Rufus Wainwright – My Life In Music

The singer and composer reveals the records underpinning his folkocracy

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Kate & Anna McGarrigle

My mother’s first album. So obviously I discovered it because I was born! But it really is considered one of the classic records of that era, the ’70s. There’s certain schools of thought which put that record up there with Abbey Road and Exile On Main St – it has a similar iconic vibe. The more I listen to it now, the more I’m really impressed by the quality of the sound, the way it was recorded, the economy of the production that Joe Boyd achieved. And of course my mother’s voice with her sister Anna singing, it’s just so beautiful. It’s a very auspicious item to have in the family pantheon.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

RCA, 1983
Once I heard that album, I was completely transfixed and altered into a sentient being. And whether it was the songs on the record, or listening to Annie Lennox’s vocals and her incredible ability… but also the cover of the album was very affecting. The androgynous presentation awoke in me all of the mysteries of puberty that were right around the corner. So that was great! One time when I was in Los Angeles as a kid, I saw Annie Lennox at a restaurant and she looked like she did on the record cover. That to me was like meeting a god – or at least seeing a god at a distance.

Don Carlo

EMI, 1971
When I got into opera, I was about 13. At that time a lot of gay men were dying of AIDS and I ended up with all these old opera records. And there was this sort of transfer of knowledge from that beleaguered group of people to my young mind. Don Carlos is considered one of Verdi’s deepest works, and I just got completely lost in the drama and also the historical weight of both the music and the subject matter. It’s about Spain around the time of the Inquisition – and certainly living in Canada, the freezing cold north, it really whet my appetite to travel the world. It’s also one of the all-time great father/son stories, which I related to a lot.


I’m Alright

Speaking of fathers and sons… Around the same time as I got into opera, my dad put out this record. It has “One Man Guy” on it, and a bunch of other great songs, but it’s very sparse. It’s mostly him and the guitar – it was part of his lonely London period. He was touring and travelling a lot and I didn’t see him very much, so this record helped me understand who he was. My father has always communicated with his loved ones through song, for better or for worse. And even though occasionally it can be a little traumatic, at least he’s reaching out, you know? It’s about trying to figure out the state of things and get to a better place.

Live In Europe

TRIP, 1972
That’s always been a very important record for me. She sings some Jacques Brel, she sings some Gibb brothers, all these great songs. When I discovered Nina Simone in general, it was the main beacon in terms of what I wanted to do, which was to be a piano-based singer-songwriter who could interpret my passion for classical music and transform it into more of a pop sound. So she was really my idol. And then with the whole live thing, I was struck by how important it was to be able to do it in front of an audience. She does a thrilling rendition of “…Life” from the musical Hair that I would blast when I was really stoned and just think the world was promise.


When that came out, I was an older teenager. I started going out to bars and clubs and experimenting with drugs and stuff. All of a sudden I felt very connected to my generation and very impressed by what was going on in the mainstream, which I wasn’t really before. I mean, I appreciate Nirvana now, but at the time I didn’t really get it. So it was really when Björk put out Debut that I was re-engaged with what was happening at the time. I recently got to hang out with Björk in Iceland at one of my shows. It was really one of the great thrills of my life, and I hope to work with her in the future – on anything, frankly.


Songs Our Daddy Taught Us

On my new record, I sing a cover of a folk song, a murder ballad, called “Down In The Willow Garden”. And that’s because there’s this amazing album that we grew up with at home called Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, which is this wonderful record of The Everly Brothers singing folk songs that they learned as children. They’re often quite violent and dark, very moody. That album was so fundamental in my upbringing. I adore The Everly Brothers’ hit songs, the more rock’n’roll stuff they did, but there’s something so timeless about their renditions of these classic tunes. I wanted to tap into that purity of sound.

Main Character

It’s important to champion new works, so I want to bring in a record that just came out that I’ve been listening to a lot. It’s by my friend Glüme and I sing on the title track with her. I’m always really honoured and excited to sing on a record, and some of them have turned out to be great. But this one particularly struck me: it was just so unusual and it really captures this LA/Hollywood environment that my husband and I live in. I’ve loved driving through the city listening to the whole album, and it’s become the soundtrack of my life recently. Glüme is like a more gothic, edgier Lana Del Rey – she’s just this strange, wonderful creation.

Rufus Wainwright’s Folkocracy is out now on BMG


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