By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Rufus Wainwright is a good son. He was shopping leisurely in New York's West Village, chatting with the Sun-Times about his second summer tour with fellow piano man Ben Folds, and trying to find something nice for his mom in advance of their upcoming trip to Venice, Italy.
"You know, a tiara, or a nice set of diamonds," Wainwright said. "I'm being a beautiful gay son and dressing my mother like the queen of England."
He's gay and he's recovering from drug addiction, but Wainwright knows something about family values. Consider his family: dad Loudon Wainwright III, a patron saint of intelligent, personal folk music among the NPR crowd; mother Kate McGarrigle, mother superior of traditional folk singing in Canada (the couple divorced), and sister Martha Wainwright, a constant companion and backup singer to Rufus through most of his career thus far, who recently launched her own career with a song about Loudon (lovingly titled "Bloody Mother F——— A———").
While Martha explained to the Sun-Times earlier this year how daunting it was to step forward from this family with her own musical expression, Rufus has never had such hesitation.
"I definitely was always expected and encouraged to be a songwriter from a very young age," said Rufus, who grew up with McGarrigle in Montreal. "But really it's because, as a child, I thought I was Judy Garland. And when I started out, I was a little nuts. I thought I was a classic, legendary superstar when only 10 people knew who I was. I feel in some ways that my confidence is misinterpreted as arrogance, which is understandable. But I've also always thought that false modesty is evil."
Celebrity, however, is always in the mind of the beholder. For instance, Rufus remembers when, as a young boy, he realized for the first time that his dad was "someone."
"[Loudon] is really good friends with [filmmaker] Christopher Guest," he said. "It really struck me when we went to his house once in London — and suddenly Jamie Lee Curtis opened the door. I'd just seen 'Trading Places,' and I was amazed at, well, just how big her breasts were in person. And that's when I thought: Hey, Dad's got it going on."
The Wainwright family often backs one another up on recordings and concerts. Martha's been with Rufus since his 1998 self-titled debut, and both of them grew up singing with their mother and aunt (Anna McGarrigle); Rufus has covered his dad ("One Man Guy" on "Poses," and others in concert), and Martha dueted with him ("Father-Daughter Dialogue" on 1995's "Grown Man"). Loudon, though, has made a career of writing intensely personal — but still accessible and inviting — folk songs about his failed marriage ("Your Mother and I"), raising the kids ("Five Years Old," "Rufus Is a Tit Man," etc.) and his parents (his father was longtime Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright II, and Loudon's last disc, 2001's "The Last Man on Earth," was about the death of his mother).
"Everything's been fair game in our family," Rufus says.
He adds that, given his own penchant for speaking naked truths in song, this is what makes the tour with Ben Folds work so well: "[Ben and I] are not afraid to open our hearts and reveal the inner workings of a man. It can dangerous but intensely rewarding — I hope on both ends."
Folds, in a separate interview earlier this summer, acknowledged the same risk in baring one's soul. His new album, "Songs for Silverman," includes a delicate song about his daughter, "Gracie."
"Everything I write is personal, really," Folds said. "Even when I'm sarcastic, it's quite personal. And on this record, from the production to the singing to the performances, I got it really honest. To the modern ear, it seems soft. When you hear it against other things, it seems vulnerable. Lyrically and musically, though, this is more subtle. And, yes, it's asking a lot of someone who's used to being hit over the head with bright neon to listen to this."
Folds learned many lessons about getting personal without self-flagellating by working with, of all people, William Shatner. Last year, Folds produced and co-wrote several songs for Shatner's "Has Been" CD, a collection of intimate spoken-word narratives, commentaries and contemplations by the "Star Trek" star. The experience was unexpectedly liberating.
"I found in the process that as I would push him to follow his first instincts about what to say and what to express that I would sometimes wonder, 'Would I go that far?' But the results we got were inspiring.
"It's hard to explain," he says. "Sometimes I would be watching this classic guy performing and realizing that there's not a damn thing he can do about being William Shatner. You turn on the tape, and you get William Shatner. And you could've approached that as if it were something to get over, but that wouldn't have been honest. I wanted him to be exactly who he is, and I eventually realized I had to go for that same honesty and feeling in my own album."
Wainwright hopes to take a similar stripped-down approach to his next recording. After this summer's tour, he'll return to Europe for more touring, and he's planning to start the followup to his last two discs, "Want One" (2003) and "Want Two" (2004).
"It will be very, very different from the usual Rufus — not my usual voluptuous and grandiose view of the world," he said. "I want to get more streamlined. I feel like [Alfred] Hitchcock after making 'Vertigo' and 'To Catch a Thief,' his big Hollywood films. All of a sudden he made 'Psycho,' And then we knew where he really was coming from, you know?"
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT AND BEN FOLDS
with Ben Lee
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay roads, Highland Park
Tickets: Sold out
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.