Rufus Wainwright reconnects with his roots

Rufus Wainwright. Photograph by Matthew Welch.

Written by Gregg Shapiro

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s Hudson Valley roots run deep.

His father, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (of “Dead Skunk” fame), grew up in Bedford. Rufus’ mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, was also a singer-songwriter and one half of the acclaimed Canadian musical duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle (of “Heart Like a Wheel” renown). 

That musical tree has sprouted a new branch:  Wainwright, his husband and Lorca Cohen (daughter of the late Leonard) are parents of a daughter, Viva. In addition  to nurturing this talented family tree, Wainwright has received praise and earned a devoted following for his pop music studio recordings, concert appearances and operas. For his most recent album, 2016’s “Take All My Loves” (Deutsche Grammophon), Wainwright set nine Shakespeare sonnets to music.

Here he discusses his upcoming gig at Tarrytown Music Hall:

We know there’s no way of knowing, but what do you think the Bard would have thought of your “Take All My Loves” album?

(Laughs) “There really is no way of knowing. We don’t even know if he’s a he for that matter. There’s so little that’s understood about him as a person. What I would say is that I think he would be intrigued by the project, only because within his play, and within the sonnets, there’s such a variety of atmosphere. Whether it’s comedy or tragedy or hatred or love, there’s such a wide range of emotions. I think that in my album there’s such a wide range of musical styles. He would have at least liked one of the songs, because I think they’re all so different. For him to dismiss the whole thing would be impossible.”

What was involved in the process of selecting performing collaborators for the project, including Helena Bonham Carter, Florence Welch and William Shatner?

“It was all very different. Florence Welch was a longtime candidate that we had to hunt down and carve out space with, because she is very occupied. In the end, she was incredibly gracious and it was wonderful working with her. Some of the other people — like Helena Bonham Carter and Carrie Fisher, who is sadly departed — they’re friends of mine and they were either in London or L.A. when I was making the record. I casually called them up and asked them if they wanted to pop over to the studio. Oftentimes we went over to see them as well. A lot of the people who recited poems were just around, which is definitely a sign of the glamorous life that I lead (laughs).”

Speaking of glamour, we wonder if you have any interest in writing a movie musical?

“Oh, yes. I’ve harbored that dream for arguably 35 years, since I was a kid and got into Judy Garland movies and Gene Kelly and stuff like that.”

Is there one in the works?

“Certainly now that ‘La La Land’ did so well and we’re entering a possible wave of movie musicals, there’s definitely been a lot of interest. I’d be a fool not to embark on that kind of project, considering my music and how theatrical it is.”

The current challenging political environment makes me think of your song “Going to a Town,” which I find to be one of your most political compositions. Are you finding inspirations for more such songs in the age of Trump?  

“Let me just say that I’m writing an opera now about the Emperor Hadrian. There are certain songs that I’ve written that relate to the age of Trump, some of which I’d like to release as soon as possible to get them out there and have people helped by them. But, in terms of writing the opera, what’s going on now is more akin to an operatic tale. It’s so dramatic and frightening and overbearing. It’s definitely hooking into all of my artistic pursuits. It’s scary, but on the other hand, inspiring.”

In addition to the opera, what other current or upcoming projects are you most excited about?

They’re doing my first opera, ‘Prima Donna,’ in Paris in June. That’s a triumph for me. The opera is in French and takes place in Paris, so that will be a real homecoming of sorts. I’m also still working a lot with my sisters, singing with them whenever I can, doing a lot of family music. There’s always something going on.”

Rufus Wainwright performs at 8 p.m. April 20 at Tarrytown Music Hall. Tickets range from $38 to $78. For more, visit tarrytownmusichall.org.

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