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Rufus Wainwright Reviving His Family's Annual Christmas Concert

Singer/songwriter also talks new album with Mark Ronson

October 26, 2011 3:05 PM ET
Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Anna McGarrigle
Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Anna McGarrigle
Ross Halfin

A Not So Silent Night, the McGarrigle/Wainwright family's annual Christmas show, will return this December after a two-year hiatus prompted by matriarch Kate McGarrigle's illness and eventual death last year. The shows, which will take place at the Theatre St. Dennis in Montreal on December 11th and at Town Hall in Manhattan on December 15th, will feature holiday-themed performances by members of the musical family including Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Anna McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright. Rolling Stone caught up with Rufus to chat about the show, as well as the Brooklyn premiere of his opera Prima Donna and his forthcoming pop album with producer Mark Ronson.

How many years have you been doing this Christmas show with your family?
We did it for several years about four years ago, with my mother, Kate McGarrigle. And that was all fine and dandy, and then, unfortunately she passed away and we needed to take a two-year hiatus just to get the spirit back. We’re a little cheerier now, and so we’re bringing them back.

A lot of these shows are improvised to some extent. How do you all prepare for that?
We try to keep them as loose as possible, meaning a couple of days of rehearsal before the event, and we kind of wait until then to see what happens. In pure Wainwright/McGarrigle fashion, no night is identical in any way. So it's more like a living room jamboree than a Radio City Rockettes thing.

Do you seek out new songs to perform?
We basically stick with what’s good, and part of that is looking for the old favorites and also looking for some new material, or even writing new material. But we don’t discriminate between genres and eras and religion and so forth. We just want a good melody, and there is so much to choose from, in terms of the Christmas catalog. Every year it changes.

What is your personal taste in Christmas music?
God, I don’t know, because I’m a Judy Garland-loving, gay, lapsed-Catholic, un-baptized, circumcised person! [Laughs] So I love them all. You know, I’m a classical music buff, so you can’t help but adore the liturgical music, like Handel and Mozart, or Bach. But then, on the other hand, I like a good show tune as well. And most argue that the best songs are actually written by Jews, which is very interesting. Irving Berlin, especially – "White Christmas" – so, I don’t know. It’s hard to say.

Was this part of your family tradition, before you started doing these public performances?
We always sang a lot in our home in general, up in Canada. You know, we’re from Montreal – basically, Santa Claus keeps an apartment there. It's pretty Christmas-y. We've always had a lot of good music in the house all throughout the year. But honestly, there’s something about walking outdoors and there's pine trees and a foot of snow that drives sort of a Christmas aesthetic.

Are you and your family particularly religious? Or is it more of a secular sort of celebration?
No, I mean, I never go to church. I’m not baptized or anything. I'm not against religion, necessarily. It’s secular, mostly. We're not afraid to make references to Baby Jesus.

You have have an opera, Prima Donna, that's about to open in New York.
Yeah, that’s premiering in February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It's very, very exciting – it’s part of the New York City Opera season. The opera was supposed to be here years ago, and it had to kind of travel the world in order to return home. So it’s a homecoming of that work.

Opera has always been kind of my ace in the hole. I was converted to the form when I was a teenager. So I always had that in the background. But I didn’t want to be a classic musician, necessarily. So I just sort of take those influences and infused them into my songwriting. But I knew, down the line, that I'd want to return back to that form, as sort of musical sacrifice for all the beauty that it’s given me over the years. I’ve hopefully done that with Prima Donna.

When did you know it was the right time to take on the opera?
I'd been thinking of an idea for a long time. And I was actually expecting it to be a much later kind of conquest in my life. I thought maybe in my fifties or something. As it is with many theatrical endeavors, this story just fell in my lap – of the day in the life of an opera singer – and these characters just instantly, miraculously appeared in my imagination and needed to come to life. I think a lot of playwrights or opera writers – you’re sort of summoned by the work itself. It’s not really you that goes out looking for it.

So what are you working on right now?
I'm in the studio with Mark Ronson and we are working on my new album in Brooklyn here with the Dap Kings. It’s exciting. I’m making an actual pop record – it’s been awhile since I’ve done that. I think that what’s always great about Mark is that he’s especially good with dealing with singers, and in making them come to the forefront and pulling them whatever they need. But I also – I’ve made albums over the years too, and I know what to bring as well. So it should be interesting. So far it's been a really fantastic thing. And we're both really in our prime, in terms of being in our thirties, and we’ve had certain successes. We can enjoy each other's company and each other's processes, and it’s just a lot of fun.

Related
Rufus Wainwright's Emotional Return to Carnegie Hall
Rufus Wainwright Working With Mark Ronson on Poppy New Album

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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