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Exclusive: Rufus Wainwright talks new albums & 'Live from the Artists Den' DVD

Check out all of Rufus Wainwright's new projects.
Photography by SEAN JAMES; Styling by KIT SCARBO; Hair and grooming by Sean James / phytohaircare

Yesterday on March 8, had the opportunity to interview Rufus Wainwright. Fans of this prolific artist have a lot to celebrate this week with the release of his two new CDs, "Rufus Wainwright: Live from the Artists Den" and "Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright" plus a Blu-ray DVD of "Rufus Wainwright: Live from the Artists Den."

On May 17, 2012, Rufus Wainwright recorded a private concert in the historic Greenwich Village church, Church of the Ascension, which was filmed and recorded for PBS’ "Live form the Artists Den." The 69-minute "Rufus Wainwright: Live from the Artists Den" concert features Wainwright, resplendent in tails and gold sequined pants, performing 16 songs including five songs that were not included in the PBS broadcast.

The Blu-ray features an additional 50 minutes of behind-the-scenes bonus materials including an extended interview with Wainwright, an additional interview with the Church of the Ascension’s now-retired rector, Father Andrew, “Inside the Den”, a behind-the-scenes look at the concert shoot and location plus a “Night in Pictures” slideshow.

Wainwright’s new release "Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright" from Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) is available in single-disc and digital edition. The single-disc features 17 standout songs that define one of modern music’s most innovative talents, as well as a brand new recording, “Me and Liza.” The two-CD and digital deluxe edition adds 16 rare live and studio tracks.

Read our exclusive interview below:

The Church of the Ascension is an amazing venue. How was that location selected?

RW: It was presented to me and my team by the TV show. I, of course, went and looked at the place and was satisfied. It worked nicely because I’m a big Stanford White fan and I knew he had a lot to do with that church. It worked out really well.

Did you change your arrangements at all for the space?

RW: No, we didn’t at all. What I’m really happy that unlike some other live things I’ve done for television, when an album comes out and you are rushed into a studio and you have to deliver in front of a camera right way with a new band. What was nice about this concert is that we had been on tour a few months so we were really greased up and very sensitive to each other’s moods and musical shifts. I think we were ready to fit into any venue at that point, which is good.

“Hallelujah” was not included. Was it too obvious of a choice for the venue? Or was it just not part of this tour?

RW: I don’t think I was singing that song on that tour. That’s really something I sing when I do solo shows. I was just taking a hiatus as I think the world needs to occasionally from that song. It’s a little overdone in my opinion, but I still perform it sometimes. It’s still a good song.

Your new album "Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright" is fantastic. How did you decide you were ready to do a “Best of”?

RW: There were two reasons. One being practical and the other emotional; where on the practical side I’ve hit this period of my professional life where I’m done with Universal records for the moment. I’ve been with them for many, many years, under many, many labels. It’s all part of that Universal umbrella. I thought it would be nice to release something where I could a) show off what happened, but also not have to ask too many people’s permission. So that’s practical.

For personal, I just hit 40, I’m about to embark on another opera about the Emperor Hadrian, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Hollywood with my daughter and therefore meeting with a lot of directors. I will always be a songwriter and I will always do concerts; that’s it’s never going to end. I’m inching very fast towards the stage so there’s a lot of surprises in the future I want to focus on.

Have you thought about a Broadway musical?

RW: That has come up many, many times and I would be a fool not to do that. That’s definitely on the docket. But even things like writing for other artists, or even collaborating or singing with them as well. I don’t think I’m so into acting. I don’t totally have the acting bug. I thought maybe for two seconds I did a few years ago but thank God I didn’t catch that disease.

What was the song selection process for your Best of album?

RW: I enlisted the help of Neil Tennant from The Pet Shop Boys, who I feel is one of the great musical minds of our time. On one hand, he’s super sophisticated, but he also knows what the people get so I asked him to put together a list, which he did, then I went in a tinkered with it and crafted it how I wanted it. I thought it was important to get other people involved just because a) it really wouldn’t be a Best of because it's got to be somewhat of a democratic process and b) because at some point I wouldn’t mind releasing my own little weird CD of what I think are the best. That would be a very interesting list. That one I need a few more years to write a few more songs.

What is your personal favorite song?

