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Wainwright treats self for 50th

Bevy of stars join him on his new album, ‘Folkocracy’

By Jim Harrington, The Mercury News
Published: June 8, 2023, 6:48am

Rufus Wainwright is turning the big 5-0 in July.

And the singer-songwriter is marking the occasion with the release of “Folkocracy,” a new 15-song set featuring contributions from Brandi Carlile, John Legend, David Byrne, Sheryl Crow, Nicole Scherzinger, Chaka Khan, Andrew Bird, ANOHNI, Susanna Hoffs, Van Dyke Parks, Madison Cunningham and other artists.

“The guests on the album are all people whose music and voices I have admired for years,” says Wainwright, who is known for such acclaimed efforts as 2001’s “Poses” and 2003’s “Want One.” “Having them on the album is a bit like a birthday present to myself.”

The new album, which leans into Wainwright’s folk roots as the child of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, came out Friday — the same day he launched his tour with a star-studded show featuring Khan, Cunningham, Hoffs and other special guests at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Visit rufuswainwright.com for details on all shows.

Wainwright recently took the time to talk with us about all thing “Folkocracy.”

Happy early bday, Rufus. How did the thought of reaching the half-century mark influence the type of album you wanted to make with “Folkocracy”?

It actually didn’t really occur to me at all until recently. It is more kismet. But certainly ending the album with a song that all my family is featured on is symbolic for my terrestrial journey.

I had been asked to do a covers album for a long time. I guess people like it when I cover other songs. So I thought why not do a folk album and return to my roots, to songs I heard as a kid and sang with my parents, mainly my mom and aunt on folk festivals in the summers. My first crib was basically a guitar case on the side of a stage, so folk music basically came with mother’s milk.

Talk to me about the guest list for this party. What was it like working with Chaka Khan, David Byrne, etc?

The album is not a duet’s album per se. Folk music is all about singing together so, in a way, for each song we put our ideal cast list together.

I had sung quite often with David Byrne before and felt that his sensibility would work perfectly for the Moondog song (“High on a Rocky Ledge”). And Chaka Khan I had met at a concert for Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday that my husband produced at the Music Center and she is, of course, one of the all time great singers.

Perhaps my favorite song on the new album is “Heading for Home.” John Legend’s voice melds so nicely with yours. Talk to me specifically about recording that song. Was it just electric?

John is an incredible singer and it only took us a few takes to get it right. We recorded all instruments live except for the strings. Those were added by Rob Moose later. We actually had John and Brandi Carlile in the studio on the first day and recorded both songs in a matter of hours.

Brandi is also incredibly musical and professional and it is just so easy to sing with her (on the song “Down in the Willow Garden”).

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There is a joyfulness in John’s voice and also performance. He smiles when he sings which is incredibly beautiful. It was very fulfilling to sing with someone like him.

The arrangement on “Heading for Home” is just wonderful, with a string section meshing so well with the banjo. Is that your mom Kate’s famed banjo on the track? I understand it’s used on the album.

I think it might have been the first time that John recorded with a banjo? It is actually not Kate’s banjo on that song but Patrick Sauber is playing the banjo. Kate’s banjo can be heard on “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Chaim Tannenbaum, who played in my mother’s band, plays it and sings a verse as well.

Who are some of the acts that you would like to work with in the future?

I really love everyone who is on the album and Brandi and I certainly have a good chemistry going and I think our voices work very well. I also love Madison Cunningham’s voice — who, of course, won the folk Grammy last year for her album “Revealer.” Her guitar playing is all over the album.

I recently did a podcast with Norah Jones and singing with her is always a huge thrill. I asked Annie Lennox to do a song with me for the album but she was on a sabbatical at the time we recorded the album. I have been such a huge fan since I was a kid. And then there is Bjork, who I admire greatly as an artist, a human being, a performer and singer. She is simply the real deal and full package.

What was it like going from having just done a Judy Garland album (2022’s “Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios”) to handling an album of folk songs?

I think one thing always informs the other. The Judy album we did for her 100th birthday was a product of the livestreamed show we did from Capitol Studios which was the final show in my Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective where I sang all my studio albums to one special guest. It was a thrill to sing the entire Judy album to Renee Zellweger, of course, at Capitol Studios. I feel like through singing all the Judy material, I have become a much better singer and that certainly helps with anything and especially folk.

You are certainly no stranger to covering other songwriters’ material. But what’s it like when you hear your own tunes covered by other artists?

It really depends. I do enjoy other people singing my songs quite a lot but the biggest thrill I have to say was to hear George Michael, arguably one of the greatest singers of all time, cover my song “Going to a Town.”

My favorite Rufus Wainwright cover comes courtesy of jazz great Dave Douglas. Have you heard Douglas’ version of “Poses”? I’m guessing as a songwriter it must be very satisfying to hear your song translate so well into an instrumental number.

Yes, absolutely. I was very flattered. Of course, you cannot turn every song into an instrumental version. The music has to be pretty powerful.

You are such a versatile vocalist. Do you feel like you have a bit of a restless muse? Or how else to explain a discography that ranges from Shakespearean sonnets to the lush pop of, say, the “Poses” album?

I don’t really draw distinctions between musical genres so much. I always look for a beautiful melody and they can be found in all genres.

There must be something special about revisiting your family roots and doing an album of folk music.

Yes, there is. It connected me back to my childhood and being a father now to a 12-year-old daughter gives that whole idea of looking back also a forward thinking movement. I love the time where families would come together to sing music and I hope that this album instills that desire or dream in people.

What does the title of the album mean to you?

Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys actually coined that phrase when we did a tribute to my mother Kate McGarrigle as part of Richard Thompson’s Melt Down Festival in London. Of course the Thompsons are a Folkocracy as well. In Spain some of the articles actually called it “Folkocrazy” which I think is quite funny as well.