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Rufus Wainwright crafted an album so uncharted, it’s ineligible for a Grammy

Rufus Wainwright

“No longer mourn for me when I am dead … And mock you with me after I am gone.

So sayeth William Shakespeare with the opening and closing lines of Sonnet 71, one of 154 infamous mini poems the noted English Bard penned about the passage of time, love, beauty, and mortality over five centuries ago.

My fellow Bard has now been gone for exactly 400 years, having shuffled off this mortal coil on April 22, 1616. So who better to celebrate such an auspicious anniversary by focusing on his Sonnets’ storied legacies than another noted wordsmith of our modern times — the baroque-minded singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright?

The Audiophile: Rufus Wainwright

Released by Deutsche Grammophon in multiple formats on, of course, April 22, Wainwright’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets merges pop, classical, and spoken-word themes to create a new aural hybrid. “This really hasn’t been done before,” Wainwright says exclusively to Digital Trends. “There’s no album that equals classical with pop. Yeah, there have been some soundtracks and some rock operas, but they’re not as pure as what this album has to offer in terms of those two worlds being very true to each other.”

Verily, it is true — from the pointed readings by the likes of Carrie Fisher (Sonnet 29), Helena Bonham Carter (Sonnet 23), and William Shatner (Sonnet 129) to the seductive tonal weave of Florence and the Machine songstress Florence Welch’s lead vocal on When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29) to Rufus himself on the elegiac, vocal-round rise on Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23), 9 Sonnets brings Shakespeare into a new stratosphere.

Wainwright called Digital Trends from the U.K. to exclusively discuss the sounds of Sonnets, how mixing it in surround sound might net him a Grammy, and what his personal favorite Shakespeare verse is. The worth of that is that which it contains — and that is this, and this with thee remains. Or so I’ve been told…

Digital Trends: I’ve been listening to 9 Sonnets digitally, but it seems to me that, since you have the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin String Section on a number of tracks here, the best way to listen to this album would be on vinyl, wouldn’t you agree?

Rufus Wainwright: Yeah, we did the test pressing, and I OK’ed it. It gives a warmer frame for playing this album. And it seems to me that vinyl is reasserting itself out there as the medium of choice for people who are actually buying products! (chuckles)

What a concept, right? This is also a good headphones album too, so you can get all the nuances of the orchestral string sections in songs like When I Most Wink (Sonnet 43) and A Woman’s Face – Reprise (Sonnet 20).

I have done that a little bit, but I am excited for people to hear it on vinyl. You do hear more of the intricacies that way, for sure.

We’re also getting your first two albums reissued on 180-gram double vinyl on May 6, Rufus Wainwright (1998) and Poses (2001). Did you approve those transfers?

Yes. I listened to the test pressings, and I OK’ed them. I love things that sound great, and I do care about the dynamics of those things. But I’m usually already onto my next song with new music and new lyrics. When I worked with Mark Ronson [on 2012’s Out of the Game], I always knew I could trust him, because he’s a real audiophile. He really knows the difference. Me, I’m already thinking about, “How do I get that note on the piano?” (chuckles)

Are you OK with people streaming this album?

(slight pause) I don’t know. It’s always hard for me to know, because there are so many different devices, whether it’s listening on your phone, in the studio on amazing speakers, or in different cars. It’s sometimes hard to define what the hell’s going on!

If I was able to sell a lot of records, I’d be a much wealthier individual!

I mean, I gave up long ago trying … to get steady income from record sales. It’s never been my bag. It’s not that I don’t want it to be — it’s just that the bag’s empty! (both laugh)

I’ve made most of my money off of shows, off of film soundtracks, and off of appearances and stuff. Certainly, if I was able to sell a lot of records, I’d be a much wealthier individual!

But not having that deluge of funds maybe allowed me to just focus on the music and continue writing different material, not necessarily something that’s going to make me more money.

Well, you’re following your own muse; how could we fault you for that? But I guess I have to call myself selfish listener when it comes to this album, because the dynamic range of what you’ve composed here is so grand that I’d really like to hear a surround sound mix of this material.

Yeah, I think that’s actually in the mix as well — literally! It’s a funny story. When I had thoughts of making an album that had classical music, spoken word, and pop on it, I wanted to open up the possibility that this album would go on to win three Grammys, in three different categories.

Then my producer [Marius de Vries] sagely told me that, in fact, when an album wins a Grammy in a certain category, the album itself has to be at least 70 percent music. Therefore, I have actually eliminated any possibility of winning a Grammy, whether it’s classical, pop, or spoken word. But if we mixed it in surround sound, then it could be up for a Grammy in that category [i.e., Best Surround Sound Album]. So now I have to do it!

