Rufus Wainwright Heals Our Malaise in 'Road Trip Elegies'

Grammy-nominated songwriter, vocalist, and composer Rufus Wainwright uses music, humor, and a forthright manner to tell his story in 'Road Trip Elegies.'

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly. 

Kat Johnson: Hi, everyone. This is Audible Editor Kat Johnson. Today, I'm talking with Rufus Wainwright, the multitalented singer, songwriter, composer, and author of the new Audible Original Road Trip Elegies. Welcome, Rufus.

Rufus Wainwright: Hello.

KJ: Thanks for being here. I saw you perform last year at South Orange Performing Arts Center in New Jersey, and it was probably one of the last great shows that I went to before the pandemic happened. So, I'm very grateful for this project of yours and for everything you've been doing. 

RW: Thank you. Thank you so much. 

KJ: It feels like you've been very purposeful about putting your art out there in new ways that we can connect to even during this time. I want to get into that some more, but first I want to talk to you about your vision for this piece. It's a literal journey between Montreal and New York, going through the gorgeous Adirondacks, but it's also a coming-of-age story and it's a psychological journey because you've got your therapist, Mark the Analyst, there with you.

RW: Yes, yes, yes.

KJ: Tell me why you wanted to explore this kind of storytelling, and did it play out how you thought? Or were there some surprises on the way?

RW: It all happened incredibly organically, which is usually the best sort of recipe for any artistic endeavor. I had been working with Mark—I like how he's called Mark the Therapist now. His name is Mark Stafford, but everybody seems to be calling him Mark the Therapist, which I think is good. But anyway, but we'd been working together for a few years and really had a lot of success in many areas of my life. One of the main reasons being that just having conversations with him was such, I don't know, a whirlwind because his style of analysis is really to just have interesting conversations about the world, and history, and myths, and legend. It’s very intellectually stimulating.

So we did that for a long time and I always thought, "It would be wonderful to record some of these sessions." So that was sort of in the back of my head, and then someone on my managerial team said, "I heard that Audible's doing these productions with singers." I think we'd heard about the Patti Smith one. Ever resourceful and in search of a new horizon, we came to Audible.

So I had the idea of recording the session, but then the other thing is that there's this great venue in LA, which I think it still exists and hopefully it will after the pandemic, called McCabe's Guitar Shop, which has been a classic spot here for over 30 years. Both my parents have performed there, and I'd actually never been there. I'd been thinking for years, "I really need to do a show there at some point." It's a tiny little room. Very cute.

Anyways, there was this moment where all three of those elements came together and I said, "Well, why don't we just kill three birds with one stone and see how this works?" 

KJ: Triple threat.

RW: Yeah, we pulled it off.

KJ: I love it. I was thinking about how many great new books there are about therapy. Therapy just has so much more visibility now, and it's so much more normalized than it's been. So I love that you're a part of that as well. 

RW: Yeah. The other thing too that's interesting is that I think another sign of a good project is when you're not actually trying to do anything distinctly. I'm not here to make everybody go into therapy or anything, but nonetheless, I have been quite moved, actually, by the reaction by some people who really are appreciative of my embracing therapy and, therefore, helping the world. But that was never an intention of the piece at all, but it's a nice byproduct.

KJ: Right. Nice side benefit.

RW: Yes. 

KJ: That's great to hear. I want to ask you, this is the obvious question, but you come from this super-famous family of very talented musicians. Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle are your parents. They're folk singers whose music is special to me. Your sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, who's also... You can hear her vocals in this piece, as well. So it seems like a really great dream family for a budding artist to grow up in. But then also you had to work so hard at forging your own creative path and uphold your legacy, which I think you were told specifically that you had to do. 

RW: Yeah, yeah. I was commanded to do so.

KJ: Right. How did you choose what aspects to share in this memoir and how did you find your own voice in this family?

