Rufus Wainwright’s best songs, as chosen by him | Interview

Rufus Wainwright heart wall

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: This song is also on Folkocracy, but that’s not why I gave it to you. Though, I do want to say that when we were making the record, I did think that it would just be weird to have absolutely nothing of mine on there. Mitchell Froom, who is the producer, said, ‘Well, you know Rufus, if I had to pick one song of yours that I believe will become a folk song in the future and go down the line, musically, I would pick “Going to a Town”.’ And, sadly, that’s probably true because the subject matter of the song is kind of depressing in that this sort of frustration people feel with the United States used to be every 10 years or so and now it’s just perennial.

That being said, I don’t think “Going to a Town” is a negative song about the United States. I think it’s actually a love song. It’s like writing to someone you really care about. You want them to do better and you really want to keep them in your life, but you’re just so exasperated. So I think it’s imbued with a sense of… not necessarily hope, but positive dreams at least.

I wrote this song very fast, and it was really sparked by the invasion of Iraq by America. We had this very brief period after 9/11 where the whole world had sort of come together to support the United States and give us a helping hand. Then, lo and behold, we invaded Iraq, which was just ridiculous.

BEST FIT: Could you have imagined at the time that it would come to be one of the songs you’d perform most often, and become such an important part of your career?

No, I didn’t imagine it right away. But as I started to sing it for people, it grew incrementally in stature. I was definitely hooked into the zeitgeist at the time.

What’s interesting about this song is that when Obama won the presidency, I was still singing it occasionally and all of a sudden it was the Republicans who hated him and hated Democrats who were kind of into it. So I realised that the song can actually shift sides, which is a bit odd. Of course, I am on the more left wing.

You’ve said before that the ‘town’ in question is Berlin, and the funny thing about Release the Stars is that you originally planned to make a completely different album, stylistically, inspired by Berlin. What happened there?

It’s true, I went to Berlin with the intention of doing some sort of cool, hip, avant-garde, grungy, rock and roll record – a Lou Reed / David Bowie type thing – but then I ended up being more affected by Potsdam and Sanssouci and Frederick the Great. Things from this kind of odd baroque period that left such a big impression, and as a result the album became much more florid and more about parks and palaces and stuff.

I’d also discovered the music of [Italian popstar] Mina around that time and she had sort of availed herself, artistically, and I think that was a big influence in shaping my ideas about production.

“Going to a Town” has been covered by some very notable people – Salma Hayek, Mandy Patinkin and, of course, George Michael. How did it feel when you learnt that George Michael was out there singing your song?

That was a great honour! I have a funny story about that, actually. I mean, in retrospect it’s kind of a sad story, but also funny.

I’d met George once, in passing, and I didn’t really even know him that well. I was told that he was going to call me, and one night, finally, I got this call at, like, three in the morning. I was up, because I was on the tour bus or something, but it was the middle of the night. I thought maybe he was in a different time zone, but it was also the middle of the night for him.

Anyway, he just talked and talked and talked about how much he loved the song and so forth. Of course, I immediately wanted to, you know, thank him and join in with the conversation, but it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t gonna be able to say a word because he was so high and just kind of rambling. He spoke for an hour, just going on and on about this and that until it became just a stream of consciousness thing. And then he fell asleep, still on the phone [laughs].

He later apologised for having done that, but whatever. Look, it was fascinating, but also sad because I would have liked to have spent more time with him. We miss him so much.

That’s a great story. He was a real gem. Going back to what we were saying earlier about the new version on Folkocracy, which you’ve done with ANOHNI, who you’ve worked with quite a bit in the past. Can you talk a bit about her involvement?

I’ve been friends with ANOHNI for about 30 years now. We started out as street urchins, basically, in the Lower East Side. I used to go see her play shows like Blacklips at the Pyramid Club. She didn’t know me so much, but I knew who she was and I followed her.

When I came back to New York after making my first record [in Los Angeles] we hung out at a lot of bars and clubs and stuff, and had a lot of friends in common. And then, you know, she had this meteoric rise at one point, after winning the Mercury Prize, and that was really exciting to watch and be a part of. Our common love of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed was important, too.

We’ve just had these different intersections over the years that have been very profound, and also kind of on the same level. It’s been wonderful to watch her career blossom in the way that she wanted, and my career in mine, so we can kind of admire each other. And, of course, it’s important that we get together every once in a while, so we did it for Folkocracy.

How did you find your way into the song as a duet? Had you done it as a duet before?

No, I hadn’t, and I don’t really qualify this version as a duet, per se. I did offer for her to sing a bigger part and make it more of a lead, but she felt more empowered to bring her own sort of environment and perspective to the song with some of the lyrics she added and the harmonies. I think we’re still very much in separate quadrants on this version, and I think that makes it pretty fascinating. It’s not your run-of-the-mill duet. I’ll be honest, I was a little taken aback initially because I didn’t quite understand what she was trying to do. But then once she explained it, and we kind of mixed it in, it made total sense. And I get to keep the lead, so I’m not unhappy!

She’s always been the type of person who if you ask her to do something, she’ll immediately do something else. That’s her. That’s the way she operates, and I think it comes from a real artistic place. She’s drawn to the unexpected, she likes to have that dangerous element. I just had to let her do it her way, and I think it probably makes the song far more interesting because we’re not just trading verses, which I also love by the way. But, yeah, she likes to do things uniquely, which is why we love her!

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