If you dread spending Christmas with your family, consider kicking it with the McGarrigle Sisters this year. The folk duo’s not-quite-annual “McGarrigle Christmas Hour” variety show lands at New York’s Carnegie Hall on December 10th — along with Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Fallon, Laurie Anderson and that apotheosis of Yuletide cheer, Lou Reed. Joining them all, as usual, is singer-composer Rufus Wainwright, the son of McGarrigle Sister Kate. Rolling Stone spoke with Wainwright last week about the big holiday show, his forthcoming opera and, naturally, Amy Winehouse. Excerpts:
It’s that time of year again and you’ve got a Christmas show a comin’.
Well, it’s sort of a biannual Christmas show that we do. Um, mainly because if I had to do it every year, I would probably become a Hasidic Jew.
Why do you say that?
I can only take Christmas in small doses and it’s really only mostly for my mom ’cause she really loves getting the family together and forcing us to sing and be merry.
Well, there’s nothing small about the doses that you’re serving it up in though.
No, no it’s an O.D. event and my mother really is going whole-hog. She’s doing the Martha Stewart Show the day before the performance and she’s making cookies for everybody. And she wanted everybody to dress in sort of a Dickensian style — meaning just take your fashionable clothes and put holes in them. And then we’re doing a selection of French songs and famous English songs, or standards. Because we have people like Emmy Lou and Lou Reed, I’m sure we’ll do some country songs and stuff. And then, you know, a lot of comedy too just because we tend to under-rehearse and then make up for it onstage with banter.
Lou Reed doesn’t strike me as the most holiday-oriented chap.
He’s the Grinch, or the Scrooge character in our carol. He did the last show, which was a couple years ago and I worked with him at a couple other events. He’s a wonderful, wonderful guy.
So speaking of big shows and O.D.’ing, you did Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall in 2006. Now apparently Liza Minelli is poised for a comeback. Did you see that big profile in The New York Times?
Was I mentioned? Probably not. No, Liza and I are sort of in different camps — which is sort of a funny term to use. I mean, I think she’s an incredible talent. But I don’t know how much Liza digs my Judy work. I think anything concerning her mother is usually loaded. That’s another funny word to use.
Who in today’s culture would you sort of compare to Judy?
Oh God, one can’t help but think of Amy Winehouse of course. I mean, there’s so many correlations. They both have such an amazing voice and an amazing drug problem.
Have you ever met Amy Winehouse?
Yeah, I met her. She once sort of chased me at Coachella. She kept trying to break into my dressing room and, I don’t know, I think she saw some light in my eyes or something.
What did she want?
I don’t know. Maybe she was a fan, I can’t quite tell, but I think it was more about looking for some sort of safety. I don’t party anymore and there was a lot of partying going on. And I remember that when I did party, you could kind of see people who weren’t in that fast lane. And they either seemed extremely attractive or extremely repulsive. So I think I was pretty attractive to her at some point because it was pretty crazy around her.
Did you guys ever talk?
We talked a little bit and in all truth, I think she was probably, you know, raiding my beer fridge ’cause I wasn’t drinking it or something.
You’re totally dry? You don’t drink at all?
Wellâ€¦ whatever. You know, who knows? Never say never.
She is really tragic. She never had that sort of depth of career that Judy did before it went down sort of spiraling.
I think the problem is that in this day and age, there’s no safety net for anyone in show business. In fact it’s almost the reverse. They almost push you off the trapeze without a net, you know, for kicks. They feed off of your injuries.
Did you ever feel pushed?
When I started it was a little safer. It was right after Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley. I think people were a little sensitive to real dark chaos and they were kind of smarting from being extremely wounded by those two events. So people wanted to see me healthy. But that seems to have worn off at this point.
What about Britney?
Actually, I really love Britney and I love what she did on TV recently. I thought that was a great move on her part just being really honest and open and not exploitative either about her situation, but at the same time being realistic.
Yeah! There’s always hope. But I’m always here writing my opera and working with Shakespeare so if they want to come over and see what it’s like — see how boring it can be — then that’s great.
Talk about your opera.
I’m writing this opera at this moment that is premiering in July in Manchester, England called Prima Donna.
What about any other pop recordings? You’ve been touring a lot.
I tour every once in a while just to make money to eat out. And then I have another fabulous project that will be premiering in Berlin in the spring, in April. It’s a musical play based on Shakespeare sonnets. I’ve written music to about eight or nine of the sonnets and it’s being directed by Robert Wilson. That’ll be sort of a Germanistic theatre extravaganza.
A Bertolt Brecht sort of thing?
Yeah it’ll be huge here of course. I’m totally going for the jugular in terms of the MTV generation here — Shakespeare and opera.
Right, great. All Rolling Stone fodder.
I know. I know. I have some Rolling Stone fodder, but it’ll come later. Don’t you worry.