I think it’s now required, because I’m going to insist on it. Speaking of how 9 Sonnets has been mixed — on the songs you sing yourself, your voice is way upfront, like you had just stepped up onstage to take over the proceedings.

Well, I’ve always liked my vocals to be pretty upfront. Also, the nature of my voice is that it tends to cut through a lot of things. It would be hard to hide it way back there. It sounds great upfront, and it’s also the nature of my performance, and where I sing the most.

It’s how I document my “celebrated” moment when I sing A Woman’s Face (Sonnet 20) — it’s right near the end of the album, and it’s good at that point to bring it back to the fact that this is my album, and there are songs that’s I’ve written for my voice, and, well… I’m a celebrated singer/songwriter! (both laugh)

Are we hearing some surface noise at the beginning of A Woman’s Face? Is that a sample of an old record?

Yeah, it’s a record sample. That was Marius’ [de Vries, Wainwright’s co-producer] decision to push the envelope on many of the tracks, especially with the spoken word bits. Some of them were straight-ahead recitations, and some of them, like William Shatner’s [Sonnet 129], were more “mystifying,” in order to attract the listener into something that’s more of a dreamscape and an exposé.

And he does it in his own, take those pauses and then speed up Shatneresque way. [Wainwright chuckles] You’ve also got people like Carrie Fisher on there [for Sonnet 29]. Did you ask her to do that specific piece? How did the decision process go for who got to do what?

I was into working with Florence Welch [of Florence and the Machine] and Anna Prohaska, the two main protagonist women on the album. Anna Prohaska, the opera singer, very much represents the Dark Lady [in Sonnets 127-154] for me, and Florence becomes Titania, the Queen of the Faeries [from A Midsummer Night’s Dream].

And there’s also a bit of a ‘60s feel on Florence’s track, When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29).

Yes yes yes! What’s wonderful about her approach is, it’s extremely poppy, it’s very, very romantic, and it’s very emotional — and quintessentially English, for a Sonnet. It didn’t have to be that way, but it’s nice to match the material every once in a while. It’s nice to have that.

Did you make all of the Sonnet choices yourself?

Not having a deluge of funds allowed me to continue writing “different” material.

I had certain ones I felt close to, like Th’ Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame (Sonnet 129), A Woman’s Face (Sonnet 20), and When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29), but, otherwise, Jayce Ogren, who conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the head of the Berlin String Section were the ones who decided which sonnets to use. They had good instincts, because a lot of them I didn’t really know that well. We did the whole piece in German originally. I didn’t even know we were doing [Sonnet 18], “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in German. (laughs)

Did anything wind up getting cut from the finished album?

If anything, we had just the right amount. In fact, I had to sing one of them twice, A Woman’s Face. And without the spoken word pieces — well, I don’t think the album would have been slim, but the spoken word really gives it that meatiness of going from one thing to another. I thought it was very important to have them spoken as they were originally intended to be, as well as go down a few different musical avenues. But no, we didn’t have to cut anything.

Having Take All My Loves near the beginning is a nice merge of the classical and pop/rock universes right there, especially when you get to the vocal round in the back half of the song.

Yes! I wanted it to be a round especially, and have it related to or imitating a medieval motet. It’s there to cleanse the palate in a lot of ways for the listener, because you lose yourself in the surreal nature of the piece. You’re not really listening to the words or the music. At a certain point, it becomes this cacophonous arrangement. It’s there to blow your mind in another fashion. [laughs heartily]

I do have to say Take All My Loves especially would be perfect for a surround sound mix. You could put people in the middle of this chant and have them come at you in all channels, overtaking you as the volume swells in the back half of it.

Well, I appreciate your reminding me, because I do think that’s on the docket.

Rufus Wainwright - A Woman's Face - Reprise (Sonnet 20)

Since sequencing is important to you, is there one album that you’d consider to be the best sequenced one, from beginning to end?

Oooh…. That’s a tough question. Well, you know — you can’t go wrong with Abbey Road [The Beatles’ eternal 1969 classic]. [chuckles]

That’s true. Maybe you could record the Medley sequence on Side 2 yourself. That would be interesting to hear.

That would be interesting, yes. [chuckles again] Cool.

As a lyricist, you’re always trying to craft that perfect next line. With that in mind, what would be your favorite line or two from the Shakespeare canon?

At one point backstage before a recent concert, someone was passing around the collected works of Shakespeare, asking all the performers to find their favorite line and sign their names next to it.

I hadn’t really thought about which line I’d choose, but I was put on the spot. So I went straight to Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice and to the line, “The quality of mercy is not strained” [from Act IV, Scene I]. That’s the one I picked out.

Yeah — that’s perfect, actually. You’ll have to put that on your next pop album as an Easter egg.

Yes. There you go. I’ll just call it The Quality of Mercy… Is Not Strained. [laughs]

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