For a gent whose arrangements famously tend towards the dramatic — he’s a classically-trained painist whose output includes song cycles, lieder, and two operas (Prima Donna and Hadrian) —Rufus Wainwright’s voice never seems to strain, or ululate unnecessarily. His is a powerful, leonine instrument that rarely strays far from the melody, adding built-in balance and structure to whatever musical meanderings are afoot.
I offer up my theory that the going-for-Baroque qualities of his 1998 Jon Brion-helmed debut, Rufus Wainwright, perhaps allowed him some all-important artistic freedom moving forward: by coming out guns-a-blazin’, he could on subsequent releases go lean or luxe as the spirit moved him.
“It’s true I’ve never felt particularly boxed in,” he says. “… as much as I would have liked to have been boxed in somewhere along the way, so I could, you know, eat! But I’ve just tried to make music that was honest to what I was feeling at the time, and things have turned out the way they need to. They usually do when I’m wise enough to get out of the way.”
One musical constant over the years has been the Wainwright family’s annual Christmas show, “Noel Nights.” The show features three generations of the Wainwright/McGarrigle family: Rufus, his sister Martha Wainwright, his aunt Jane McGarrigle, his father Loudon Wainwright III, his aunt Sloan Wainwright, and his half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche. Wainwright says a couple of other artists at the show are as close as family, a distinction he says is a mixed blessing perhaps, nodding to a family songwriting lineage that’s produced such feel-good hits as “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” (Martha, about Loudon) and “Rufus is a Tit Man” (Loudon, about a baby Rufus).
“Emmylou worked with my mother (the late Kate McGarrigle) and aunt (Anna McGarrigle) for many years. Much of the past success of this show is due to Emmylou — I mean, Emmylou and Anna basically became the (new) McGarrigle Sisters after my mother’s passing. She’s an indomitable force, Emmylou. She’s the closest we have to a saint. Or maybe she’s an archangel? And then Alison Krauss, she’d be the saint.”
Described by The New York Times as a “motley, convivial, multigenerational, jokey, affectionate and tinged with both skepticism and faith,” “Noel Nights” in its current incarnation has been around off and on since 2005, when Kate and Anna McGarrigle released The McGarrigle Christmas Hour.
“To me, Christmas just means reminding ourselves of peace, love, and the idea of a new beginning,” Wainwright says. “We all have busy lives. It’s just a good time of year for the family to catch up, which I suppose is true of many families; our clan just does it in front of people! It’s a good reminder that we are all allies, and, despite our occasional differences of opinion, are there for each other. It’s a good emotional recharge. We’re all very close, if in our own weird way, which is again probably how many families would describe their own dynamics. We hope there’s some symbolic unity there in our show that people can gravitate to or absorb.”
When asked about that word — unity — and how he sees that ideal manifesting itself this Christmas season given the recent polarizing political climate, Wainwright’s response reflects his understanding of the artist in context:
“I was doing dates in the Midwest right after the election,” he says. “I was able to sense an immediate reaction of need from the audience. Troubling politics can add to the ambience of art, you know? Your material has to mean something. That’s what I take from this. It doesn’t have to be overtly political, per se, but you need to bring something to the table, right? You need to connect, and the best way to do that is to be emotionally honest. I mean, it’s scary, but we’ve no other choice. We have to rise to the occasion. You never defeat the forces of evil by sitting one out; when worlds collide, it’s important to be present, to be vigilant in our love and care for each other. Which is what this show we're doing is really all about, and what we hope to celebrate and remind people of."
Rufus and Martha Wainwright, along with Emmylou Harris, present Nashville Noel Nights at the Ryman Auditorium on December 18 and 19 at 7:30pm. Proceeds from the show will benefit the Kate McGarrigle Foundation and the Epilepsy Foundation of Tennessee. Guests include Alison Krauss, Loudon Wainwright III, Sloan Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Jane McGarrigle, Chris Stills, Jamey Johnson and Karen Elson. Tickets are $44.50 and $64.50, available at the Ryman Auditorium box office, online at ryman.com, or by calling (615) 889-3060.