Getting Into Character

Rufus Wainwright on "All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu"

Rufus Wainwright's sixth studio album All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu cuts back the lush instrumentation of 2007's Release the Stars with its sparse combination of piano and voice—a quiet reflection upon what has been a difficult year in the musician's personal life. The title refers to a fictional character created by early 20th century playwright Frank Wedekind in his plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box). A true femme fatale before her time, Wedekind's Lulu exposes the hypocrisy of the bourgeois society around her through reckless and destructive actions, but for Wainwright, whose mother Kate McGarrigle passed away in January, she has come to symbolize a part of himself as he attempts to deal with his loss. In advance of the album's release in the US on April 20, Wainwright talks to NOWNESS about Lulu, preparing for the London run of his opera Prima Donna and finding inspiration in tragedy.

Tell us about this character Lulu.

It's the same character from the Berg Opera [Lulu] or the original Wedekind plays. But my Lulu will always be Louise Brooks, the American actress from the ’20s, star of Pandora’s Box [the 1929 film of Wedekind’s play, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst]. She, for me, is the ultimate personification of that character, who in many ways is also an idea.

Why the fixation on her?

It’s out of necessity. There are certain artistic philosophies that maybe I’m milling about in, but really it’s more this need to identify danger in my life. Somehow if I put her face to it I can spot it quickly. When I’m struck by a daunting situation, I just want to throw up my hands and go out and forget about everything and lose control, which I really can’t these days, for many reasons. But I see her pop into the picture and I’m like “Okay, well there she is, I shouldn’t go in that direction.”  When you’ve written an opera and are producing an opera, you’ve got to have all your cylinders going at full speed.

Has it been difficult working within the opera community then?

Yes, it’s been a shock, though I’m used to it now. But you really have to be prepared to be ambushed by an educated person at any time, so you have to be on guard. And also, of course, there’s been my mother’s death. There are certain emotional wells that I need to be aware of—and definitely deal with—but not jump into naked.

Is it fair to say the album’s an elegy for your mother? Or is it more complicated?

Yes, it is a public mourning of sorts for sure. I’m working with the artist Douglas Gordon, who’s made a beautiful film that will go with the show. And I will play these songs as a kind of song cycle, meaning I’ll ask the audience not to applaud until the end. So we can just get lost in the misery of it all [Laughs]. So I’m totally going for the jugular in terms of sadness. But there’s triumph in there as well, and beauty.

You also talk about Lulu being a part of you. Is a lot of the music introspective?

It’s very introspective, but what’s funny about it is that it’s not about me necessarily. I do reference myself a lot and talk about myself quite openly. But I’m really directing a lot of these songs at the women in my life, whether it’s Lulu or my mother or my sister or Prima Donna—there’s an aria from Prima Donna on the album—or Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. So I don’t actually feel that this is me reaching into myself. It’s more me reaching out for help.

To absent women?

It runs the gamut. There’s an absence of my mother. There’s a little too much Lulu sometimes in my life, then there’s Prima Donna, whom I’m working with presently. Then there’s my sister. We have a very intense relationship right now, a wonderful relationship, really needing each other to get through this. And so it’s all these…handmaidens of the beautiful young prince. Sorry. That was the silly side of me that just came out.

It’s seemingly a very serious, very spare album. Were you consciously trying to strip things back?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but much of this record has really been dictated by a brutal force in terms of events in my life. And so everything has just become what it had to become through the chaos of death. There’s no simpler or nicer way to put it. It’s all just happened.

But there’s a triumph there as well?

The triumph is, and this is interesting, that my mother died far too young—she was 63, she could have been around for at least another 20 years—but that said, she died at home and she wasn’t in a tremendous amount of pain. At the end, she went into a coma and slipped away very peacefully with her family around her, and there’s something very triumphant about that. Especially when dealing with cancer—I’m not saying that people who have terrible deaths with cancer are not triumphant—but she made it through so gracefully in a way. Maybe she was in more pain than I was aware of, but she didn’t let anyone know, and she was so regal up until the end. My mother was a very majestic woman, so it was awe-inspiring. And I think this record really was affected by the whole process.

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