My return to folk is something of an epic tale, says Rufus Wainwright on latest album | The Sun

FOLKOCRACY (noun): A dynasty of renowned folk musicians.

If anyone can claim to be a member of a “Folkocracy”, it is Rufus Wainwright.

The Canadian-American singer’s late mother Kate McGarrigle and his aunt Anna formed a stellar sister act singing old-timey original compositions and traditionals in English and French.

His father Loudon Wainwright III is an acoustic guitar-toting troubadour who once wrote a song, with typical caustic wit, about his baby son’s breastfeeding habits called Rufus Is A Tit Man.

His sister Martha Wainwright and half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche are also fine recording artists belonging to the illustrious clan.

This all helps explain why Rufus, who turned 50 last month, has called his latest album Folkocracy.

Read More on Showbiz

Kanye’s wife Bianca Censori exposes NSFW body part in nearly-naked outfit

Jesy Nelson splits with boyfriend after whirlwind nine-month romance

It is a sumptuous collection of folk covers featuring guest vocals from, among others, John Legend, Chaka Khan, Brandi Carlile and Nicole Scherzinger.

There are reworkings of age-old staples like Shenandoah, Cotton-Eyed Joe and Down In The Willow Garden and just one of his own songs, Going To A Town, a duet with Anohni.

We also hear a hummed Rufus-style Schubert lied, a Hawaiian protest song and his take on the folk rock of The Mamas & The Papas and Neil Young.

Family members join in on the finale — an ensemble rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme with long-time McGarrigles associate Chaim Tannenbaum on the iconic banjo once played so sweetly by Rufus’ mum.

Most read in Music


I've spent 15 years travelling to find the most terrible album covers ever


I was in 2 of the biggest rock bands of all time – now I’m a military hero


Music legend recorded own farts and played them on some of her hit songs


Italian singer Toto Cutugno who won Eurovision Song Contest dies aged 80

“The record would have been incomplete, not properly anchored, without that track,” affirms Rufus, who looks every inch a folkie these days with his big, bushy grey beard.

“It would have been odd to not have a nod to the whole family concept, especially with my mother’s banjo being played.”

And yet, despite all that history, this is Rufus’s first fully-fledged exploration of the tunes that surrounded him as a child growing up in Montreal.

Speaking via Zoom from the home in California he shares with husband Jorn, he says: “My return to folk is something of an epic tale.

“From an early age, I was certainly very good at it. I loved singing, I loved harmonising and I loved performing.

“I remember there were a lot of Irish songs like The Minstrel Boy. I would also sing St James Infirmary and Arthur McBride, which is on this album.

“And I knew a lot of Stephen Foster songs,” says Rufus, referring to the 19th century composer behind Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races and Old Folks At Home.

“They were a little bit racist and weird but we could get away with it being in Canada in the middle of nowhere.

“Then, of course, I learned a whole bunch of French-Canadian songs.”
Rufus admits: “I even loved being in that world but I didn’t necessarily feel accepted by that society.”

Songs in the folk tradition tend to highlight underdogs railing against their cruel masters or soldiers off to fight in futile wars or black-hearted murderers heading to the gallows.

The love songs boast rogues and rakes and maidens in distress and run along strictly conventional gender lines.

And the scene’s audiences are mostly diehards who like their artists to keep to those well-trodden paths.

“A very intense ethos has existed in folk,” says Rufus.

“You have to know what the workers sang and it has to be authentic. There can’t be any weird chords, which I find frustrating but also kind of amazing because of the classical approach.”

‘My return to folk music is an epic tale’

Of his mum and aunt’s place in that world, he adds: “Kate and Anna managed to stay within the confines but also create this unique, very mysterious sound of their own, which we all still listen to and love.”

But for a young gay man like Rufus with wildly adventurous musical ambitions, it all felt too staid to draw him in.

He continues: “Nobody was ever mean to me. I didn’t experience any abuse but there wasn’t a lot for me to relate to with my sexuality and in terms of my more flamboyant nature.

“So, I always had a hard time relating to folk because my story wasn’t necessarily in that canon. And then I found it with opera.”

Setting his own course, Rufus achieved his big breakthrough on his own terms with his third and fourth albums Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004).

The songs are beautiful and orchestrated, summoning the power and drama of opera but with a pop sheen, and topped by a sweet voice to die for.

He still holds them close to his heart and will perform both albums back-to-back on September 5 at the hallowed Royal Albert Hall in the company of the BBC Concert Orchestra.

“It is the 20th anniversary of Want so we’ve organised this concert,” reports Rufus.

“I’m very excited about it — the Albert Hall is my favourite venue in the world.”

Before we explore Folkocracy in more detail, I ask him to explain why those two records proved so special.

“They are formidable pieces of work,” he replies. “My first album (his self-titled 1998 debut) was produced after years of writing songs, so it was all there.

“My second (Poses, 2001) was my decadent foray but I still love it.

“For Want, I really had to reimagine myself as a warrior. I had to grab the bull by the horns both musically and personally.

“They turned out to be very positive, very emotional records — and ready for battle!”

‘I had to reimagine myself as a warrior’

Over the two decades since their release, he has acquired the confidence to follow his muse, explaining why last year’s Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios continued his lifelong obsession with Judy Garland and why, in 2023, he has finally returned to folk music.

