The excellent Sodajerker team strike gold once again, with an interview with the ineffable baroque pop songwriting megastar Rufus Wainwright
aroque is a term that’s thrown around as loosely as a sail in a pacific wind, yet one that fits the ethos most songwriters work as well as a shoe two sizes too small; something forced over them to describe any propensity towards lushness, with little cause for the grace that comes with their flamboyance. In the case of Rufus Wainwright though the shoe is like a glass slipper and boy does it fit.
The son of celebrated folk songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, as well as being the brother of the much loved acoustic chanteuse Martha Wainwright, this member of Canadian music royalty is a special case in pop songwriting. It’s not every musician who has set music to Shakespearean sonnets, whose love of opera has seen him compose one acclaimed opus, with another due for 2018, and who has written a hit single with Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers. Rufus Wainwright, though, is not just any songwriter.
Having navigated the seedy music bars of New York, during the ‘nihilistic’ age of Jeff Buckley’s musical fate, with all the buoyancy of a pair of concrete boots, it was a piece of providence that provided Wainwright the wave to ride the journey from opera loving, piano player, to critically acclaimed megastar. Having failed in New York his father passed a demo of his songs to Van Dyke Parks. So impressed by Wainwright’s precocious talent was Parks, that he thrust the tape onto the desk of Dreamworks head honchos and announced ‘this kid’s inevitable’. His self-titled debut album followed in 1998, before Poses saw him battling his vices, something epitomised by the fans’ favourite Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk, while reaching No.1 on Billboard‘s Top Heatseekers Chart and securing the Juno Award for Best Alternative Album.
Poses was followed by the much loved Want One and Want Two LPs, before Wainwright released his most successful record to date, 2007s’ Release The Stars. A further two studio and three live albums have followed with the recently released greatest hits collection Vibrate: The Best Of Rufus Wainwright the perfect precursor to an upcoming US and European tour.
In what was nearly the ‘great lost Sodajerker episode’, with software issues nearly collapsing the recording process before it began, Wainwright explains that while he has a gift for a melody and is a “sucker” for chords, where songwriting is concerned, “lyrics are the bitch”…
It’s good time to talk to you, as you’ve just released Vibrate: The Best Of Rufus Wainwright. Is it a pretty brutal process having to select the songs for a Best Of?
“I gave up the selection process to Neil Tennant and my publicist Barbara Charone. I let them do the grunt work and came in towards the end and made some adjustments. It was a difficult process because you have to be unsparing in your selection. It was good though. The important thing for a best of is to select what the people want. It’s not so much about my opinion but the view of the public.”
We were really pleased to see World War III get a physical release for the first time
“I’m really happy about that too. When I wrote the song, with Guy Chambers on The Secrets Of The Pop Song, I wasn’t aware of there being a law concerning the BBC, because of there being public money involved. The law means that you can’t release and make money off of things involved with the BBC, so we couldn’t release it by law. But there’s a six month moratorium and now we can, so it’s coming out!”
Were you surprised when Guy told you about his ‘nothing over four minutes rule’, given that a lot of your music is quite expansive in length?
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with Guy, because I have chronic song fatigue syndrome – which means that I go on a bit. So it was nice to have Guy there to monitor that. What I will say is that in working with him I’ve gone completely the other way and I sometimes write shorter than he wants.”
Another of Guy’s collaborators is Robbie Williams and all three of you co-wrote Swings Both Ways, the title track of his album, which has been a big success. Was the three way songwriting collaboration a new experience?
“It was great. What was fun about it was that Robbie is hilarious. He’s like a little volcano that erupts every two minutes. He’s also very free with his associations. He’ll go on and on and on and a lot of its brilliant some of its ridiculous, but it’s like a constant lava flow, coming from his perky little hair do. I would have to interject occasionally with a well thought out, grammatically orchestrated, term. It worked really real. I seem to know when to interject with something substantial that he would really latch onto and enjoy. Whereas if we were both spurting out ideas at the same time then it would be the apocalypse! It was a nice juxtaposition, because I let him be his rambunctious self. He was the hottie, and I was haughty! Guy was perfect in the middle, he was the grease.”
You said on the programme that the co-writing process is usually like going to the dentist.
“The thing that’s unique and lovely about Guy is that he’s definitely ok about being in the background. When he tours with Robbie he’s just in the orchestra and it doesn’t seem like he needs his star turn, he knows when to sit back. So I still feel like the celebrity! But on the other hand it’s a two way street, because at the same moment you have to respect him and be open to what he has to say. Perhaps it’s more about writing with another artist who might be liable to decapitate me when I’m not looking!”
LYRICS ARE MORE IMPORTANT TO ME THAN THE MUSIC
Ultimately would you say that your best writing comes when you’re alone with a piano, is that where you feel most at home?
“For me the piano is a kind of divining rod, or sledgehammer. It’s a communication tool to either nurture or kill and that’s probably where I get the highest and the lowest. But my dad is a real guitar guy and I do play the instrument. I’m not particularly adept at it, but I enjoy banging away. That can come in really handy. There’s something about playing an instrument that you’re not totally proficient in that frees something up, it’s less wavy. But when I’m at the piano is when the dark magic happens!”