RW: I'm from what they call a folkocracy. There are several of them that I know of and that I actually have had contact with, whether it's the Seegers, or the Thompsons in England, or the—I don't know the Carter family so much. But we are these singing families who really earn their living by communicating and expressing their musical ideas to a really... How can I say this? A very general audience in the sense that no one's making a lot of money. It's really about the music. I mean, there has been some commercial success here and there. By definition what we do is, technically, it should be philosophically devoid from that.

Anyway, so we end up having to sing together a lot. We kind of survive as a clan and it's wonderful. I think it's the best to be part of. To this day, I credit it with probably most of my success. You never get too big for your britches, as my grandmother said. You're no better than anybody else. And once again, as I said, it's about the music. So it's nice to celebrate that on this recording.

KJ: Right. But it is so personal and you're not the first one. I know there are a few memoirs now in your family. Does it cause a stir when someone releases one, or has everybody listened to it?

RW: I will honestly tell you my dad knows that it's out, I think. I'm not sure. I haven't sent it to him yet. I just sent it to my one aunt, Anna, but I didn't necessarily bombard the family with links to Road Trip Elegies.

I don't feel like I have anything to hide necessarily, but I am very honest in the work. And I think that there could definitely be little inflections or a little kind of perspective that doesn't sort of match with other members and that I may have to address. But nothing scandalous by any means. That's actually kind of been something we've always tried to steer around, and not always successfully. But yeah, we have to be mindful of that in the family, for sure.

KJ: Got it. I'm curious about the performance aspect of this piece, not just the recorded live sessions that you did, but this, even for us at Audible, and we do so many different audio projects, this is a sort of hybrid spoken-word memoir live session, then there's this therapy session. This is very new for us. Did you feel like you had to learn to use your voice in a different way or find your voice in a different way for this?

RW: No, I felt... Look, as I said before, I've been working with Mark for a long time. And even before Mark, I had another therapist. And at one point, I did go away to rehab. So I'm very familiar with that method. I had a lot of practice in that arena. And then, of course, I've done shows since I was a child. So if anything, it was more to kind of almost see what the sparks would be when putting these two types of—I wouldn't say performance necessarily—but these two types of…

KJ: Right. Conversation.

RW: ...dialogues. Yeah, conversations and dialogues next to each other. The therapy bit is so internal, and the performance is so extroverted. It's just interesting to see what is created between those two, the energy.

So there was that, and then I have to say, I mean, even there's a third element. I call it the voice of Rufus, where I just have these little voice of God moments where I sort of give some context to the conversation or talk about where we are geographically. That was fun to write those moments as well, because that's more of an example of my writing, which is, "I've got to get it all in there."

KJ: That's amazing. Pivoting to the music. One of the things I love about your work and your approach is you draw so much on the past and your work has so much historical context, so I feel like I'm learning and appreciating while I'm being entertained. But tell us a little about the music that you chose for this piece that you did at this guitar store.

RW: I think a lot of it actually had to do with living in Los Angeles now and the fact that a lot of people think of Hollywood as this mecca for movies and television and stuff. But equally so, it still is a mecca for music. And even though a lot of people come here to make it big and to dominate the charts or whatever, there is an amazing number of legendary musicians who live here, as well of all sorts, who didn't necessarily make it big and living next to ones that did. It's a real mixed bag here, and so I love it here.

"I do actually touch on the environment, the political situation, and just the general malaise, which I think the world is experiencing. And I try to heal it a bit with music and humor and also by addressing it."

I thought it'd be great to do some of the songs and then invite some of the songwriters, having Burt Bacharach come to the show and Van Dyke Parks, and then also working with Petra Haden, who played violin and sang with me. She's Charlie Haden's daughter, and he was a famous jazz bass player. So there's just this real melting pot of music in Los Angeles, and so I wanted to touch on that.

And then, of course, I felt it necessary to bring in my parents' work, mostly, and then also the influences of my parents. It was either Tin Pan Alley or Bob Dylan and folk music. And then there's a couple of my own songs in there. I guess it's this series of generations who have been handing down songwriting over the years, and I am sort of the end product at the moment of that cycle. I have a daughter.

