| July 2, 2014 | People
Fresh off his concert at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts center, talented troubadour Rufus Wainwright talks with friend (and fan) Naomi Watts about his family’s history on the east end and its influence on his music.
Cotton poplin shirt, Sandro ($250). 410 Bleecker St., NYC, 646-438-9335. White slim-fit trousers, Salvatore Ferragamo ($850). Americana Manhasset, 2060 Northern Blvd., Manhasset, 516-365-9765. Navy loafers, Paul Smith ($575). 142 Greene St., NYC, 646-613-3060
“I’m not wildly well-versed in music and I don’t begin to know the technicality of it, but I feel like I respond to music,” says actress Naomi Watts to singer Rufus Wainwright, who this month introduces his latest compilation, Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright, a collection of his melodies, including “Foolish Love,” “Me and Liza,” and “Grey Gardens.” “There’s certain music that is just creating atmosphere and is lovely to listen to, but there’s something about your music that just puts me in a state of having a feeling, whether I’m ready for it or not,” she tells him. “I feel like you’re singing that song for me and only me, and that’s probably because you’re drawing from whatever is coming out of you, and it oozes into the person who is receiving. It’s so emotional it floored me.”
Delving into emotion is the cornerstone of Wainwright’s work. His 10 albums capture an intimate portrait of his life, his experiences, his loves, and his family, including his mother, the late performer Kate McGarrigle, with whom he regularly performed. Following her passing from sarcoma in 2010, Wainwright and his sister, singer Martha Wainwright, continued her fight against the disease through the work of the Kate McGarrigle Foundation, which helps raise funds for research toward a cure.
Today, Wainwright, who also channeled his passions into Prima Donna, his debut opera, is on tour promoting Vibrate, including a recent appearance at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. He’ll also be performing with his sister Martha at The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett in August. But he always has his sights set on Montauk. It’s where he married his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, a former executive director for RW Work Ltd., which managed the work of The Watermill Center founder Robert Wilson; where he’s helping raise their daughter, Viva; and where he has some of his happiest memories of his mother.
Redfield jacket, Belstaff ($2,695). Barneys New York, 660 Madison Ave., NYC, 212-826-8900. T-shirt, SCP ($42). Scoop Beach, 51 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, 631-329-6800. Jeans, Rag & Bone ($195). Americana Manhasset, 2060 Northern Blvd.,Manhasset, 516-627-2277. Marlon sunglasses, Tom Ford ($420). 845 Madison Ave., NYC, 212-359-0300. John Lobb sequin lace-up shoes, Paul Smith ($775). 142 Greene St., NYC, 646-613-3060
Naomi Watts: When did you move out to Montauk? When did you fall in love with it?
Rufus Wainwright: My father had a house—and still does—on Shelter Island. I grew up going there when nobody did—it was this dull, hidden gem. My father’s father, Loudon Wainwright II, grew up in East Hampton, and there was a very wealthy contingent of the Wainwrights who lived there that we always heard about. Unfortunately, my grandfather decided to become a writer and an artist, and, subsequently, we couldn’t live in East Hampton anymore. We ended up in Shelter Island because it was cheaper. But I always had this longing to return to the East End and bring back the family name. I also missed the big beach, the ocean, and the big waves, so finally, with my mom, we discovered Montauk, and we thought it was a really good combination of both. It has the incredible mansions on the sea, but it also has a bit of grit and some working-class people. I found a fabulous house that used to belong to Irving Berlin’s musical director, and we live there now. We adore it.
NW: Do you have time for hobbies? I know that’s the nerdiest question, but people ask me this. I don’t have hobbies. I could lie and say what I used to be interested in, but I don’t have time. Last year, I said I spend more time in the garden now, but that sounds horribly unsexy and very lame.
RW: The garden thing, I was so averse to anything relating to gardening because I did always find it the most boring, retired-person thing to do. That being said, we have a garden now, and I’ve never been more excited in my life than waking up and seeing a little pea come out of the earth. It’s like a Wagnerian opera or something. So gardening has actually become a passion for my husband and me.
NW: Tell me about your best-of album.
RW: It’s called Vibrate; it’s a collection of what I feel are my most accessible and classic numbers. I wish it was a greatest hits, and I should retire and write more operas, but it’s a best of. I’m enjoying singing it on stage. It’s a little traumatic to think that I’m 40 and I’ve already hit this milestone, because I feel like I’m 22. I’ll put out a greatest hits when I’m 80.
Rufus Wainwright always had his sights set on Montauk as a place to live, although he grew up visiting his father, Loudon Wainwright, on Shelter Island. Redfield jacket, Belstaff ($2,695). Barneys New York, 660 Madison Ave., NYC, 212-826-8900. T-shirt, SCP ($42). Scoop Beach, 51 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, 329-6800. Jeans, Rag & Bone ($195). Americana Manhasset, 2060 Northern Blvd.,Manhasset, 516-627-2277. Marlon sunglasses, Tom Ford ($420). 845 Madison Ave., NYC, 212-359-0300
NW: When I look closely at the lyrics, there’s this great sense of humor. You’re so sweet, you’ve got the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard, and you have this wonderful quality of laughing at your jokes—which I have, too.
