Rufus Wainwright and the ruby slippers

Acclaimed singer-songwriter on his love for Judy Garland and Joni Mitchell

“It’s beautiful here; early spring.” Rufus Wainwright is on the road, travelling by car from Toronto, on his way to play a show in Ottawa. Then he’ll continue on to Montreal to visit the Canadian side of his family. Son of folk icons Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and brother to fellow songwriter and actress Martha, Wainwright has had the kind of career musicians dream about. With enough success under his belt early – his eponymous debut record brought him out of the Montreal club circuit and into every “best new artist” list imaginable – he’s had nothing but freedom to pursue relatively niche side projects.

One was a studio album adaptation of nine Shakespeare sonnets; 2016′s Take All My Loves featured guests like Florence Welch, Carrie Fisher, Helena Bonham Carter and his sister Martha. He’s also scored a couple of operas; 2009′s Prima Donna was a French-language production, while Hadrian, in 2018, was based on the life of a Roman emperor. He also spent lockdown working on a musical (which he can’t talk about, but keep an eye out for an announcement). Then, there’s his long-held obsession with film icon Judy Garland. ”I’m from the last generation that really grew up around the television as a monumental occasion machine,” he says, with the same knack for finding le mot juste in conversation as in songwriting. “Whenever The Wizard of Oz was on the television, it was a big deal. It was a yearly event, around Easter, and the whole family would gather around to watch. Later when I started going out, being naughty, staying up late… the more ‘screwed up’ Judy Garland ethos appeared. And then when I had to survive some of those darker periods, ‘warrior Judy’ arrived. She has many facets, and that’s why we love her.”

In 2007, Wainwright performed Rufus Does Judy, a tribute to the songs, life and work of the star, at Carnegie Hall. This week, he’s releasing work recorded in Capitol Studios to celebrate her 100th birthday: “I recorded [the album] in the studio that she worked in – and I used her microphone. It was a spiritual homage to Judy, and I definitely felt her presence in the room as I was diving into the music. So, she’s back!”

`Inauthentic’ folk

A few years ago, Wainwright’s husband, Jörn, became obsessed with the music of Joni Mitchell. The song Damsel in Distress, on Wainwright’s 2020 album Unfollow the Rules, is in part a homage to Joni’s style. “Joni was forbidden in our house growing up,” he says, referring to his mother’s ban on “inauthentic” folk music in the home. “I think there were two reasons; one was understandable and the other was irrational. The understandable one was that my mother was a purist in terms of folk music. She was from this set of traditional musicians – you find them a lot in Ireland! – who are just really hardcore in what they consider to be folk songwriting. Joni Mitchell was not part of that ethos, for her.


“Coming to Joni’s songs many years later – I could have only done that after Kate died. That’s the truth. If my mother had been alive I wouldn’t have been able to dive into Joni-land. It wouldn’t have been allowed.”

Perhaps witnessing this kind of jealousy in his mother inspired him to have nothing but good grace for his fellow musicians? Not a chance, he laughs. In fact, it wasn’t until he spent an evening with Jeff Buckley back in 1997 that he realised the extent of his own jealousy. “He was getting all the gigs that I wanted, all the adulation. I was very dismissive of him when he was singing. Then, of course, I met him and we had a lovely evening together, hanging out, and I was like: ‘oh wow, he’s a lovely guy. Why am I being so stupid and jealous?’. Then, sadly, he died a month later. That was a moment when I felt that my jealousy wasn’t worth it, that it was pretty toxic. I suffered from that occasionally. I think every artist does.”

Then there’s what he calls a “funny, kind of gay jealousy” of his friend Jake Shears, lead singer of Scissor Sisters. “I was always secretly jealous of his pop success when it happened, especially in the UK. And he’s so cute and all the gay boys liked him! So I had a little jealousy thing with him that we joke about, because, well, he’s a little jealous of me too. That’s a nice thing; when you can acknowledge that and play with it.”

With a back catalogue like Wainwright’s, some artists might grow tired of playing the hits. Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, a song written about succumbing to the throes of addiction, might be difficult to return to after a decade of sobriety, but it remains a mainstay of his live shows. ”If anything [difficult periods are] when some of the best songs arrive. When, during a painful experience, you come up with something really solid and really meaningful because it’s so needed at that time. I don’t have trouble revisiting those periods because I’m doing well now. If I had lots of regrets or if I was in trouble in other ways it would be different, but I’ve done well over the years to get my act together,” he laughs. ”Both of my parents were working singer-songwriters, and I witnessed this gratitude from them about having certain songs that stand the test of time. Certain songs that they can pull out of a hat to, I guess, appease an audience. Or, how to develop an arsenal over the years that you can feel confident about.” Writing the “perfect song” is still important to him, much more so than adapting to current trends. 2020′s Unfollow the Rules was a collection of songs that he’d gathered while working on other projects but it had to be delayed due to limitations on pressing physical copies. ”[The physical format] was especially important with this album. Unfollow the Rules sort of represents a bookend to, hopefully, the first of many parts of my career. It’s a bit of a mirror of my first album, that I made in LA with session players. It has a kind of vinyl feel to it, which connects deeply with a physical copy. I don’t really do Spotify myself, only because I can’t figure out how it works. It’s probably some button I’m not pressing… But, on the vinyl resurgence, we have fallen for that in our household. We love to go record shopping. I guess we’re turning into our parents.”

Rufus Wainwright plays the National Concert Hall on July 6th

Andrea Cleary

Andrea Cleary is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture