Rufus Wainwright.
Rufus Wainwright.

Rufus Wainwright's ready to rough it at Bluesfest

IMAGINE Rufus Wainwright on stage - impeccably tailored and coiffured, uber-talented in a sophisticated, operatic way, a little haughty - and you picture him in an elegant theatre, with velvet drapes, not a draughty tent, playing to blues'n'roots fans in shorts and muddy gumboots, right?

Wrong, the man himself asserts.

"Oh, I've done tents. I grew up in tents" - playing his part in the Wainwright family's multi-dimensional musical dynasty - so he should be completely at home at Bluesfest over the Easter weekend.

He's on tour with Paul Simon and his Bluesfest show will be a solo effort - "just me and the piano and the guitar going through the various nooks and crannies of my illustrious career".

That "illustrious" is tongue-in-cheek, he says. "Believe it or not I can be humble" - but it's not too grand a word for it.

He created a sensation with his first album and has built on that with many more of his own material and tributes to Judy Garland, Leonard Cohen and soon, Joni Mitchell. It's a diverse history and shows a taste for risk-taking.

"My early plan, and something I felt an instinctual need to do, was to be different and explore a lot of musical territory.

"At the time it put me in a bit of a quandary in terms of 'what to do with Rufus Wainwright? Where does he fit in?'

"For a long time it was kinda difficult to know where to put the CD in the rack. But in the end it's served me well because I have a really diverse audience and people who like my music enjoy adventure, so it's fun."

Rufus's parents - Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III - are legends in the folk/country world and his sister Martha is carving out a career showing similar influences.

How was it that Rufus took a different, more classical, path?

"All music is folk-based when you really think about it - and I was very fortunate to be brought up in that environment, because those are the building blocks. But I had an intense operatic conversion when I was a teenager and really got into the heavy-hitters of that form ...and tried to bring it into my song-writing as well. I like a bit of drama!"

And any stylistic differences vanish when the family gets together to play and sing and, although Kate passed away in recent years, Rufus still performs frequently with his sister.

"The great triumph of my and my families' situation is that each member is really a little planet of its own - and then we can come together and create a galaxy of sorts.

"It's a wonderful situation, though it requires diplomacy at times. But in the end, when we sing in harmony together, it brings it all back to love."

Later this year Rufus is joining other artists for a Joni Mitchell tribute marking her 70th birthday.

"I met her recently and she's quite formidable and still incredible looking. She has this aura of a high priestess of sound."

He doesn't know the song he'll be doing, and doesn't think he'll be doing any Joni in Byron but, he says, "who knows? I like to keep it pretty loose in terms of what I do... and that's actually a nice idea. Maybe I'll start exploring it."

He talks briefly about other forms of exploration - via chemicals - quoting Nick Cave's axiom that it is important for artists to go to the dark side at a certain point - "and I certainly did that. But what's more important is to transcend that and get to the next level, which is the light".

"I think I'm getting there, but I don't want to get to the light too fast. I'm only 40."

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