KJ: I don't think you're going to be the end product with your daughter's patronage there.

RW: I'm not being buried with the sword. I'm not being buried with the sword. Don't worry. I'll pass it on.

KJ: We should say that Rufus's daughter, Viva, is... So her mother is Lorca Cohen, is that right?

RW: Yes, yes.

KJ: Leonard Cohen is her grandfather. Potentially continuing the legacy there.

RW: Yeah, yeah.

KJ: Speaking of Bob Dylan, I love your cover of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." I loved in the memoir you talked about that growing up, Bob Dylan was obviously a huge influence in your family, but you were like, "To rebel, I got into opera." That was really funny. But I love that you then eventually did gravitate to Dylan and you did cover Dylan. Can you talk about why now or why that felt right?

RW: I've had a really interesting run in terms of my parents' generation of classic songwriters. Obviously, I started out with my mom and dad, but then I ended up really diving into Leonard Cohen's material many years ago. That was a success for me. And then later on, my husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, he developed this insane obsession for Joni Mitchell, which I got to join him on.

There's a little backstory. I was never allowed to listen to Joni Mitchell at the house because my mother was quite jealous of her. I wasn't that familiar with her oeuvre. But then my husband discovered her and I got to sing a lot of her material and really dive into her work, and we became friends. I became friends with Leonard, I became friends with Joni and all of them.

But Bob Dylan always kind of loomed large for everyone. And I will admit also to not having... I appreciated his music, but I didn't gravitate towards it as much as my parents. I was probably in rebellion to my parents. But then the world got considerably darker over the last few years and I don't know, there's something about... I can categorically state now, having sung all of these great songwriters, that Bob Dylan does equate with apocalyptic kinds of sensibilities. I mean, he really knows how to define troubled times in such a deep way. I think it's appropriate now that I'm singing his music. But there's still hope there. But he definitely knows how to face the darkness, which we kind of need to do at the moment.

KJ: That's right. We need that, I think. Truth to power.

RW: Yeah.

KJ: I do want to ask you, because you are a gay icon, you've been recognized by GLAD, among others, for your outstanding work as an artist in the queer community. You have a really moving story in the piece where you came out successfully to your mom later in life. 

RW: Yeah.

KJ: Since you've always been out professionally, I'd just love to hear how you've seen the industry evolve in terms of acceptance and representation.

RW: Well, I don't know. I think on one... It's so hard to measure, because it's fluctuated so much over the years. When I started, it was really unusual to be so honest and so kind of matter of fact about the whole gay thing and be in the mainstream. I had a lot of gay fans and I think people in the gay community were happy to have me, but I wasn't there to really champion my sexuality. I was there to write music and make great records. I think that was a bit confusing to that world. 

But I survived and I kind of went along. And then gay marriage came up, and my husband and I have been together, I've been married for eight years. So that was sort of a real moment there.

But then it went backwards in a lot of ways with the Trump era. All this time, I found that there's a little bit of a disconnect in terms of what's going on in the rest of the world with the queer community. I mean, yes, things in the Western world are stable somewhat, but in Russia and Africa, I mean, it's really a matter of life and death. And I do wish there was more of a communication internationally with gay rights in terms of really making it more of a human rights issue. So, I don't know. I'm happy being out, but I still think there's a lot of work to do.

KJ: There's a lot.

RW: I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

KJ: I appreciate the work that you have done and that you have been doing.

RW: Thank you, thank you.

KJ: It means a lot. I want to get back to what I mentioned at the top about how you're connecting with fans in new ways during this time. What was it like doing this during the pandemic when live music had temporarily come to a halt, and how are you feeling about things now? 

RW: One of the things about this project which I have found most kind of shocking is that it totally seamlessly streams into the period we're in now. Even though the pandemic wasn't really happening. It wasn't happening at all. Even when I did the concert. Later, when I was doing the Voice of Rufus stuff, we were in full swing with the pandemic. 

