Rufus Wainwright, the man Elton John dubbed “the greatest songwriter on the planet,” will make his Tacoma debut next week. On Oct. 30 at the Pantages Theater, the Canadian singer-songwriter will deliver dramatic, baroque pop selections from most of his critically acclaimed albums, from his 1998 self-titled debut to last year's, Mark Ronson-produced “Out of the Game.”
Recently, he checked in from home base, in Montauk, N.Y., to talk about the impact his parents, folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle had on his musical development; working through the grief of losing his mom to cancer in 2010; and the material he's been working on of late. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Tacoma Weekly: You are coming to Tacoma. Have you played here before? Do you have any specific memories of playing this market?
Wainwright: I don't think I have. I've played Seattle many times, but I haven't played Tacoma. The Pacific Northwest has always been a great nesting ground for creativity on many levels, whether it's grunge or Pink Martini or Gus Van Sant, whatever. The whole area really attracts me because it's so varied in terms of what you can get. There's just so much inspiration out there.
TW: What kind of set are you putting together for us? What's your focus on this tour?
Wainwright: I'm sort of in between albums at the moment, so I'm not necessarily out to push a certain project. I just sort of do numbers from over the years, and really what corresponds to that day and what I'm feeling. ... Aside from the Judy Garland album (2007's “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall”) you'll hear pretty much all the other ones.
TW: Obviously, you come from a musical family. How did that shape your early development?
Wainwright: Growing up in Canada with my mom and my aunts and cousins and uncles, who were all in music … it was very much a requirement. And as much of a joy as it was it could be a pain as well, 'cause there was a lot of competition and a lot of hard work involved. But at the end of the day we created beauty, and that's always good.
TW: When you were finding your own voice did you often turn to your dad or your mom, when she was around, for advice?
Wainwright: I mostly turned to my mom because I grew up mostly with her. She was really intent on steering both sister Martha and I in a really a good direction, musically. … So I often came to her and asked for her opinion and guidance. Though seeing my dad perform growing up was extremely influential. He's one of the great all-time stage characters, and I learned a lot from just being in the audience and watching him.
TW: He appears on the last album, for the first time on one of your albums. Did your mom's passing bring you closer together?
Wainwright: He's on the last song on the last album, along with a lot of other friends and family on a song (“Candles”) about my late mother, Kate McGarrigle. I thought it would be nice to have the whole family up there. It's taken him a while to come to the party. (He chuckles.) But I sang on his last record, too. So we're now officially intermeshed, musically.
TW: Speaking of the material that was inspired by your mom, was it difficult to process the emotions or write about her so soon after her passing?
Wainwright: Not really. Both Martha and I are pretty well honed into – (pauses to consider) – the translation of feelings into sound. It's just a natural step to translate all of those tears and make them into something useful. It's a little more dramatic, it's a little more searing. It's a little more intrepid. But, on the other hand, it kind of gets you through it a little bit faster and a little more solidly; and you have something to show for the pain, which is nice.
TW: On the last project you worked with producer Mark Ronson. What did he bring to the table, and how did you work together?
Wainwright: Mark was such a breath of fresh air in my life at that point. I'd made an album previously, “Called Songs for Lulu,” which was just piano and voice, which just really centered around my mother's death. And then we did these incredible tribute shows to my mother and Christmas shows and so forth. It was a very, very dark and foreboding period.
When Mark kind of stepped in to make “Out of the Game,” I was well aware that I needed a rock n' roll vacation. (He laughs.) We just had a blast and tried to make it as light and as fun as possible; still looking at moments of sadness, of course, 'cause I really wasn't out of the woods at all. But it was still one of my first breaths of fresh air in what was a really dark period.
TW: Your music spans such a wide range of references. Can you expand on some of the influences that go into your sound?
Wainwright: I'm a huge opera fanatic. So the dramatic curve and arc of operatic compositions really fascinates me. It always has. I tend to think of my songs more as arias than pop ditties. But then I'm a huge worshipper of the American Songbook, the classic American Songbook.
And having grown up in a “folkocracy,” as I tend to call it, I'm well aware of the roots of music in general. ... I don't really draw distinctions between the categories. At the end of the day it's gotta move you. But I think there's something definitely useful about immersing yourself in all these different musical cultures.
TW: What are you working on now?
Wainwright: I'm working on an opera. And I'm also working on some music for film, for Hollywood. I also like writing with people. I just recently co-wrote the title track of Robbie Williams' new album, “Swing Both Ways” (due on Nov. 18.) Robbie and I and Guy Chambers wrote the track, and then we recorded it. So I've been writing with a lot of other people now to further enlarge my knowledge of music.
Rufus Wainwright in concert, with Lucy Wainwright Roche
7:30 p.m. Oct. 30
Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
$66 to $86