues to explore and push their creative limits, rather than stay with one sound or style that they know will sell. Once again, with Out of the Game, Rufus is exploring new territory. If you haven't already seen Rufus perform live, catch a more pop-inspired sound on this tour accompanied by the melodies and dreamy vocals fit for adult lullabies that are his signature. Witness peacock feathers in bloom, or, if the tour unfortunately can't be an option, keystroke your way to itunes for the newest, intimate unfolding and manifestation of Rufus Wainwright.

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Photo credit: Tina Tyrell