The Blue Note Napa Summer Sessions has a wealth of big names in the lineup that runs through those warm months that are loosely referred to as “summer” here in Northern California. Perhaps none of those performers are more enigmatic and warm as our variable summers than Rufus Wainwright, the soul melting singer-songwriter who bangs piano keys to his own drum.
A music writer might often listen to a new work while working up an article on it. Let it be known that Wainwright’s oeuvre is too encompassing, too riveting—like an erratic dancer in slow motion, the day-long tilt of a flower following the sun across a fidgety time-lapse sky—to be work music.
Wainwright’s new album, Folkacracy, is in that vein, inviting collaborators into reworkings of folk standards that are clear and true, yet arresting. More obvious choices like John Legend and David Byrne contrast with names not easily associated with folk like Suzanna Hoffs (of Bangles fame) and club diva Chaka Khan. It works. Listening to the rendition of Neil Young’s “Harvest” nearly broke me.
We chatted by phone from his home in Laurel Canyon as he prepared to kick off the tour.
“This is a very unique venture that I’m about to go on. I’m going to be singing mostly cover songs in a folk style, some folks songs but also other material that isn’t,” Wainwright told me. “And then all of the people in the band are dear friends. So this is just going to be fun. And very relaxed. And musically challenging, of course.”
“But yes, getting out there and performing is always a roller coaster. And probably now that I’m telling you that, in this way, I’ll be totally nervous and it’ll be a fucking nightmare,” he laughed.
Among the many collaborations on the album is the traditional lullaby “Hush, Little Baby,” with Lucy Wainwright Roche and Martha Wainwright, the singer’s sister and mother. Sister Lucy will be joining her brother on tour, along with her newborn baby girl, for which the Wainwright is thrilled: “[It] will be amazing [to] spend time with my new niece.”
I asked about working with my personal hero, David Byrne, who sings on the dark tune, “High on a Rocky Edge.” Indeed the magical power of Wainwright’s world class voice forms a wild infusion with Byrne’s wacky, pitch-perfect deadpan, perfect for covering a song by the quirky NYC musician known as Moondog.
“Yeah, [David] is what you would call in French a beau laid, a beautiful ugly,” said the Montreal-raised Wainwright. “He has what would conventionally not be thought of as a, you know, beautiful voice, but somehow all the elements inspire and it works and it makes it very unique, you know, very seductive. He is totally unique.”
Growing up in the 80s in the home of successful musicians brought awareness of his musical ambition at an early age. Along with a very age-appropriate rebellion against the mainstream.
“I was brought up in a very unique and unusual kind of circumstance where my parents were both musicians more in the folk realm, but then I was brought up in Montreal in a completely bilingual household, where we spoke English and French, so we had the French and the English music in the home,” recalled Wainwright. “And then around 13, I became like an opera fanatic of my own volition.”
That swing of mood and tones, the shout and mumble of voice that tells story through opera comes through in all of Wainwright’s work, lifted by his naturally big singing voice. Makes his style unlike any other.
“I think because hip hop was so popular [when I was starting out], I sort of went into these other areas to seek out my own path,” said Wainwright. “I was looking for melodies, I was looking for chord changes and songs with weird bridges and stuff. I’m always looking under rocks, I guess.”
Even when doing an album and tour in a “folk-style,” the wandering, bold, whimsical approach that has marked his career stands out.
“It’s just sort of started this kind of wild pattern of [searching] for the great melody. It’s really that, that ties all of my music together,” he lilted with a speaking voice as soft as his singing voice belts out.
After 25 years in the spotlight, Wainwright’s signature style has changed little, while continuing to evolve. That means the music on this tour will be familiar to fans, typically jaw dropping to newbies, while also being something new for the artist.
“The material itself is pretty top notch [of course, but] I don’t have much to prove on this round. It’s more about really celebrating my education in music which, you know, I started when I was very young,” said Wainwright, who has repeatedly emphasized his excitement at working with his folk-oriented family on the album, the eponymous Folkocracy.
About kicking off the tour this weekend, he said, “My outlook for this tour is just to have fun, which I think is probably the best way to approach anything in life, just have as much fun as possible.”
Rufus Wainwright w/ special guest Lucy Wainwright Roche play 7 pm Sunday, June 4, at the Meritage Resort, 850 Bordeaux Way Napa. Tickets available at https://www.bluenotejazz.com/napa/shows/?eid=13015565