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Exclusive interview: Rufus Wainwright and what the world gives and takes back

Rufus Wainwright is an innovative singer/songwriter who’s wrapping up an 18-month world tour with three concerts here in Western Washington.

The man Elton John calls “the greatest songwriter on the planet,” is an incredibly talented artist who crosses all sorts of musical genres – pop, folk, art songs, songs for dance, theatre and the movies – he’s even written an opera.

I rediscovered Rufus Wainwright after I watched him sing as a part of a beautiful tribute concert held in honor of his mother, the great folksinger Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. That concert was preserved in a moving documentary film called “Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You.”

“Certainly, it was the hardest thing I had to do – was to go through that period and mourn for her loss. But on the other hand, she left Martha (my sister) and I with such a legacy of music and lyrics and it was easy to be transported through it, through that vehicle of song,” said Wainwright. “A lot of people ask me if doing music is therapeutic, and I’m very quick to say, ‘No, it’s not therapeutic at all.’ But I would say that it does get you through it faster. It’s kind of high speed emotions.”

Just as he wrote songs about his mother, he’s now writing songs to and for his daughter Viva.

“My daughter was born about a year after my mother passed away and once again, I can only thank the spheres, for really allowing me to continue on with life and have to sort of pick up the pieces and look forward into the future with my daughter’s upbringing ahead. The world taketh and the world giveth,” he said.

Wainwright recently turned 40 and finds himself accepting life with more and more equanimity, even though at times, he wishes Elton John hadn’t saddled him with title “greatest songwriter on the planet.”

“I don’t know, there are a lot of things in my life right now that I’ve resigned to accepting whether it’s that or singing “Hallelujah,” all the time, or being thought of as this egotistical maniac, which I’m really not, but everyone seems to think that sometimes,” said Wainwright.
“But really just sort of have to relax and let it go and just be. So it’s fine.”

“You’re happily resigned to your fate?” I asked.

“Yes, being resigned to Elton John calling you the best songwriter on the planet is not such a bad situation.”

I got a chance to see him in concert last night, Wainwright was in a reflective mood when I talked to him. He was good friends with Lou Reed, the indie rocker who just died Sunday at the age of 71.

“I was talking to some friends who were with him when he passed, and you know he was on a lawn chair by the pool,” he said. “He was such an inspirational figure – in terms of how he lived his life as a human being. It’s such a great lesson, because at the end of the day you just have to be a good person. Forget about the songs, forget about the musicals, the movies, it’s really about being a good person – and he did that, which is wonderful.”

I added, “Professionally, I think he’s a good role model for you.”

“Listening to his old records yesterday […] you can’t help but think, this could have been done today, easily,” said Wainwright. “Especially here in Seattle, if you think of grunge and Nirvana – there’s such a direct correlation.”

At last night’s concert, Wainwright dedicated one of his most beautiful songs, “Who Are You New York?” to Lou Reed, a man who got it right.

“The truth is,” said Wainwright, “in the end, you hope you die by the pool.”

Rufus Wainwright played at the Edmonds Center for the Arts last night and has gigs in Olympia and Tacoma Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

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