“A younger me would be horrified”: Rufus Wainwright on returning to his parents’ genre with his new album, Folkocracy
The singer-songwriter discusses his collab with Chaka Khan, why his record is both Grammy bait and a cosmic necessity, and what he misses most about Toronto
Rufus Wainwright has spent the majority of his career avoiding his musical birthright, opting for pop, opera and Judy Garland covers over the genre of his parents, folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. But it’s been a quarter-century since the release of his first record, and he’s turning 50 next month—both milestones that have contributed to the nostalgic impulse to return to his roots. His latest, Folkocracy, is a cover album of Americana duets ranging from “Hush Little Baby” to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” that features an eclectic roster of collabs, including Chaka Khan, John Legend, Nicole Scherzinger and Wainwright’s sisters, Martha and Lucy. It dropped on June 2, launching Wainwright into a summer-long tour. Here, he talks with us about using opera as teenage rebellion, singing Neil Young in front of Neil Young and what he misses most about living in Toronto.
Your debut album came out 25 years ago this spring. What would 1998 Rufus have said about your latest, a collection of folk classics?
He’d be slightly horrified. I should say, I had so much fun growing up in the folk world. I will never let go of the treasures I found there—things like learning how to sing harmony, playing an instrument, getting to be in that musical hothouse. I really did love it. That being said, I never quite felt accepted, mainly due to my sexuality. If I had been a lesbian, that would have been different, but as a gay youth I never felt connected in that way. Not that people were mean to me. I just didn’t relate. I had to go out into the world and discover opera and Judy Garland and all of that stuff.
Your parents are folk icons. Was embracing opera your act of teenage rebellion?
Yes, sort of a reversal of the typical story. I don’t have any hard feelings toward the folk scene—so much of my music is rooted in that sensibility. Folk can be very traditional and disciplined, which is something I appreciate now. At the time, I think it just felt like there were so many rules—not very warm and fuzzy.
And fewer fabulous wardrobe options.
Right. When I was younger, I wanted to indulge in the drama of both pop and opera. I was hungry for it, and I still am. But now, when I look at folk music, I realize that the drama was in there the whole time. It’s just quite understated.
You’ve spoken about how intense the process of recording your first album was. Have you mellowed in your middle age?
I think so, but I’m also a dad to a 12-year-old daughter. I’m shocked at how over-the-top I can become at times. I almost turn into my own mom or dad. It’s unnerving.
Can you share an example?
I’ll worry about my daughter putting too much makeup on, and suddenly I’m like, “You’re ruining your life!” Even though in reality it’s like, no, she’s just putting on a bit of makeup. As an artist, though, I think I have become more chill. But I do feel it’s important to explore some things that make you uncomfortable. When I was younger and started working on opera, that really kept me on my toes. Now I’m working on some Broadway stuff, which is a new world for me and therefore full of minefields. Seek out the minefields—I know that sounds horrifying, but artistically it’s what you should do.
Was going back to folk one of those minefields?
Oh, definitely. It’s funny: I have these early recordings of me singing some of the songs on this album as a kid. I always cringe when I listen to them. I had a long puberty—my voice was pretty shoddy a lot of the time. Now, I can return to the material having really learned how to give it the depth it deserves.
You turn 50 this year. Does that explain the somewhat nostalgic musical homecoming?
I’ve been very honest about the fact that the idea for this record came from watching the Grammys. I’ve been nominated a couple of times, but it’s always difficult to categorize my music. There’s no singer-songwriter category. So, a few years ago, I was watching the ceremony, and I realized that there were a lot of folk categories: roots, Americana and so on. This little light went off: I’m from that world; maybe I should give it a shot. That’s how it started, but there’s also an almost cosmic aspect. I’m turning 50 this year, it’s the 25th anniversary of my first record, the album cover is a picture of me as a child. It all feels very meant to be. So, if I don’t win a Grammy, that’s fine.
You’ve said that the secret to a good cover is singing like your life depends on it. Can you elaborate?
The idea is that you’re putting yourself in a life-or-death position when you’re singing—like there’s a knife to your throat and you have to sing well or you’ll be killed. Which obviously is not really the case, or at least not for me. There are stories about Maria Callas, the famous soprano who was in Greece after the Nazis invaded. They were in her home and she had to sing. She really could have been killed. I think that desperation is an important part of singing. It’s like every note is Squid Game.
With covers, do you feel an obligation to do right by the original?
For me, that’s not the main objective. I think more about the audience. The best quote I’ve ever heard about music is something I read recently by Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. He said, “Sing like you’re listening.” So it’s like, sing with your ears.
I love that, but I’m not sure I get it.
It takes a long time to perfect.
You have a lot of great collaborators on the album. Anyone stand out?
It was so thrilling to work with Chaka Khan. Obviously she’s very famous, like legendary. When she came into the studio, she wasn’t familiar with the material, and for a while, it felt like it wasn’t going to happen. People were getting nervous. Not because she can’t sing, obviously. It just wasn’t the type of music she usually performs. But then, all of a sudden, it clicked, and this incredible sound came out of her mouth. It was like we were being lifted out of the mist. What’s great is that she’s so down to earth. I wouldn’t say she’s a normal American.
Well, of course not—she’s Chaka Kahn.
Right. But she’s also this very salt-of-the-earth-type person.
You do Neil Young’s “Harvest.” Is that a shout-out to Canadiana?
Yes, for sure.
Do you know Neil?
I wouldn’t say we’re buddies or anything, but we have a lot of friends in common. I sang “Harvest” for him over 20 years ago at an event for the ACLU. I was in my decadent phase, so I’d probably had a few drinks. I got on stage and said, You know, I never really liked the music of Neil Young—until I fell in love with a junkie. Which is true. The audience was aghast, and then we broke into “Harvest.” Apparently, afterward, Neil turned to the person beside him and said it was one of the most amazing things he’d ever heard.
Yeah. It was one of those nights.
Your daughter may be too old for this now, but were any of the songs on Folkocracy her lullabies when she was younger?
Definitely. “Hush Little Baby” for sure.
The version on the album is quite haunting.
Well, yeah. We tend to haunt, the Wainwrights. We like to steer away from the idyllic.
You and your husband, Jorn, left Toronto in 2016. Do you get back at all?
Whenever we can. We have so many great friends, and we miss it. We like to visit our dear friend Adrienne Clarkson and my downtown friends, like the artists in the Hidden Cameras collective.
Where do you stay?
Hopefully at the Shangri-La. It depends who’s paying.
What do you miss?
The food. I always loved going for dim sum at Lai Wah Heen in the Double Tree Hotel. And the people—what’s great about Toronto is that, unlike in Paris or New York or even Montreal, everybody really makes an effort. They want to come out and make things happen. Nobody in Toronto plays hard to get.
I guess we’ll take that as a compliment…
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.