Do you ever write away from an instrument, when you’re just walking around?
“For me one thing that’s really essential is walking, the whole thing of getting into a rhythmic movement and visually zoning out on the world around you and being hypnotised by it. London’s the perfect town for that, because you go through all these strange, different universes and that city and then you get home and a song has been born. So I often write without an instrument.”
Could you specifically put down any of your songwriting attributes to your parents?
“I highly respect and admire my father’s music, his songwriting and his lyrics are incredible. But I think what most impressed me with him is his voice, he’s a truly acrobatic singer. But I would say that my mother’s lugubrious, mysterious, dark voyage through the pianistic lagoon is more what I tend to gravitate towards.”
Is there one part of the songwriting process that you consider to be the most important?
“Lyrics are more important to me than the music. A great melody is a great melody, there’s no way to quantify that, it’s just an immediate fact. Lyrics are more complicated and have varying degrees to them. Speaking of my family, with Leonard Cohen in there now [Cohen’s daughter Lorca is the mother of Rufus’ daughter Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen], it is interesting. I think I’ve written a few good turns of phrases and I’m very proud of what I’ve done. But Leonard is focused solely on his lyrics and then turned it into this whole other ball game. I’m just watching, from the sidelines and that’s fascinating to me. It’s not necessarily somewhere that I want to go but it’s nice to have that to emulate and to strive for.
“Maybe for me there are some other areas like orchestration, or the theatre, drama, where I am more into the ‘heavy lifting’ – so we all chose our path. But lyrics, in terms of songwriting, are the more sophisticated branch.”
You’re not afraid to use rhyme in lyrics
IT’S AN INTERESTING EXERCISE TO TRY AND WRITE A SONG WITHOUT ‘I’ OR ‘YOU’ IN THE SONG
“I’m old school in that way. One thing I’d like to do, which I think is a good exercise, even though I don’t do it a lot, is to not have ‘I’ or ‘You’ in the song. It’s an interesting exercise to try and write a song without ‘I’ or ‘You’.”
Many of your songs have great chord sequences
“I love chords. That’s one area where I feel definitely feel… well, dominant is a nice word when thinking about chords! But I’m a sucker for little shifts, chord-wise, which I do think is something that, while not lost, is not at the forefront of pop music right now, or even classical music. So I’m very happy to be in service to that art, because I do think that it’s under threat at times.”
So you consciously try and construct chord sequences that make surprising leaps and turns?
“Yeah, but it has to make sense. I don’t want anything to be arbitrary, to be complicated just for the sake of it. But using different sequences does differentiate me from a lot of people; from say my father, or Leonard Cohen. I use a lot of chords, whereas Leonard, my father and a lot of other songwriters, stick to a traditional structure, in terms of how a song is built. I’ve always treated a song much more like an aria. I like to get all weird.”
We know that you studied music formally for a while, would you say that you’re a technical musician?
“I went to quite a good conservatory in Montreal for about a year and a half, but I failed every course.”
So we wouldn’t find you reading the scores to operas?
“One of the great things that happened in music school is that when I was 13 or 14 I became obsessed with opera, which I’ve maintained. One of the big moments was listening to Verde’s Requiem, which is a great piece, and then when I went to music school at university we did it in an orchestra and I got to sing the piece and that to me was really what it was all about—it was a nice little book end to that experience.
“I don’t regret not totally pursuing the classical agenda and, in retrospect, I feel like I might have dodged a bullet there because, in my opinion, a lot of people who come in with that heavy duty, conservatory background get a little indoctrinated and have to fit into a particular historical slot. I don’t have those boundaries that a lot of the classical musicians have.
“I respect the classical musicians tremendously and don’t want to belittle what they do, because I rely on them a lot right now because, in terms of writing operas, I have to go to these orchestras and play my works. But I think having maintained my own personal view is also important for them to acknowledge and take from as well.”
Do you put pressure on yourself to come up with ideas and carve out the time to sit down and make that happen?
“Yeah I do. I’m writing an opera and that’s a lot of pressure. You have to write music for arguably 200 musicians, which is wild and insane pressure. But I thrive off of that. Whether it’s writing an opera, or having sung the Judy Garland show at Carnegie Hall, I thrive off the pressure.”
In Song Of You, you say there are many melodies to chose from. When you write, do you settle quite quickly on the melody, the structure, the lyrics or the chord sequence, or is it a process of endless choices that you have to make?
“I would say that the melody and the chord structure comes pretty quickly, lyrics are the bitch. I have to toy with the lyrics a little bit more. There was a time when I would write certain songs where I would spend years on a piece. Now that’s transferred into my opera work where I have to have that same kind of sensibility. I would say that the best songs are the ones where it comes the quickest and that’s always been the case. The thing I love spending time on the most now though is arrangements, especially with my mother’s songs. I love going through her material and writing these very complex piano frames, I’m enjoying working on other people’s music as well—believe it or not.”
Vibrate… is now out and you have a big tour planned.
“It’s fairly big, two/three months. I’m focusing mostly on Europe and some of the US. I’m not going out on a really big tour because I have some other projects I’m working on and I have to be a good father and a good husband—‘the times they are a changing’.”
With over 50 episodes under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 55-minute interview with Rufus Wainwright – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.