Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Rufus Wainwright
In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them
1You covered Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ for the Shrek soundtrack. But which artist’s version appears in the film?
“That came out of nowhere because I didn’t know the song, and it was when Shrek was [first] invented so I hadn’t seen the movie. Shrek was made by DreamWorks studios and at that time I was signed to DreamWorks records, so it was an old Hollywood deal. I recorded it in half an hour. Sadly, they didn’t use it in the film because I didn’t sound ugly enough! (Laughs) Not that I’m saying that about John Cale but he’s got more of a curmudgeon-type voice than mine, especially when I was 23. Leonard Cohen told me he really liked my version. Back then, he congratulated me and seemed to be pleased.”
2Which three sonnets appear on both your 2010 album ‘All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu ‘ and your 2016 album ‘Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets’?
“Well, I’ve lost some brain cells here! I know the first lines of the sonnets but I’m bad with numbers – hence my wavering bank account! (Laughs) I’ll try with the numbers – Sonnet 10? 49? 47? One is ‘A Woman’s Face’.
CORRECT-ISH. HALF A POINT. It’s ‘For Shame’ – Sonnet 10, ‘A Woman’s Face’ – Sonnet 20, and the only one you missed was ‘When Most I Wink’ – Sonnet 43. What was it like getting your Shakespeare on?
“That came together organically. I’ve been writing music to the sonnets for many years. I started with Sonnet 43 when I did a benefit for RADA with Michael Kamen producing and then later I did a play with the great Robert Wilson and that was all around the sonnets for the Berlin Ensemble in Germany. Then a few years later, I was asked to participate in the Stratford-upon-Avon celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – you know you’re really important when they celebrate your death! (Laughs). It made sense to compile all this work and I think the ‘…Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ album is one of the dark horses of my career.”
‘Take All My Loves…’ boasts an all-star cast, including your friend, the late Carrie Fisher. What’s your favourite memory of her?
“My favourite thing was watching movies with her in bed until dawn. We watched the movie Les Misérables together when it came out, and there were scenes of mud gushing, people falling out of buildings and blood spurting everywhere. Carrie turned to me and said: ‘This movie is just about buildings throwing people up!’ (Laughs)”
3You made a guest appearance in Absolutely Fabulous in 2002. From that episode onwards, who sings the show’s theme tune? Clue: she guest-starred in your episode.
“Well, it makes sense I don’t remember much about that period because I went to rehab two months after filming that episode, so it was one of the crazier times of my life. (Laughs) A very fun time!”
WRONG. It’s Debbie Harry, who sings ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ with comedian Ade Edmondson.
“May she rest in peace now, but a week before that I was doing cocaine with my mother [Kate McGarrigle] and then I ended up in Absolutely Fabulous and I was hanging out a lot with Marianne Faithfull and also the Bush twins – who compared to the Trump children are like pussycats (Laughs). It was a very topsy-turvy time. No regrets, though!”
Was your mum fun to hang out with then?!
“She was. She was definitely not a cokehead – it wasn’t something we did regularly but she was always game to try whatever was going on. She was an adventuress for sure.”
Talking of Debbie Harry, apparently your father, Loudon Wainwright III, realised you were gay when you’d sing along in the car to ‘Heart of Glass’…
”I know Debbie Harry now and love her, but yes, I’d lip-sync along to ‘Heart Of Glass’ and I have distinct memories of my father nervously looking at me through the rear-view mirror (Laughs). He wasn’t angry about it, he was just concerned because life, especially back then, was not kind to the gays.”
Did you ever get star-struck by anyone in your dad’s – Loudon Wainwright III – social circle?
“The first person I was star-struck with was Jamie Lee Curtis. My dad is good friends with her husband, Christopher Guest, and we met them in London when she was filming A Fish Called Wanda. The door opened and Jamie Lee Curtis walked out and the first thing I noticed was that she had incredible tits! That was the first and last time that happened! I know Jamie quite well now and we laugh that my first and only tit moment was with her – even though my dad wrote a song called ‘Rufus is A Tit Man’.”
4In a 2012 Funny or Die video, you claimed a certain type of music influenced you the most. What was it?
“Oh, was it music from commercials? Jingles!”
CORRECT. Specifically chewing gum jingles.
“I seem to remember that being a success – in that it actually induced laughter!”
5Which band T-shirt appears in your ‘Out of the Game’ video?
“Nirvana, right? Or Pixies? It’s when I’m dressed as a sort of Kurt Cobain character. Is it Madonna?”
WRONG. It’s Sonic Youth.
“Oh boy! I lose! I love Sonic Youth. Every once in a while when I’m in Los Angeles, I get to hang out with Kim Gordon. She has the ability to impress and intimidate me by her star quality in a thrilling way.”
