Annette Brown, Lifetime The story of June Carter Cash comes to life in the…
- Posted on Mar 23rd 2010 12:30PM by Mike Doherty
In December, he sang with his mother, Kate McGarrigle, at London's Royal Albert Hall and the following month she passed away of cancer in Montreal. And all the while, he was working on his melancholy new CD, 'All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.'
Spinner caught up with Wainwright recently in Toronto -- where he' s prepping the North American premiere of 'Prima Donna' at the Luminato Festival in June -- to discuss his new album, which draws on his theatrical work and looks back at his relationship with his mother.
Two years ago, in speaking with the 'Observer,' you said you never wanted to go back to Toronto, as 'that place drives me mad.'
All of that has severely changed [laughs]. I've even made a point of rectifying the situation by exclaiming my gratitude to Toronto, 'cause it really is so fantastic and daring and appropriate that Toronto put on my opera. When I made that comment I did have cause to be a little bit upset, only because we'd done the Songwriters Hall of Fame show, where they were inducting [Kate and Anna McGarrigle's] 'Heart Like a Wheel,' and I was turned off because there were a lot of French songs involved, but they never aired them on television.
Being from Quebec, I was a little bit insulted. But I'm loving Toronto more and more now, and to be fair, it's always been very supportive of me whenever I've played here over the years.
'All Days and Nights' features your piano-playing and your voice, without any other instruments. I understand your previous album, 'Release the Stars,' was originally going to be a scaled-back affair.
Well, when I said 'scaled-back,' I meant maybe a bass and kazoo or something. It wasn't going to be just piano and voice -- I don't consider this scaled-back; it's like a lieder album. I am yet to do a scaled-back album in a sense. In a strange way, I think a piano-voice album can be more massive than a symphony sometimes.
There are three Shakespeare sonnet settings on the album, and sometimes their harmonies can be very adventurous. Did the complexity of the language influence you?
What I found with the Shakespeare sonnets is because he was such a genius, you just shouldn't think too much -- have it be more of a 'feel' situation. That's the route I took. Hook your musical knowledge onto the sonnet and just see where it takes you, and ask no questions, and you'll get somewhere.
Would you ever change a word of Shakespeare?
No. I think that every word of his is beyond perfect. I tend to be a classical pushover, and all the greats, I believe, are great. So I don't even question that at all, I just move forward from there. Maybe I'm wrong, I have no idea. I respect people who smash icons, but that's not really my style.
Is that how you would like people to treat your work?
No. It would be nice, but I don't expect it to happen. I think the work has to really defend itself. For instance, I had a really eye-opening experience: in bringing the opera to Toronto, we're working with this new director, Tim Albery, and it's really fantastic. Before him I had Daniel Kramer [in Manchester], who was really, really difficult and volatile and a danger to the production, and I had to go to war with him over what I believed in and what I thought he was trying to do.
In the end, the piece had to fight for me. I could only make my point by tweaking the work and then having it go out and do my bidding. I think that's the case with all great art: you're not talking to the artist, you're talking to the artwork. And I'm hoping I can infuse my work with that kind of stealth.
What did you learn from working with Robert Wilson on the Shakespeare project?
For one thing, I learned that you can be as bitchy and maniacal and unreasonable as you want in the world of the theatre. It is warranted at times and perhaps even necessary, but you must always be a gentleman. And that was what I most admired about him: he managed to really torture us but never make it personal or cruel. It was incredibly hard and demanding and somewhat inhumane at times.
A lot of it has to do with Germany, too, where they really invite a kind of murderous work ethic. There were extremely long hours, no information, a lot of technical conundrums that we had to get through. It was tough, but Bob always managed to do all these things, which I think the theatre requires. To build something beautiful you've got to get ugly. He would do this, but in the end you felt like it was for the work and there was no personal animosity or smallness exchanged -- which there is in a lot of theatre stuff, as I later found out, working on my opera. [laughs]
Was there a lot of prima donna-ish behaviour on the opera set?
I don't think there's a more aptly named piece out there than 'Prima Donna' if you look at how it's risen through the ranks. The amount of prima donnas who've been involved in this work and who've taken the title to heart -- perhaps myself included. It's pretty astounding, and it is a testament to the validity and power of this work that it's survived so many cooks and didn't get burnt. It's a really tough little spitfire of an opera and it brings out the prima donna in all of us, which is always fun.