RW: On this album, the song that means the most to me “I Don’t Know What It Is” only because it was really, really central in terms of pointing me in the right direction. I had, previously to that song, had been really entrenched in the downtown New York party scene. I was kind of joyfully unaware of the pitfalls until suddenly it became really clear, really fast that I was in a lot of danger so “I Don’t Know What It Is” was kind of about walking towards the light, the good light – not the train at the end of the tunnel. It was about choosing life and wanting to stick around. That song was really crucial and really pointed the way for me at very critical time.

Some songs after many times performing can lose their emotions or evolve to something else while others can still be as raw as the day you wrote them. What songs still bring you back to those initial emotions?

RW: The other song that is very, very powerful to me, still to this day, is “Dinner at 8” which is about my dad and I … Sadly I lost my mother four years ago and that’s something I still deal with all the time and will continue to do. But funny enough with fathers and sons there’s this strange kind of endless kit of psychological fodder, that is on one hand, kind of scary, but also very emotionally satisfying when you let it out. “Dinner at 8” can still do that to me.

You and your family don't seem to hold back when writing about your relationships. Does that have a cathartic effect on the relationships or does it make for uncomfortable Thanksgivings?

RW: In the beginning it took time to figure out the right way to do it. We all made a few missteps; both my parents, Martha and myself but we adjusted over the years, but at the same time maintaining the truth of what we’re really going through. In retrospect, that’s what makes the story interesting is that we weren’t always safe. It was hard at times but I don’t regret it because, I don’t know, because it’s real.

You've said that Leonard Cohen’s work has grown deeper and more interesting over the years. After putting together the Best of collection, what is your observation of how your own work has evolved?

RW: One thing I can say for sure is that certain songs come a lot faster and are fully formed and immediately ready to burst. That’s a really great feeling.

The other day I saw this wonderful documentary on Matisse and how, by the end of his life, this will be in many, many years for me, but he was in his 80’s he just would not stop working. There were all these gorgeous paper cutouts and there was this constant stream of creativity and color and expression. I just hope that I’m heading in that direction.

Do you feel with age and experience you don’t edit yourself as much so creativity flows easier?

RW: The goal of it is that it comes out faster and more formed and less arduous. I mean I think there is something in working very hard on things as well. I mean, in my early years I was really racked with romantic notions of myself being this hardworking musician and that was so important and so vital to get me to where I am today and certainly now when I write operas, I pick up those weapons again and continue with that kind of struggle. With songwriting there is just something after a while where you get these bursts from God knows where and you just communicate musically. It’s wonderful to be able to be receptive to that and to have an audience who will listen to you. I’m very lucky.

You grew up with a very musical family and I’m sure you learned a lot from them. What's the most important thing you've learned about making music or the music industry that you had to find out for yourself?

RW: The biggest lesson that I learned, and it took a couple of years to figure out then a couple of years to adjust to then a couple of years to emotionally handle, was that my whole original concept was being completely different from everybody was actually the polar opposite of what you're actually supposed to do in the music business. You’re supposed to fit into a distinct category or be part of some school of musicians. I was never able to do that. I was completely into myself and being completely unique; I think it was very hard to fit in to that. I think at the end of day it’s served me well. It’s why I survived. I don’t know if it will ever take over the universe, but I will certainly be a star within it.

Your half sister Lucy will be touring with you. What's it like to perform with your sisters?

RW: It’s wonderful. Whether it’s my sisters or my cousins or my aunts and uncles, I’m really, really blessed with this insane crown of jewels that I can perform with and enjoy, but definitely whether it's Lucy or Martha. Martha and I grew up together so we did a lot more as children and there is something when Martha and I get together it’s completely, I don’t know, there something there kind of primeval in a lot of ways.

With Lucy, it’s very new. I’ve been performing with her for a while now, around seven or eight years, but it there’s certain freshness to this relationship that I think is equally as interesting. We have a lot of territory to discover together. She’s an amazing singer. She’s a different singer from everybody in the family. She has no vibrato, very clear, clear as a bell and her tone is extremely warm and very bright, which is nice.

What are you listening to now?

RW: I’ve been listening a lot to the Arcade Fire record, "Reflector," which sounds amazing. They must be having so much fun in the studio. I think they’re great. They’re amazing. It’s an amazing sound.

Rufus Wainwright will be performing in New York on April 15 at Town Hall with his sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche as the opening act.

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