Actress Helena Bonham Carter stars opposite you in that video…
“We joke a lot about that ‘cause at the end of the video we have an orgy – her and the various characters I play. We often sign off our correspondences: ‘See you at the next orgy!’ or ‘Can we set up another orgy some time?’”
6In 2009, you were nominated for a Grammy for your Judy Garland tribute live album ‘Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall’. Who beat you?
“I adore Natalie Cole and she’s sadly missed. My daughter’s favourite song at the moment is her seminal version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Pink Cadillac’, so we listen to her a lot. At the time, I knew she’d win because a couple of months before the Grammys, I was watching Entertainment Tonight and they had a piece on Natalie Cole and her struggle with kidney disease and hepatitis. As I was watching it, I was like: ‘There goes my Grammy! Dammit!’ (Laughs)”
Is it an ambition to win a Grammy?
“Yes, it would be nice to win – but mainly because my dad won a Grammy. He was nominated three or four times before he won so they seem to be torturing me in a similar fashion. History repeats itself!”
You’ve been reprising your tribute to Garland for special Pride performances this month. What does it feel like to sing now?
“What I like about it now is I believe it’s finally in my voice. When I first did the show almost 20 years ago, I was running on fear and excitement and now it’s settled into my bones and I can relax more and enjoy the ride.”
7In which Nick Hornby book is the lead character’s son named after you?
“Is that High Fidelity?”
WRONG. It’s his 2007 novel Slam. Any other memorably unexpected references over the years?
“I was in a Carrie Fisher book, but once again, I bring up my father because one of the wildest things to me growing up was that he was referenced in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary ‘cause he wrote a song called ‘Dead Skunk’. So I’m yet to have my Stephen King reference. I guess I’ve got to write something a little more gory.”
Do you still feel competitive with your dad?
“We all do. Whether it’s Martha [Wainwright, his sister], or my sister Lucy or my father, we all enjoy the sparring at this point. There was a time many years ago where it was a bit too prickly at times (Laughs) but we’ve learned to both appreciate and also challenge each other as well. And then come together at the end when we need to.”
8In 2006, you performed as one of three guests at the Pet Shop Boys Mermaid Theatre gig in London sing the song ‘Casanova In Hell’. Name either of the other two.
“Robbie Williams was there and there was that incredible stage actress whose name I can’t remember.”
CORRECT. The actress was Frances Barber. What’s it been like working with both Pet Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant (who was the executive producer of, and sings backing vocals on, your fifth album ‘Release the Stars’) and Robbie Williams (most notably on his camp-tastic 2013 track jazz number ‘Swings Both Ways’) over the years?
“Amazing. Robbie and I have written together and I also did his  Palladium concert. And he also has this elder statesman attractiveness now, which works. He’s got some good daddy vibes going on! And Neil Tennant is an encyclopaedia of knowledge and a real arbiter of taste. When you study what the Pet Shop Boys have given to culture, it’s astounding – whether it’s working with Liza [Minnelli] or Dusty Springfield, all their own music and even the success they’re having of late with ‘It’s A Sin’. I’m very envious, shall we say!”
9Which venue did your opera Prima Donna premier at during the Manchester International Festival in 2009?
“Was it The Lyric? Or something like that? It wasn’t the Manchester Opera House, ‘cause there were other gigs there. Dammit, I can’t remember!”
WRONG. It was the Palace Theatre.
“(Laughs) I should have remembered that. That was a momentous and completely fulfilling experience. When the opera premiered, there was a real shit-storm – some people were fighting for it while others wanted to stab it at birth. It was a controversial piece, especially in the opera world, so I was put through the wringer critically. What’s nice is that years later, that opera’s been produced several times in several countries. It survived the onslaught which is not the case with most operas. So there’s still a big life for Prima Donna and she’s a tough little lady! (Laughs) And she has a future beyond our lives.”
Do you have any big career ambitions left?
“Right now because of COVID and having downtime to be able to focus on what I want, there’s quite a lot of strategizing going on in terms of Broadway and the West End. I’m starting to circle that wagon and it’s very exciting. My goal is to, if not conquer, then at least affect that world in some way. People have constantly asked me over the years: ‘When are you going to write a Broadway show?’ so I’m finally embarking on that. Having had the operatic experience before to go with my pop scars, I think it will be a very interesting offering.”
10In 2012, what lunch item did you duet ‘Gay Messiah’ with at the bacchanalian dance party encore of your London gig?
“That was a ham sandwich.”
CORRECT. A 6ft foam sandwich.
“That was one of the great high points of my ridiculousness on earth. It was a lot of fun and it amazes me I was sober for that. (Laughs) It just goes to show you can have fun no matter what!”
The verdict: 5.5/10
– Rufus Wainwright tours the UK in October and November