He first got the idea for Folkocracy when his 2020 effort Unfollow The Rules was nominated for a Grammy.

While watching the ceremony, Rufus noticed that there were “so many categories covering folk, Americana and roots music”.

He says: “I’ve always been so hard to categorise, such an odd creature in this industry, but a little light went off when I discovered this.

“I remember saying, ‘I’m from that world, I had all that training, I know a lot of the songs, I know how to sing that way and harmonise.’

“So I decided to make a folk record and everyone was like, ‘That’s a great idea.’ Next thing you know, here we are.”

The album is bookended by two songs from Scotland, with Alone starting proceedings in poignant style as a duet with up-and-coming singer Madison Cunningham.

It was written by a member of another Folkocracy, Ewan MacColl, whose daughter Kirsty sang Fairytale Of New York so memorably with Shane MacGowan.

Rufus says: “I love the fact that the first song is Scottish and very brooding, about getting older and facing death, and that the last, Wild Mountain Thyme, is Scottish and about having sex up in the mountains.”

His ravishing reading of Heading For Home in the company of John Legend is a vocal tour de force.

It was written by Peggy Seeger, MacColl’s partner until his death in 1989 and half-sister of late banjo-wielding legend Pete Seeger.

Rufus says: “I’ve listened to Peggy’s version of that for years and when it comes on my iPod, I become very emotional.

“It totally encapsulates what this album is about. It’s not ‘I am home’, it’s Heading For Home and home is either Canada or death or my actual home or my husband. It’s all of that.”

As for singing with Legend, he adds: “The shocking thing about him is how young he looks. I think he’s a little younger than me, but he could be 13!

‘Nicole Scherzinger is drop-dead gorgeous’

“He’s quite muscular and attractive — and he’s very sweet.”

It’s clear from the company he keeps on Folkocracy that Rufus is one of the best connected artists in the music industry.

“I may not be on the radio or in the tabloids or whatever, but I am, nonetheless, known by other musicians,” he agrees.

“I’m like my parents, a musician’s musician. So you’ve got to take advantage of that.”

Another guest who might surprise you is former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, who duets on Kaulana Na Pua, a highly-charged protest song from 1893 about the US annexation of Hawaii and dedicated to the islands’ last queen, Lili’uokalani.

“My husband and I spend time in Hawaii,” Rufus tells me. “We love it there and we’ve bought some land.

“You really have to be very respectful of the native culture. Even though it’s technically American, the mindset is still Hawaiian. So, I wanted to offer something to them.”

And seeing that Nicole was born in Honolulu, who better to accompany him?

“I met her at a Quincy Jones tribute and we just hit it off,” says Rufus.

“She’s so drop-dead gorgeous and you can’t help but be transfixed by her.

“She’s also incredibly talented. She was in the Annie musical and can really hit those notes. It was nice having her on something less flashy and she is, of course, Hawaiian.”

As you may have gathered, there’s a fascinating story behind every song on Folkocracy.

Down In The Willow Garden, is a gruesome Appalachian murder ballad performed in the company of Brandi Carlile.

Rufus says: “I learned it from The Everly Brothers — not directly, though my mother did hang out with them, but from one of their albums.

“I had to sing it with a woman because I don’t think two men could do it any more. It’s brutal.”

The song’s protagonist kills Rose Connelly three times.

“First he poisons her and then he sticks his sword through her,” explains Rufus. “Then he drowns her in the river. It’s literally overkill.”

But he strongly believes “it’s important to sing about this stuff. There’s incredible violence around us still, especially with guns in the United States.”

Moving on, he describes how singing Cotton-Eyed Joe with Chaka Khan was “one of the great thrills of my career”.

She launched her career as lead singer in an American funk band called, of all things, Rufus.

“We’re a super-Rufus,” he laughs. “She’s such a force of nature. She came in and was just singing all over the place.

“I wondered, ‘Is this even going to happen?’ but, all of a sudden, everything clicked in and we captured this amazing voice.”

It has to be said that Folkocracy stretches the boundaries of folk, as you might expect from a singular artist and a wide variety of guests.

The lush rendition of Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon), originally by John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas, evokes the patchouli- scented late Sixties hippie era.

It comes with an intriguing Rufus anecdote. “I lived with Bijou Phillips (John’s daughter) up in Mulholland Drive. It was a very crazy time. Doing the song was a little wink of my eye to her.”

On a wider note, he says: “This record is more about the spirit of folk music, which means harmony singing, doing it in real time, not being over-produced and reviving songs.”

As our chat winds up, we return to the McGarrigle/Wainwright clan which inspired his album title.

Rufus reports that his previously troubled relationship with his 76-year-old father, whose marriage to his late mother ended in divorce, “is much better now”.

Read More on The Sun

Big Brother star unrecognisable 22 years after show success

Superdrug shoppers rush to buy discontinued designer perfume for just £9

“We have worked hard to bury our hatchets,” he says. It’s been tricky but we’re having a good time. He still sings a lot and is very active.”

Right now, Rufus accepts that being in a Folkocracy “has had its advantages”.

Rufus Wainwright – Folkocracy


Source: Read Full Article