By JAMES ROBINSON
Rufus Wainwright is quick to acknowledge that he's asked for a certain type of patience from his fans in recent years. There was Prima Donna, the opera he wrote, the stark All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, which featured adaptations of three of Shakespeare's sonnets. He's also released a 19-disc box set and worked a lot with his famous singing family.
"I'm in the process of diversifying my platform these last few years," Wainwright laughs, a slightly endearing cackle that he'll pull out several times in a 15-minute interview. He's talking from New York and he's about to head to up Long Island to Montauk, to "look out at the ocean for a day" before he flies out to the West Coast ahead of Sunday night's (June 9) show at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.
He says that he's planning to take time off in the fall this year to potentially write another opera. Subsequently, this current run of shows, with just him alone at a piano, is about engaging with his fans in a crowd-pleasing way before a potential disappearance and another creative left-turn. "I thought this time I'll come, only me, and people can do what they want with me up there," he says.
Having released and performed music across three different decades now, Wainwright sounds enviably casual about playing a solo show to a 2,000-seat plus theater. He says that this type of performance is how he started out, with nothing but his songs and himself to win over a crowd. To him it is somewhat of a family business even, going back to his parents, folk-musicians Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, who passed away in 2010.
"I think it's a barometer of one's musical work. Every singer-songwriter should be able to get up and do it. It's like the badge of the law, but for music," he says.
These shows do, however, call on a unique skill set. "You have to be keenly aware and sensitive to a kind of sonic temperature that's occurring. It could be a heckler, or you're not getting the applause you quite want, or the lighting is not right," Wainwright says, and pauses. "I've got years worth of material to call on up there. I've made nine albums. It's a lot of artillery."
His choice of words stops him in his tracks for a brief second. "Not to make a war metaphor or anything, or to refer to my audience as the enemy. You've got to love your audience. But you've got to meet them head on slightly," he says, with another high-pitched laugh.
Besides, Wainwright's show in San Francisco on Sunday is a prelude, a rehearsal even, to a much larger event. At the end of this month he'll play at the Glastonbury music festival in England to somewhere over 60,000 people, again with just a piano to hold people's attention. "I'm excited. There's something of a David and Goliath vibe to it that I like. It's energizing, something you can either run headfirst into or cut and run from," he says.
It has been a little over a year since Wainwright released his last album, the Mark Ronson-produced Out of the Game, and he says that he'll play a number of songs off that record this weekend.
After all of Wainwright's attempts to push out his brand in recent years, Out of the Game was his most accessible album yet. It is an almost jaunty, danceable album, which is a first for him.
He says that with his mother's passing in 2010, Out of the Game was a conscious play for levity. "The album before it was so stark and sad and is drenched in my mother's passing. I really wanted to focus on the light, very poppy side of things," he says.
The choice of Ronson, the famed producer who has worked with everyone from Amy Winehouse and Adele to Ghostface Killah and the Kaiser Chiefs, was partly because he had that sought-after lighter touch. But it was not a cynical ploy. "I just love the way he captures good sonic depths," Wainwright says. "He's got this P-H, phat quality to his sonic linings that will stand the test of time, where certain albums from more digital eras date badly."
Wainwright isn't done with the subject of his mother's death, even if he is finding more constructive ways to deal with that same darkness. McGarrigle, who was Canadian and a revered folk musician herself, passed away of clear cell sarcoma, and Wainwright has prepped a double-disc tribute album to her, Sing Me The Songs, which comes replete with A-list musical guests: Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Broken Social Scene, and even Jimmy Fallon. All money raised will go towards the Kate McGarrigle Foundation, which sponsors cancer research.
With McGarrigle's death, Wainwright says, something in her songs is now finished. "Through the paradigm of death I think a third dimension opens up and the song, fused with a little piece of the soul, is set free by her passing," he says.
He'll likely play some of his mother's songs at his show on Sunday night. Sometimes this can open up older, more intense feelings of grief, but he's mostly okay with it now. Not that he's afraid of encountering that emotion.
"I've always gone for the jugular in terms of emotional danger," he says. "I don't hold back, to certain people's chagrin. I find it useful to seek those feelings to the fullest."