“A Real, Real Gift” Rufus Wainwright Hits The Road

Up close with the songwriter as he kicks off his UK tour...

Rufus Wainwright begins a UK tour in Edinburgh on Saturday (October 9th).

His most recent albums – ‘Unfollow The Rules’ (2020) and last month’s live companion ‘Unfollow The Rules – The Paramour Sessions’ – showed an artist getting comfortable with maturity, parenthood and mortality. Wainwright will follow ‘The Paramour Sessions’ with a new live album on November 26th.

Recorded on tour in 2017, ‘Rufus Wainwright And Amsterdam Sinfonietta Live’ captures the singer-songwriter fronting the esteemed Amsterdam orchestra, delivering stirring versions of his own songs, plus classical pieces and songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Irving Berlin.

Ahead of flying to the UK for the tour, Clash spoke to Wainwright about life on the road… and root vegetables.

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It's good to be back out on tour, pounding the pavement, as they say. I've done quite a few international shows, solo, since the pandemic. Last summer I did some shows in Spain and Germany and places like that, but coming over to promote a new album with a band, we are we are entering into a new era!

Some people are just not ready to go to shows just yet, and I completely understand that. My audiences tend to be quite educated and self-preserving. So, I have been hit by that, but the ones who do come are just so excited to be there and really, really dedicated to the full throttle experience. It's an interesting dichotomy, because on one hand, you know, you don't have as many people coming, but those who are there are making up for that. So, all in all, it's very positive, but it's still a process of coming back. I was just touring the United States, and I was in some very – how can I say this? – some very unique spots in the middle of the country that are pretty turbulent at the moment with this civil strife that's going on in the United States. People were so appreciative to just have a moment to let go and think of music and not worry about politics or disease or environmental catastrophe. It's very intense, the whole thing.

This tour is specifically to promote two new albums both with a lot of the same songs. The first one is ‘Unfollow The Rules’, which was released last year, and then there's ‘Unfollow The Rules – The Paramour Sessions’, which is a live rendition of a lot of the pieces. We're working with that group of songs and you'll hear every one of them, but there's also songs from other side projects. I've done the music for documentary that I'm going to sing a song from, and then people do want their old standards as well. You’ve got to give the folks what they need! It's a mixed bag, but it's a very, very beautiful mixed bag.

I have found, in my 40s , that being physically active is really essential. It’s essential for both your body and also your mind. I have a trainer on the road, and we work out pretty much every day. He’s a very cool, very handsome, straight guy. My husband is happy about that.

I’m playing the London Palladium on the UK tour. I always loved London and coming back to the Palladium is a big deal for me because I did some famous shows there when I when I did the Judy Garland concerts almost 20 years ago. Manchester does mean a lot, as well, because that's where my first opera, ‘Prima Donna’, premiered. I actually lived for a while near Manchester, more in Yorkshire I guess, in a tiny town called Marsden. That’s where I composed a lot of my opera. I think that part of the country is and also where the Wainwrights are from, apparently. There's something about the Manchester and Leeds area that, genetically and spiritually, I seem to be connected to. Edinburgh I adore but that's more, I think, for my romantic sensibilities. I'm a die-hard romantic, and Edinburgh is arguably the Jerusalem for romantics.

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I am incredibly curious about the places that I play. Yes, there are certain times when I'm just too tired to to get out of the hotel room and I just want to watch CNN and eat popcorn, but mostly I like to to explore a bit. For instance, I mean, Birmingham is a nice town. I remember being there once and just being like, “Well, I'm gonna see what's here,” and I discovered all these amazing Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the museum there. I do try to immerse myself somewhat in the in the local colour and that is oftentimes a real, real gift, especially when you're in some of the more unknown places.

I couldn’t live without radishes on tour. I need radishes backstage, for some reason. I have a weakness for radishes. They're very healthy, but also they they're good for singing. They kind of burn your throat a little bit, and that seems to help. I also need my iPhone, which I compose with a lot. I sing a lot of melodies into the recorder. But radishes are definitely essential.

I’m about to release a live album with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, which was recorded in 2017. They came to me years ago and we had a wonderful experience going out on tour, so we're just repeating that process once again. It's a very unique series of concerts because because it's all in one area – Holland and parts of Belgium and a bit of Germany. It's all within a close range of Amsterdam, so I can sort of centre myself in Amsterdam, and then shoot off to do each show. It's easier on the back, shall we say. Orchestras are very well funded, on the continent. The arts are very prized, so let's just say that we all do well, in the end, and I don't have to pay 30 string players myself!  

Performing with an orchestra is a magical experience. You have to really listen to different parts of the orchestra and really be in tune with them. I equate it to being like a translator who works at the UN who hears what they're saying and translates it at the same time, which has always fascinated me. And that's the same with an orchestra: you have to listen to the orchestra as you sing with it, and have a dialogue with the orchestra at the same time as they're having a dialogue with the audience. It has different many levels. You have to sing with instruments that aren't necessarily at the top of the arrangement. It means that have to be more in tune with some of the some of the harmonies as opposed to the leading lines.

I always consider myself incredibly lucky and incredibly fortunate. I have to constantly remind myself that there's at least five million behind me that would kill to be able to do shows on the scale that I do them, all over the world. I'm not a massive superstar, but the amount of singer-songwriters who would just love to be able to fill a room in general is huge, and so I always consider it a privilege. The travel, though difficult on the body and exhausting – something that I have to be careful of, now that I'm a little bit older – is still just such a blessing, and I have to always look at it in that way, because there's just so many people who would love to be in my shoes.

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‘Rufus Wainwright And Amsterdam Sinfonietta Live’ will be released on November 26th.

Catch Rufus Wainwright at the following shows:

9 Edinburgh Usher Hall
10 Manchester Bridgewater Hall
12 Sheffield City Hall
13 York Barbican
15 Cambridge The Corn Exchange
17 Southend-on-Sea Leas Cliffs Pavilion
19 London The London Palladium
20 Brighton Dome

Words: Mat Smith

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