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Keeping It Simple

After a tough year—which included the death of his mother, a folksinging legend—Rufus Wainright releases a pared-down record.

Author Alan Light


Image – Kevin Westenberg

SINCE THE RELEASE of his last album, in 2007, Rufus Wainwright has written and staged an opera, recreated Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall and faced the death of his mother, folksinger Kate McGarrigle. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when it came time to record his latest effort, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, he wanted to keep things simple.

“I was really in need of solitude, in order to process all the different relationships that were inundating me,” he says of the choice to record with only piano accompanying his celebrated tenor.

Wainwright’s five previous albums have been characterized by complex compositions and ornate arrangements. But the 36-year-old learned the power of more stripped-down music from his father, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. “Also, I’ve always been a little insecure about my piano playing, so this was the chance to corner that beast.”

The title of All Days Are Nights is taken from one of three Shakespeare sonnets that Wainwright sets to music. The album also features the final aria from Wainwright’s opera, Prima Donna, which makes its North American debut in June at Toronto’s Luminato Festival.

But Wainwright’s affinity for classical forms often yields to other creative impulses. The record opens with “Who Are You New York?” a wistful meditation on the city, and closes with “Zebulon,” a soaring depiction of Wainwright’s teenage romances. “It’s a double-edged album,” he says. “I tried to create a spectrum that listeners can lose themselves in, with peaks of technique and valleys of simplicity.”

Wainwright’s sister Martha, an acclaimed singer-songwriter herself, recently got married and had a baby, inspiring “Martha,” a sober reflection on siblings watching their parents age. “It’s eerie that I finally wrote a song about my sister, and it’s coming out when we really need each other the most,” Wainwright says. “But the album was actually finished before my mother died. She got to hear a lot of it, and I believe that now her spirit is out in the ether and can help ferry these songs along.”

The former editor in chief of Spin and Vibe, ALAN LIGHT is often lost in a valley of simplicity.

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