Rufus Wainwright has been busy. Lordy, has he been busy.
In the three years since his last studio album, "Release the Stars," he's ping-ponged from one ambitious project to the next. He performed sensational tribute concerts to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. He wrote music for 24 of Shakespeare's sonnets and performed them for a theatrical production, "Sonette," with director Robert Wilson in Berlin. He sang Berlioz's "Les Nuits d'ete" in New York. He even composed an entire opera, "Prima Donna," which enjoyed a successful premiere in Britain.
So perhaps it's not surprising that for his return to the recording studio, he sought to back off, downshift, quiet things a bit. "All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu," released this spring, finds the sweeping, murmuring singer-songwriter sonically naked -- just his voice and piano.
"I threatened to do this a while ago," Wainwright says in an interview from a brief oceanside respite before beginning a U.S. tour. "Unfortunately, I needed the proper life circumstance in order to dig into it. Given the sad opportunity with my mother's passing and the exhaustion from working on the opera, the lone piano became my cocoon, shield and confessional."
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Rare is the news article about Rufus Wainwright that doesn't allude to the musical dynasty from which he sprang. The mother that passed -- that's Kate McGarrigle, beloved Canadian folk singer, who died of cancer in January. His father, still kicking, is rascally American folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. His aunt, Sloan Wainwright, writes and records, as does his sister and omnipresent backup singer, Martha Wainwright.
But Rufus and Martha were raised by Kate in Montreal, and Kate's death is an occasional and prominent lyrical thread on these 12 new compositions. They're not pop songs. They're sometimes complicated odes to grief, love and the tempest of life. In "Zebulon," it all begins piling up on him: "My mother's in the hospital / my sister's at the opera / I'm in love but let's not talk about it / there's so much to tell you."
"It all happened in concert," Wainwright says. "This album was finished right before she passed away and was released after her death.
"As Mom was passing, I had to face myself and the possibility of being alone. We had been so close. The piano was her main instrument, a vision I always acquainted with her presence. The technical difficulty of this enterprise was synonymous with the grief itself."
In "Martha," he puts music to plaintive phone messages for his sister, as if turning his father's song "OGM" inside out:
Martha, it's your brother calling
Time to go up north and see mother
Things are harder for her now
And neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore
Martha, it's your brother calling
Have you any chance to see father
Wondering how he's doing
And there's not much time
For us to really be that angry at each other anymore
"It is like something my father would write," he says, "perhaps as a kind of directness and slight aggression there, too, which he's well-known for." He laughs. "But I just hit 37. I'm well past the youthful bohemia I once inhabited so grandly."
The current tour presents a show in two acts. The first half contains the entire new album as a song cycle, with Wainwright at the piano and no applause. Then Wainwright returns for the second act "and we have fun and sing the old favorites."
Part of the first act, though, includes some of the Shakespeare sonnets, a project he says he tackled as a theatrical warm-up ahead of his opera. Wainwright includes three of them on the new album, including "Sonnet 10" ("For shame deny that thou bear'st love to any / Who for thy self art so unprovident") -- the "gay one."
"I think of it as gay, anyway," he says. "For me, it reeks of a drunk old queen who's gone a little too far in one of his histrionic lessons. I can visualize it. You can definitely tell the poet has overstepped his bounds emotionally with this young man and shown a little more than he intended through his affection." A discussion of Shakespeare's sexuality follows.
"Shakespeare got it," Wainwright concludes, meaning he understood two sides of sexuality, but then he chuckles the punch line: "He probably gave it, too."
Wainwright returns to Carnegie Hall on Dec. 29, around which time he promises an "exciting" announcement related to a U.S. production of "Prima Donna."