William Shakespeare may be best known as a playwright, but his collection of sonnets – some 154 altogether – were every bit as significant as the plays that made his name in the Elizabethan theatre era.
Sonnets adhere to a rigid formation – 14 lines, no more and no less and stick slavishly to the iambic pentameter that still can make anyone who struggled their way through English Lit classes wince with discomfort. In fourteen lines, no matter how oblique or shrouded the message might be, Shakespeare had to get that message delivered with brevity, whereas with a play he had plenty of time for the narrative to develop. In modern parlance, the sonnets were comparatively pithy tweets whereas his plays represented long-form blog posts.
Writers, actors, musicians and artists have drawn huge inspiration from Shakespeare’s sonnets over the four centuries that have elapsed since Shakespeare slipped off his Tudor ruff and put down the quill for good. Rufus Wainwright is one. For almost 15 years, those pesky sonnets have been like an on-off and decidedly unrequited romance, weaving their way in and out of his unique take on pop music. Finally, in a year that marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Wainwright has decided to stop seeing his relationship with the sonnets as a mere dalliance and has now crafted a whole album built around nine of the poems, ‘Take All My Loves’. And, like most things Wainwright has done, it isn't necessarily what you might expect.
“The sonnets are a wonderful artistic punching bag,” laughs Wainwright. It's a laugh every bit as distinctive as his singing voice, a sort of nasal laugh somewhere between nervousness and complete surrender. “You can keep swiping at the sonnets, and there's always a push-back. They're pretty sturdy.”
And he would know. Wainwright’s realisation of the sonnets as musical statements first began in 2002 when he contributed an arrangement of #29, ‘When, In Disgrace With Fortune And Men's Eyes’, to a RADA benefit album that also featured Alan Rickman, Juliet Stevenson, Kenneth Branagh and plenty more thespian royalty. In 2009, he was asked by Robert Wilson to adapt three of the poems for part of a typically extravagant show and went on to perform those adaptations again with the prestigious Berlin Ensemble. Three sonnets were given piano arrangements by Wainwright for his haunting ‘All Days Are Nights’ record from the following year album. The album was ostensibly a personal tribute of sorts to his late mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, but the title was taken from #43, ‘When Most I Wink’, a new arrangement of which features on ‘Take All My Loves’.
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Thematically, Shakespeare’s sonnets covered a lot of ground, but they are most profoundly connected to the old staple notions of love and romance, both of which have similarly been staples – if sometimes obliquely expressed – of Wainwright's own body of work, which has been dubbed ‘baroque pop’, whatever that means. His relationship with Shakespeare’s works, however, rose out of loving one thing a little too much – himself.
“At that point I was masturbating too much as a teenager,” he admits, with typical candour. “My mother was getting a little annoyed with me being in my room all the time, so she told me at one point that Shakespeare wrote about what I was doing. She always claimed that the line ‘the expense of spirit and the waste of shame’ from sonnet 129 was about masturbation. I think she was trying to relate it to me, embarrassingly so, in terms of my wasted teenage years. So there was that. But I think when Shakespeare really clicked was actually in London. I would visit my father every summer when he was living in West Hampstead, and one year when I was around twelve or thirteen he brought my sister Martha and I to see ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ at Regent’s Park, and that's when the shift really occurred.”
As an album, ‘Take All My Loves’ owes a debt to Wainwright's most recent non-pop artistic endeavour, his first opera, ‘Prima Donna’. Throughout his pop career, Wainwright's albums have embraced classical music wholeheartedly, reflecting a deep-rooted love of both opera and orchestral music that extends further back even than his affection for the work of Shakespeare. In 2015 the venerable classical label Deutsche Grammophon issued a sumptuous recording of ‘Prima Donna’, partially financed by a fan crowdfunding initiative. “It all happened serendipitously,” reflects Wainwright on the development of ‘Take All My Loves’. “I've of course been a huge fan of Deutsche Grammophon for many, many years – I became an opera fanatic at about 13 – so that label has always been pretty iconic for me. Initially I just wanted them to release my first opera, which they eventually did, but they also wanted a little piece of pop Rufus in exchange. I think the project is worthy on its own, with a real bona fide 50:50 split between classical and pop on one album. That's very, very rare and I think we pulled it off.”
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…it was like having a bit of ginger before the next piece of sushi. It cleansed the palate.
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‘Prima Donna’ being released by Deutsche Grammophon wasn’t the only influence on what became Wainwright's Shakespeare project. “Part of this project was actually executed during the Prima Donna sessions,” he explains. “We took around ten days to record Prima Donna and one of those days we did the sonnets with Anna Prohaska at Maida Vale; it's the same orchestra and the same conductor, Jayce Ogren. It was a fabulous experience because we had been working so hard on the opera with the orchestra and the cast, and so to have that one day, especially in England, to suddenly turn to the sonnets and do something completely different… it was like having a bit of ginger before the next piece of sushi. It cleansed the palate.”