It's an opera about an opera singer -- does its "meta-operatic" aspect bring something out in people?
Well, I think whenever you're dealing with or trying to create or trying to suppress, for that matter, the fire that is a diva, you are conjuring up some pretty reckless spirits. This character, Regine St. Laurent, in the opera she's an older woman, and she's at a point in her life when she really has to examine her artistic life, but at the same time, she's sexually aroused. Opera struggles a lot with sexuality being from an era when sexuality was so repressed, and yet the music is so sexual, so it's exciting.
There's also a kind of orgasmic quality of the structure of opera and of arias. You really have to come at a certain point in order for it to work. If you go to the opera and you're there for four hours and you don't come, it's really disappointing. [laughs] So you gotta throw everything at it.
On 'All Days and Nights,' the song 'Give Me What I Want,' is fabulously bitchy. You refer to someone as being a 'holy cow' and a 'greedy sow.'
That's probably the most personal song on the album, and it deals with an issue that I went through with critics of my opera in the classical world. It's very direct: 'F--- you.' Because there was such a buzz about the opera certain critics decided, I think before even seeing the piece, that they were just going to write the most outrageous review that they could, because then it would be noticed and it would become this barometer. They thought, "Maybe I'll walk in and love it, and I'll write the most incredible [review], but most likely I'm going to go really low."
There were a couple of reviews like that, where you could just smell the intent. It was interesting because everybody smelled it and it was so plainly obvious, but that being said, that review was always being quoted later on down the line. But then there were amazing reviews -- it really [ran] the gamut. It was funny to see those people jump on that gravy train.
You've said that '"Lulu" in the album's title refers to Louise Brooks's character in 'Pandora's Box,' and that she's a kind of alter-ego for you: she's looked on as being evil by some of the men in the film, but she invites sympathy from modern-day viewers.
I feel sympathetic towards her, too. I love her, and I want to protect her and envelop her and be her in the end, but nonetheless, I'm not gorgeously damned. I unfortunately have a survival mechanism that won't quit. I think there was always a secret side of me that wanted to be this nihilistic victim/romantic shooting star, and I really went for it for a while, but my shooting star would always hit the ceiling and end up in bed. [laughs]
I just didn't have it in me to be totally self-destructive. I'm not even saying that Lulu's self-destructive -- I think there are people where the whole world aspires to bring them down or to bring down people around them; there are modern-day Lulus. One of them I'm quite obsessed with; I know her quite well. I think Chloe Sevigny is our modern-day Lulu -- she's the eye of the storm, or at least she was for a while -- that kind of character.
You address your mother's illness directly the new songs "Martha" and "Zebulon." You've said she was your biggest admirer and toughest critic, was it constructive criticism?
Some of it was; some of it I didn't buy. It's hard to say because you always think of your mother as your mother, and then when she dies there's this whole other angle of her that appears as a person and as a human being, and you start to become enlightened about aspects of your life that you've overlooked in the past.
When she died there was such a massive outpouring of support and love and admiration for her that was really only about her. Martha [Wainwright, Rufus's sister] and I were mentioned -- and it wasn't about her as a mother; it wasn't about her as a Canadian; it was about her as a musician and someone who created this very distinct and lasting sound. It really made me stop and go, 'Oh my God, she really did know what she was talking about.'
Certainly there were things that she impressed upon me that I took to heart and other things where [I think], 'Oh mom, you were crazy.' But all that put aside, she was such a force to be reckoned with in the music world, and I owe so much to her tutelage and support and her criticism -- probably more to her criticism than I have admitted before.
What will audiences be able to expect when you promote this album?
I'm pulling out all the stops here for this tour, in terms of allowing myself to sink deep into the earth of sadness. I figure it's an appropriate time to take out the dark sword and lead the world a little bit. I think people will allow me that this time around. I've been pretty up-tempo for a while or at least tried to be, so I can kind of recline in my mourning mode.
My friend Douglas Gordon, the visual artist, is making a video to go with the concert, and in between the songs we'll ask the audience not to applaud; it'll be done as a song cycle -- no talking or jokes. And then in the second half I'll come out in a clown suit and sing "Mammy." No, I'm kidding. I don't want to leave everybody hanging, or hanging themselves, but I need to go to a very dark place for this tour.
Unfortunately, we live in very dark times, and art is a reflection of what's really happening, even though we don't know what that is consciously. But art, if it's done well, will reveal that to us and we should probably start listening to what it's saying.