But this is before the pandemic, before the fire in California that we had this summer. Granted, it was in the Trump administration. But before the election, obviously. I don't know, it sounds like I'm talking about today in this context. It's a bit spooky, actually. And I'm also very thankful for it. There's a strong possibility that something that was produced before the era we're in at the moment would be kind of irrelevant. But I do actually touch on the environment, the political situation, and just the general malaise, which I think the world is experiencing. And I try to heal it a bit with music and humor and also by addressing it.

KJ: Right. I think we need art at this time more than ever and connection more than ever. It's interesting when I think about your work, and I brought up before how you delve into the past a lot, I find myself during this time feeling so nostalgic for older things. I'm always that way, and I feel like you're that way too. For my own, because I'm obsessed with this topic, can you tell me what role you think nostalgia plays in your work or plays in art?

RW: I think we're partially nostalgic, especially in the United States, because there certainly were other periods, even in my memory, that were far more sophisticated and more free in a lot of ways. I live in Laurel Canyon and in Hollywood, and I'm now reading biographies of old movie stars in the golden age of Hollywood, and it was just that whole period and how we really have kind of digressed in a lot of ways from the way the world could have been. It always seems, I guess, greener on the other side. And I guess there's an argument to be made that actually now in terms of women's rights, in terms of gay rights, in terms of really facing a lot of this systemic racism, we're trying to get to a better place. But there are moments, yeah, definitely, where I want to just escape into the Hollywood Hills of the 1920s.

KJ: Right. Well, hopefully we'll have a "Roaring Twenties" period when this is over. That's my hope.

RW: Yes, yes. 

KJ: Do you have hope, when this is over, for live music again? What are you excited about in the future?

RW: I've had some interesting kinds of twists and turns during this period. I just had an opera that was produced in Sweden at the Royal Opera House there. This was a huge triumph for me. It was my first opera, Prima Donna, and I'm really happy with that production. It's on YouTube now, so you can watch it. Plug that with the Swedish Royal Opera House.

Anyway, so that was a thrilling kind of live experience. I went to some of the rehearsals. I couldn't actually see it in the opera house. But nonetheless, I was able to work in that kind of live way.

And then also, I sing every week from my house, doing all of my albums. 

KJ: I love it.

RW: It's called Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective, where you can hear me do my entire catalog. And certainly going through all of my work and rediscovering certain little forgotten gems has been ammunition for my future live outings.

And then I don't know, my voice has really been rested at the moment, so I'm kind of singing better because I'm not out there. I have a strong feeling that it's going to in the end be a positive kind of additive to live music and the future, this whole period, for sure.

KJ: This period of kind of rest and introspection.

RW: Yeah, yeah.

KJ: I'm happy to hear you're in such a good place. Everything you do is just so special, and introspective, and awesome, and opulent, and this is no different. So I'm really thrilled to be a small part of this company that helped bring this to life, because I think it's so special.

RW: Just one last thing before we go. I did want to say as I mentioned at the top of the interview, there were these ideas floating around of doing something with Audible, and I checked out a lot of the projects. They were fabulous and I love the James Taylor one and I love the Patti Smith one. They're really great. But I will say that what I have given you guys is pretty epic. I, of course, in pure Rufus fashion, just upped the ante a hundredfold just in terms of the concept of it. I don't know if people will necessarily enjoy it more, but I definitely brought you something really challenging and you guys really did something with it wonderfully. It's always fun to kind of raise the bar, and thanks for doing that with me.

KJ: It's so special. Audio is perfect for a road trip. Geography is so important. You remember where you were when you heard something. I love that geography is woven into this piece. I think it really comes together in a beautiful way.

RW: Right. Well, thank you.

KJ: Thank you so much for joining us, Rufus Wainwright. Thank you for being here and chatting about Road Trip Elegies with us today.

RW: Okay, bye-bye.

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