‘Take All My Loves’ is a curiosity of an album. Half of the album finds Wainwright applying his unique pop nous to the songs, collaborating with the likes of Florence Welch and sister Martha Wainwright to deliver some of his most accessible music to date; elsewhere on the album he dives headlong into the classical genre, with soprano Prohaska’s solos and the lush orchestration of Ogren pitting Shakespeare's words against Wainwright’s compositional skills.
Something about the task of setting the sonnets to music, in spite of the number of times Wainwright has done just that, seems a particularly difficult task. Notwithstanding the fact that the meter is a bitch to deal with, there's Shakespeare’s unique way of hammering words together to get them to fit. Rufus Wainwright, who is remarkably assured about the process, didn't find it that much of a problem.
“I didn't find it challenging at all,” he admits, “but only because I was completely subservient in the process. I mean, I really felt that the only way to get ahead was to go absolutely instinctual, so oftentimes I would just read the sonnets and just hum tunes with the words. I've become fairly adept at pushing out a good melody and knowing when somethings is working or not, on a kind of molecular level. I was able to do that with the sonnets. It came quite quickly but I think that's because I made no pretences in terms of who was the bigger genius.”
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But, somehow, these other people have accepted me and find me amusing…
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If a broad split between pop Rufus and classical Rufus wasn't enough, the balance of ‘Take All My Loves’ is filled with straight readings of the sonnets by a thespian contingent including Siân Phillips and Peter Eyre, not dissimilar to the RADA album from 2002 that started Wainwright’s Shakespeare journey. Most surprising, perhaps, is managing to get both Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) to deliver readings, making ‘Take All My Loves’ something of an improbable wet dream for sci-fi fans and the male characters from ‘Big Bang Theory’. Over the years the Wainwright clan have adroitly drawn on a wellspring of musical contacts, friends and relations, making for one of music's most connected families, but the collaborations on ‘Take All My Loves’ take that to a new level.
“I've always been game, you know, for anything,” says Wainwright with a theatrical sigh. “What that translates to is, you know, ‘So and so is having a party – lets go!’ Or ‘Let's try and visit that film set!’ Or ‘Let's walk over to that table at that restaurant and fawn over that movie star!’. I'm that type of person. But, somehow, these other people have accepted me and find me amusing, and now it's a bit of pay-off for all that annoying insistence to get myself into this nightclub. I'm happy that it translated into something concrete eventually and not just me looking like some attention-seeking brat!”
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I am ruled by a kind of duality…
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Recent forays into opera writing seemed to suggest that Wainwright was done with pop music completely. The title of his last album proper, the 2012 Mark Ronson-produced ‘Out Of The Game’ sounded as if he was moving on from the songwriting that has made his output since 1998’s eponymous record so intriguing. Wainwright laughs at the notion.
“You got that completely wrong,” he chuckles at my error. “There was a tongue in cheek quality to that statement, which a lot of people took literally. It’s understandable, because I went on to do more opera stuff. Maybe I should have been a little more basic and truthful, but I still love pop music and it'll always be my bread and butter.” As if to underline the point, ‘Take All My Loves’ reunites Wainwright with producer Marius de Vries, who oversaw the ‘Want’ double album from 2003 / 4, perhaps the definitive pop statement in Wainwright's career, and the songs on ‘Take All My Loves’ that find Wainwright's own voice coming to the fore could well have appeared on those seminal ‘Want’ LPs. All told, Rufus Wainwright has come a long way in a relatively short space of time. For a while, upon releasing a new album, Wainwright would humbly proclaim that he was just an honest singer looking to make a little money. That notion, when contrasted with an artist now straddling the seemingly incompatible worlds of pop and classical, seems somewhat naïve now; even more so when you consider that Wainwright seems to have been accepted by both establishments without any of the po-faced attitudes that normally come when a pop artist tries to go all serious or vice versa.
Wainwright pauses, reflecting on where he's come from and the point he's reached, almost as if he's pinching himself to see if this is really true. “I wouldn't say it's an affliction necessarily, but I definitely have some sort of condition where I am ruled by a kind of duality,” is his measured, considered response. “On the one hand I want to be on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’, and enjoy the trappings of fame and wealth and power. That's constantly under the surface. But on the other hand, there's my voice and my artistic sensibilities, my high reach towards that which is completely unpopular, and un-current and unusual – it's that weird dichotomy that I guess keeps me afloat but it also means there's water in the hull!”
“I think at the end of the day it's great, because it does temper the ravenous attention that I need. If you're going to do operas and you are going to work with Robert Wilson or sing Judy Garland songs, you have to be open and willing and you have to share with people. You can't do it on your own. It's about keeping balance.”
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'Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets' is out now.
Words: Mat Smith / @mjasmith