‘It’s a blood sport’: Rufus Wainwright on songwriting, childhood and new album Folkocracy

One of the most acclaimed artists of his generation, Rufus Wainwright releases his new album Folkocracy on June 2 – a covers collection of folk classics featuring a stellar array of special guests. Headliner joins him for a chat about his experiences growing up in a folkocracy of his own, entering a new phase of reflection, and why “all is fair in love, war, and songwriting”.

You can listen to the interview here or continue reading below. 

A brief flash of Rufus Wainwright’s thickly bearded face graces our Zoom call before his camera shakily upturns and presents a view of an anonymous white ceiling. “I’m just lying down and resting my phone on my chest, so I’m afraid you won’t be able to see me much,” he breezily informs us as he settles down for an in-depth conversation that will see us strip away the layers of childhood experience, familial dysfunction, and personal and professional reflection that tightly wrap his new album Folkocracy.

Released on June 2, Folkocracy is a collection of ‘reimaginings’ of folk classics and standards featuring a sparkling array of special guests, including the likes of John Legend, Chaka Khan, David Byrne, Anohni, Susanna Hoffs, Van Dyke Parks, Brandi Carlile, his sisters Martha and Lucy and many more. Its creation, he goes on to explain, was prompted by a period of introspection, with 2023 marking both the 25th anniversary of his self-titled album and his upcoming 50th birthday.

The product of a formidable folkocracy of his own – the son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and brother of Martha Wainwright – he grew up steeped in the folk tradition, yet for much of his career has taken deliberate steps to distance himself from that world. And he’s enjoyed tremendous success in doing so, notching up 10 studio albums to date that veer between pop and classical styles, as well as producing numerous operatic and theatrical pieces, and generally garnering a reputation as one of the most versatile talents of the past three decades. So what inspired this return to his folk roots?

“Well interestingly enough it was not planned at all,” he laughs, as he does a lot during our time together. “I came up with the idea of doing a folk record as a rather dubious concept [laughs] where I’d watched the Grammys and, as I was watching the show, realised there are just so many folk categories. And I thought, I can do that! I’m from a folkocracy!

“Once I told my husband (arts administrator Jörn Weisbrodt) and we talked to the record company it dawned on everyone that it was actually a really lovely idea, and it served a lot of purposes. And lo and behold the album is coming out right before my 50th birthday. And it was recently the 25th anniversary of my first album, so there was this strange cosmic alignment that has occurred with this record. Whether I win the Grammy or not this record was meant to happen! And I’m excited to be here for the ride.”

He certainly sounds content with his place in the world. His unconventional childhood and periodic battles with addiction and substance abuse are subjects he has seldom shied away from, with so much of his personal experience intertwined with his creative output. And while he remains candid as ever, his mood seems meditative and relaxed.

It was intense and weird but also exhilarating and beautiful when we joined forces. Rufus Wainwright

“I’m good,” he smiles. “I’m here in Laurel Canyon, I’m gearing up for some live shows, I have a really amazing band. Obviously, we can’t bring Chaka Khan and John Legend on tour [laughs] although I will be meeting with them at certain places. But the touring band is quite wonderful. I’m very excited. The main thing is that I just want it to be fun and in the folk spirit, which is about being inclusive, being joyous and not being too perfect [laughs].”

Working out which 15 songs would make the final cut on Folkocracy, and indeed how to factor in so many A-list guests, was a task largely undertaken by producer Mitchell Froom, with whom Wainwright has worked previously.

“I took about 30 or 40 tunes that I love and that I could imagine reimagining and said to him, ‘you choose which ones you think would make a great record’," he explains. “He did, and I made a few little adjustments, and as we got closer to making it, we started to work out who would be really good guests. We kept it very organic – who was in town; what would this person like to do. For instance, when we did Going To A Town there were a couple of people we asked who didn’t want to go that way, they didn’t want to be political. So, we offered some other songs and so forth, but it all worked out in the end.

“Every session was fantastic and I also credit Mitchell with that,” he continues. “He knew how to pick the right musicians, the right studio, the right rhythm. And in terms of individual experiences, I had some amazing ones. Doing the Hawaiian song Kaulana Na Pua was pretty fascinating. I’m very proud of it and it took a lot of work. You can’t just toss off native languages and indigenous people’s words, so you have to really dig into it. I got a coach and when I recorded it there was someone there to help. It took so long to master that song. It was a real experience.

“Also, singing with Chaka Khan was so thrilling… a little scary, too. When she came into the studio for the first five or six takes I didn’t think we were going to get it. She didn’t know the song, she was going off on these other tangents. But then all of a sudden something clicks and it came out. It was one of those great examples of a true star, where there is a volatility to the situation. There is this danger that inhabits a person like that, which gives it that added adrenaline. I loved that experience and how unconventional it was.

