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Interview: Rufus Wainwright

The singer-songwriter waxes about nostalgia, the process of crafting a compilation album and working on operas

Photo: Alex Lake

You name it, he’s probably done it. From seven studio albums and film soundtracks to theatre productions and opera pieces, Rufus Wainwright has stamped his name on a variety of songwriting projects. Growing up in a musical family, the Canadian composer released his debut self-titled album in 1998 to critical acclaim. He went on to collaborate with ensembles, dance choreographers and other artists, as well as score tracks for movies like Brokeback Mountain, Moulin Rouge and Shrek.

Before Wainwright brings his best tunes to town in a one-night-only gig at the Esplanade, we cornered the busy man to chat about his decades-long career.

‘There's something about genetic harmonies that relate directly to the cosmos’

You’re here to play your greatest hits. Does each song recall a specific memory?

Very much so. Each album is filled with the emotion that represented me at a time in my life. I always write about what's going on in my world. My albums are like picture books and each song is a shot of a particular moment, many of them very dramatic.

From your wide-ranging repertoire, is there a stand out track you’re proudest of?

I can't say that I’m most proud of a track from an album, but I do like some songs dearly. Certain songs have really served me well over the years and don't seem to get old. If I had to choose one, if it were a life or death decision, I guess I would have to pick ‘Poses’. That song always gets me.

Has releasing Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright made you more retrospective, thinking about your musical journey?

I'm writing an opera at this moment – it will be my second! So I'm very much involved in that extreme battle for musical strength and power with that very intense and romantic form, opera. No time to be too retrospective or thoughtful. I just have to keep writing notes. Music and words!

How did you pick out which songs to include in the compilation album?

Neil Tennant and my friend and publicist, Barbara [Charone], chose the tracks originally. They're very big fans of mine – I'm a lucky guy! I was curious what other people would select because I tend to go for what's more esoteric. Of course, at the end when it came time to actually finish the album, I had the last word and several songs were added or taken away. But it started with other people's opinions.

Do you think coming from a musical background helped or hindered you?

Martha, my sister, and I were very competitive growing up. Even my mother and I are. And, of course, my father. That's a little more traditional: the father and son thing. On a personal level it was very difficult, but for the music it was a fabulous way to sharpen the swords.

What’s been the most rewarding experience you’ve had in your career?

It’s always such a thrill to sing with my family – with my mother, before she died, and my sisters and father. There's something about genetic harmonies that relate directly to the cosmos.

Do you get into different mindsets for various types of songwriting?

I get into two different mindsets: songwriting and opera. The former is about my life and what I've experienced on this bizarre planet, and the latter is about drama and the characters I'm trying to give birth to. Of course, at the end of the day they often end up mirroring each other, and when you step back there are a lot of similarities between the two.

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