Having performed around the world with a wide variety of concert programs reflecting equally far-reaching musical preferences, Rufus Wainwright is quick to cite his ties to the Bluegrass State.
Until now, they have not included Lexington, although that will change with a performance Wednesday at the Lexington Opera House. He has played Louisville on occasion, but that’s not what Wainwright is recalling. There was an earlier link to the region that landed him in, of all places, Bardstown.
“My mother and aunt were huge Stephen Foster fanatics, so when I was a child, we did a pilgrimage to My Old Kentucky Home,” Wainright says. “So, yeah, I have a slight, tenuous history with your state.”
This Kentucky sojourn unlocks the first and perhaps most immediate aspect of Wainwright’s artistic identity: his family. His mother and aunt were Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the celebrated Canadian singer-songwriting siblings from Quebec. His father is veteran folk songsmith Loudon Wainwright III, and his sister is the acclaimed folk and rock stylist Martha Wainwright.
“Once you scratch the surface and get into our story, you realize it’s really like a three-generation saga that I’m gratefully involved in with all the good music and positive outcomes that we’ve experienced as a family — along with some adversarial situations, of course.”
There is something about my voice specifically that is able to unite a lot of very disparate musical ideas to bring out the commonalities.
Over the past two decades, Wainwright has solidified a career of astonishing stylistic breadth. He recorded numerous albums of his own works (including the extraordinary two-volume “Want” in 2003 and 2004) but also released a concert tribute record to Judy Garland (2007’s “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall”), composed two operas (the newest of which, “Hadrian,” based on the Roman emperor of the same name, will have its premiere next year in Toronto), cut an entire album of Shakespearean sonnets set to original music (2016’s “Take All My Loves”) and, earlier this year, fashioned a cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” for the Los Angeles charity The Art of Elysium.
What he will bring to the Opera House will be, in essence, all of that and more: a solo program encompassing his original works, standards, perhaps a pop cover, a sampling of the sonnets and a likely nod to some of the great Canadian songsmiths who came before him (the Leonard Cohen staple “Hallelujah” has been included frequently).
“I’m made up of three parts, shall we say. One being a songwriter, one being a composer of operas and the third being a singer,” Wainwright says. “I find that in singing opera, singing standards or singing my own material, there is something about my voice specifically that is able to unite a lot of very disparate musical ideas to bring out the commonalities. So as a singer, I often have to look for themes as opposed to the variations.
“The show I’m bringing to you guys really just represents who I am as a working, eating, sleeping, loving musician. This is what I have to do to in order to earn my keep. It draws on a lot of elements of my career, be it pop songs or opera stuff.”
It gets pretty dark up there in the winter — cold, too. You really have to escape to the nether regions of your imagination to make it through.
Rufus Wainwright on songwriting in Canada
Born in New York and currently (as of a year ago) living in Hollywood, Wainwright moved with his mother and sister to Montreal at age 3 after his parents separated. He has long maintained dual citizenship in Canada and the United States (“the best of both worlds,” he called it) and has found considerable kinship with the music of other songwriters from his longtime homeland.
“I sing a lot of those songs, whether they come from Leonard (Cohen), Joni Mitchell or Neil Young. So, yeah, it’s a strange phenomenon, actually, as to how there are so many brilliant songwriters from Canada. I think it has to do with the light, of the lack of it, shall we say. It gets pretty dark up there in the winter — cold, too. You really have to escape to the nether regions of your imagination to make it through.”
That won’t be a problem this fall, though. Between our conversation last week and his Opera House concert Wednesday, Wainwright planned to head to Havana for a string of concerts collectively titled “Wainwright Libre!” But this time, climate will play an altogether different role. Battered earlier this month by Hurricane Irma, Cuba was, as of this writing, bracing for a possible hit from Hurricane Maria.
“We’re just going where we’re needed, you know? But let’s just hope Maria doesn’t meet me there.”