Given Rufus Wainwright’s theatrical inclinations—he’s “very cabaret”, as they used to say on American Idol—it shouldn’t be surprising that his new All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu was inspired by a Weimar-era icon.
“I was definitely thinking of Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box,” says the piano-playing singer, calling from a San Francisco stop on his current tour. “But Lulu has become many different people over the past few months. It’s the concept of the ravaging, destructive beauty who kills you with a smile—something I worship and at the same time am frightened to death of. When I started touring, though, I felt like I was Lulu. Or my mother or Shakespeare’s Dark Lady would become Lulu.”
This portrait of fearsome female duality was inspired and complicated by the recent death of his mother, Quebec singer Kate McGarrigle. The record consists of naked piano-and-voice arrangements of songs that address his family, both directly and with filters. The album’s emblematic “Sad With What I Have” casts grief in the pose of a Noel Coward–esque cad, while in “Martha”, an anxious phone call to his singer-songwriter sister goes unanswered.
Their father, Loudon Wainwright III, has been known to be similarly transparent in tunes about parents and children. Does this trend, I wonder, create a false sense of intimacy among performers, as well as fans?
“My dad takes the cake in that department, and that’s for sure! Songwriting is essentially another planet. And one learns pretty quickly, especially after garnering some success, that it’s not going to solve your personal problems. You can have these verklempt moments on the great stages of the world, but that still doesn’t mean you’re capable of sitting down with someone and saying how you really feel.”
Wainwright’s new set also includes three Shakespeare sonnets, recalling the early opera pieces he performed in Denys Arcand’s little-seen Days of Darkness.
“I am blessed but also stricken by this very unusual voice—one that can do pop music fairly well but has an urge to expand in a classical way. I’m pretty sure that if I’d been trained, I could have made it as an opera singer. I’ve always kept both those elements in my life, musically—and I guess I’ll never really succumb to either,” he adds with a laugh.
Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but Wainwright’s classical side isn’t all rococo divas in distress. Here, he also leans toward the introspective art-song vein of Franz Schubert and Claude Debussy.
“In Vancouver, I’ll ask the audience to hold their applause while I perform Songs for Lulu as a song cycle, in the style of German lieder. In the second half, though, I loosen up and perform the almost-hits of my career.”