RW: I have a very distinct laugh. Oddly enough, the way I get recognized the most is not from how I look or even how I sound when I sing; it’s from how I talk. My speaking voice has a vaudevillian showstopper living in my throat who can lighten the mood of the room, because I sound ridiculous. I sound like a character from The Little Rascals. Annoying, prepubescent drag queen, but anyway....
NW: And you’ve got that wonderful self-deprecating thing that is too rare these days.
RW: Which is funny, because that’s often misread. Oftentimes, in the press, I’ve toyed with the whole ego thing and said, “Oh, yes, I’m the most incredible person in the world, I’m so talented, I’m so beautiful,” but I’m really kind of kidding…. Well, I’m being somewhat serious, actually, but I don’t believe in false modesty—I hate that.
NW: Obviously you have written about every facet of your life—love and unrequited love, family, drugs. Is there anything you feel you’ve yet to write about?
RW: I would definitely say my whole gig is essentially what you see is what you get, or what you see is what you hear. I’ve never been able to draw a border between my creative life and my personal one, much to the chagrin of certain people around me—and also to the glory as well. Certain people adore me and get it top to bottom and are waiting for the next installment; others cannot stand the sight of me, and they hear my voice and are completely turned off. I do feel that’s because I draw from such personal experience, and you’re either willing to go there and enjoy that experience, or you’re just not going to want to go there or relate to it.
Wainwright at home, surrounded by his hat collection and memorabilia from his 20-year career as a songwriter and performer. Pale yellow shirt, Burberry Prorsum ($495). Americana Manhasset, 2060 Northern Blvd., Manhassett, 516-365-2050. Blue wool trousers, Salvatore Ferragamo ($990). Americana Manhassett, SEE ABOVE, 516-365-9765
NW: It’s great for those who love you, and I feel the same—my movies are definitely not appealing to everybody, but you tap into something visceral. That’s because the truth is pouring out of you.
RW: Thank you. I have been blessed with a kind of guidance, especially in terms of both my parents, in terms of how they had to survive in the business. When they started in the late ’60s and early ’70s, folk music was the big thing, and they were really on top of that game in terms of singer-songwriters. Then all of a sudden disco came in—which I love—but it wiped out their careers. They had to really depend on their wits and on the truth of what they were singing about. Martha and I really benefited from our parents’ failures. [Laughs]
NW: Hopefully we get smarter with each generation.
RW: I’m sure my daughter will learn from my mistakes.
NW: I don’t want to go into a world that you’ve probably talked about so many times, but your family seems endlessly fascinating to everyone.
RW: I made a decision long ago to bite the bullet and really include my family in the process of my career since it is an incredible story and it’s served me very well on many levels.
Wainwright strums his guitar as he muses about his musical career and the singing talents of his 31⁄2-year-old daughter, Viva. T-shirt, SCP ($42). Scoop Beach, 51 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, 329-6800. Blue wool trousers, Salvatore Ferragamo ($990). Americana Manhasset, 2060 Northern Blvd., Manhassett, 516-365-9765
NW: Coming from a creative family as well, a little bit of the competitive spirit can be hard to live with, but it can also be a great source of inspiration.
RW: My sister, Martha, is as talented, if not more, than me—and it’s taken me years to even state that. When we started out, I was very much the typical older brother, an attention hog, and thought the whole world revolved around me. My mother and I were essentially in love, and we trotted around our perfect dream relationship in front of my sister. My mother certainly adored my sister, but it was a bit of a tougher relationship, and there was a lot of anger and jealousy, but therefore a lot of fuel for her to work on her own stuff. By the time I started doing my own shows and got my first record deal, she was right there, ready and waiting with her own perspective and her fierce attitude. There were some tough years, but finally we realized that in the end, like all families, you are more powerful when you’re united and loving. Now we sing together all the time.
NW: Tell me about your daughter. How old is she now?
RW: She’s 31⁄2 . There are many questions about whether she is musical, and if you asked that, I would say I was concerned that would be a pressure. That being said, she sings 24 hours a day, vocalizing the whole time. She loves dressing up and she loves to dance, so I’m quite relieved that I don’t have to pussyfoot around the issue. I wouldn’t say she should be a performer, but she’s definitely a child of the stage. We’ll see how that works out.
NW: What about your mentors? Other than family, of course.
RW: I love dead people. I’m a big fan of the great composers, Verdi in particular. The span of his opera career and how he left it is how I’d want to go. I want to die at 84 having mastered some form or another of something. This whole idea in the pop world that you’re only good when you’re 23 and it’s got to be this fast, nihilistic splash in the pan—I encountered that early in my career, and I really had to hold on tight to my passion for opera and its composers, because their whole thing is you’re best when you’re in your 60s or 70s. That’s when you really deliver the goods, artistically, and you have the knowledge, wisdom, technique, and the ability to create your finest work.
photography by Melanie Acevedo; Styling by Rachel Wirkus @ Starworks Artists; Grooming by Jessica Ortiz for Clarins
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