“And then singing with my family [on Wild Mountain Thyme] was incredibly moving and touching. I was in Montreal, and I was pretty exhausted, which you can hear a little bit in my voice. I started off the song but then it is continued by other close members of my family - my sisters and my aunt Anna McGarrigle, and my cousin Lily Lanken. And what’s really lovely is that my mother’s banjo is on that song, so that was very moving.”

One of the album’s many highlights comes in the form of Wainwright’s rendition of High On A Rocky Ledge by Moondog with David Byrne. The pair’s voices marry up in a way that is subtle yet crackles with emotion.

“We’re like the odd Everly Brothers,” he chuckles when describing his relationship with the Talking Heads icon. “We’ve sung together a lot over the years and I’m really honoured to be able to work with him in several iterations. I sang an opera duet with him, we’ve done a Broadway duet, we know how to sing with each other. We really click in that way. As well as being an incredible pop figure he has done all this theatrical work and work in the art world. I admire him greatly and I think he respects me a lot. He’s a formidable force.”

It’s a total blood sport. My parents and my sister all demonstrated that to each other early on. Rufus Wainwright

As we return to the theme of reflection, Wainwright is still learning to let go of some of the more troubling aspects that framed his childhood. Born into something of a musical dynasty, his formative years were besieged by a fiercely competitive relationship not only with his siblings but also with his parents. Indeed, he very publicly fell out with his dad after teasing him that he had only achieved a Rolling Stone cover spot off of the back of his fame. Today he is more philosophical about his past than ever before.

“The further I get away from it the more I’m amazed at how incredible it was, growing up in the atmosphere I did, having music around all the time, having my parents communicate musically,” he says thoughtfully. “They kind of hated each other’s guts, but they wrote songs about each other, and they respected each other musically. I didn’t see my dad that much but when I went to one of his shows he would sing about his life and me and Martha, and that was such a fascinating situation. And then we would start to return that ‘favour’ [laughs]. So that whole saga ensued and that was a wild period. But the more I look back the more amazed I am at how great it was.

“I also went through periods, not so much now, but maybe after my mother died, where I would look back and go, ‘some of that wasn’t great’! We were maybe too in touch with certain aspects of adult life that we shouldn’t have been. I was resentful to both of my parents for some of their behaviour but now I am more into accepting everything and celebrating everything… but I had to go through the negative as well. That was a few years ago, so it’s becoming more rosy at the moment, which is a good thing.”

Despite the dysfunction of it all, he feels certain that the competitiveness within his family unit drove him to become the artist he is today.

“It’s a total blood sport,” he states. “My parents and my sister Martha all demonstrated that to each other early on. My mother loved us, my dad loved us as much as he could at that time - he was in his own world for a time so it was a different kind of relationship - but once we got onstage you became a whole other creature; a whole other animal… and all is fair in love and war and songwriting. It was intense and weird but also exhilarating and very beautiful when we joined forces. It was an amazing education and it made me the musician I am today. It was an opportunity and I seized it.”

While the regularity with which that competitive childhood streak reveals itself may have eased over time, Wainwright insists that he can still summon it up when required. The key, he tells us, is control.

“It’s still in there,” he smiles. “It’s in there but I’m better at diffusing it. And I have people in my life who do that as well. If I had married someone who was totally sycophantic and a ruthless worshipper who thought everything I did was miraculous then I’d be in a different position. People in my life will be critical of me sometimes, which is important to have. So, I know how to diffuse it, but you don’t want to lose it either because it definitely gets the engine going.”

After much talk of growing up and emerging from those formative years, we refocus to the present and that upcoming 50th birthday. As he has demonstrated, he is in a more reflective mood than perhaps at any other point in his life - the briefest glance at his body of work suggests an artist who rarely affords themselves the time to look backwards. And while he accepts that he is in as appropriate a place as any to consider his accomplishments, he’s keen to note before we part that there’s still plenty of new avenues and ambitions to pursue.

“On my last record I did look back to my early days in Hollywood and capturing that California sound, but it seems I’ve gone further now,” he says. “I’ve gone back to the source. So I am in a more contemplative mood for sure. And I’m very proud of my work so far. Proud that over the years I was so exacting and made no concessions in terms of the records I wanted to make, and that has proven to last. Those records are still worthy, and I never fell for any gimmicks.

“But if anything, I think now is a chance to clean the slate, contemplate it, throw it in the trash and come up with something totally new. I’m still writing a lot of songs; I’m mostly concentrating on writing for the theatre and working on some musicals and soundtracks, none of which I can talk about at the moment in depth. But don’t worry, new Rufus is coming!”

PHOTOS: Miranda Penn Turin