Rufus Wainwright celebrates Shakespeare and Judy Garland, who rekindled his love for USA

Singer/songwriter’s new album features stage and screen stars reciting Shakespeare sonnets, and after recording a Garland tribute album, he’ll revive that homage in two Carnegie Hall concerts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 3:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 3:55pm

Singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright was introduced to William Shakespeare’s sonnets by his mother, the late Kate McGarrigle.

“It was after she got the inkling I was masturbating,” he recalls. “She very subtly said to me, ‘You know, Rufus, Shakespeare wrote about what you’re doing in your room,’” Wainwright says, citing Sonnet 129: “’The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action...’ I’m still dying for someone to tell me if she was right or not. But I think something’s going on there.”

On Wainwright’s new album, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, out on April 22 – the day before the acknowledged 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – the lines are recited by William Shatner. Carrie Fisher, Helena Bonham Carter and Welsh stage and screen veteran Siân Phillips appear on other tracks, as do Florence Welch, classical soprano Anna Prohaska and Wainwright’s sister and fellow musician Martha.

The album has roots in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a 2009 German-language stage production directed by Robert Wilson for the Berliner Ensemble, for which Wainwright composed music.

“It’s still playing in Europe,” says Wainwright, 42, over pasta at a favourite restaurant near his Manhattan apartment. He had spent a lot of time in Berlin – where he met his husband, arts administrator Jörn Weisbrodt – during a period of disenchantment precipitated by 2003’s invasion of Iraq.

“I actually contemplated leaving [the USA],” says Wainwright, who was born in the US but raised largely in McGarrigle’s native Canada. He found “a kernel of light and hope” in a live album by anotherfavourite artist he’s celebrating this year.

Listening to 1961’s Judy at Carnegie Hall, a recording of Judy Garland’s triumphant performance that year, “brought me back to a more optimistic and sophisticated period, and reminded me that I love this country”, says Wainwright – so much that he staged a pair of tribute concerts, documented on his own live album, Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall.

Album review: Rufus Wainwright's Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall

Wainwright will revive that homage, at the same venue, on June 16 and 17. “The first time I did the concerts, it was a way of getting Judy out of my system a little,” he says.

Living in Hollywood as an aspiring young artist, “I was somewhat possessed by her. I felt like I was in her territory, and I lived that decadent life for a while. I don’t feel like she inhabits me as much now, but I hope she comes and visits.”

Where American politics are concerned, Wainwright seems to have learned a similar pragmatism.

“I love Bernie [Sanders], and would vote for him passionately if he were the nominee for president. But I’m edging towards Hillary [Clinton]. She’s been wanting it for so long – and I do like some of her policies ... and I think her being a woman is a factor. A man searching for power is seen as heroic, where women are scheming [expletive].”

While the nation decides, Wainwright will be juggling other projects. He’s creating an opera, his second, for the Canadian Opera Company, focused on the Roman emperor Hadrian – a complicated fellow who “didn’t like monotheism, and really didn’t like circumcision”, Wainwright quips.

He’s also itching to return to the studio, with new songs.

“After doing opera, I yearn to go back to pop music,” Wainwright says. “I miss young people, I miss freedom of expression. Then I go back to pop and, after a while, I’m like, ‘This is all about marketing and youth and sex.’ The funny thing about the Shakespeare project is it’s half-classical, half-pop. So I’m in mid-leap, I guess.”

USA Today