Three hours before he is to play an invitation-only show at the Gramercy Park Hotel’s Rose Bar, Rufus Wainwright is a little frantic. It’s March 15, and he’s leaving in the morning for Montreal, followed by London, where he’s launching a world tour as well as attending the opening of his French-language opera, Prima Donna. He hasn’t finished packing. The Rose Bar is a special event to give the tastemakers a cozy taste of his ruminative, classically informed new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, which he recorded while his mother, Kate McGarrigle, was ill with cancer.
Back in December, McGarrigle, Rufus, his singing sister Martha, as well as sundry other members of their musical clan, both related and unrelated, did their Christmas jamboree in London. There, as Martha plaintively sang the opening lines of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Kate—whose onstage exuberance belied her fragility—cracked, “No, you won’t.” She and Rufus were unusually close. She died in January.
And now this? “It’s more important to keep moving at this point and tread water,” Wainwright says. “If you stop, there’s a chance you’ll go under.”
In a few hours, he’s back on the small, rose-strewn stage, framed by a baronial fireplace that seems to both unnerve and amuse him. Wainwright’s shoes sparkle, like the crowd: Susan Sarandon, Drew Barrymore, Scarlett Johansson, Alan Cumming, Christian Siriano, Renée Fleming. He jokes that “I feel like I’m in Alice in Wonderland and I better be good for the Queen.” But he can’t resist adding, “Well, there’s a few queens here tonight.”
Plunging into the songs—the album is just him on piano—he warns that he’s still learning to perform many of them. The first, called “Who Are You, New York?” (“Saw you on the corner / Saw you in the park / Saw you on the platform of Grand Central station … ”), fills the room with his big, sonorous tenor. The music is heavier than the songs that made him famous: As if to emphasize that fact, he follows up with three Shakespeare sonnets he set to music for a theater piece by the avant-garde director Robert Wilson.
Then he plays “The Dream,” an epic number of love and loss that cries out for big pop orchestration, which, on the album, Wainwright miraculously wrings out of the piano. But live, he stumbles, making amusingly tortured faces. He plays so far up the keyboard that his mouth runs to the right of the microphone, muting him. When he finishes, the room applauds the effort. “Whatever,” he drawls.
Wainwright, his friends often say, can only be understood in the context of his family. “They just strike me as an aristocracy, a royal family,” says the musician Thomas Bartlett (who performs under the name Doveman), a collaborator who played at the Christmas show and recently recorded an album of Edith Piaf covers with Martha. “They’re usually the most compelling people in the room, and they know it.”
His mother, Kate, came from the singing McGarrigles from Montreal, while his father, Loudon Wainwright III, was the Westchester-raised son of a longtime Life magazine editor. Loudon was once compared to Bob Dylan for his blunt, acerbic folk songs, but while he never became nearly that big, he’s still the only family member to have a single on the American pop charts: “Dead Skunk,” back in 1972. The couple divorced in the mid seventies, and McGarrigle raised Rufus and Martha.
“We’d go out to a bar,” says artist Walt Cassidy, formerly the club kid Walt Paper, an early friend of Wainwright’s, “and Rufus’s mom and sister would be there, and if there happened to be a stage or a musical instrument, forget it—they’d kick the other band off the stage and take over the equipment and do a show.”
“It’s an eccentric family where everyone has a role to play, and Rufus is the little prince,” says singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, a friend of and sometime collaborator with the Wainwrights. “He’s always had a very strong sense of his own destiny.”
A lot of Wainwright’s talent, and confidence, came from his mother. “I was her prince, her medieval courtier; she was my lady, and I was her knight,” Wainwright says. “I mean, thank God I’m gay, or else it would’ve been really weird.”
The two had a lot in common. “We both have this never-ending hunger for the stage,” he says. “We have to constantly create and put our mark on things and make a statement. In her last years, when she was not in the best health, she’d go onstage and perform and walk offstage and look twenty years younger.”
Rufus Wainwright “once said that he was his mother’s husband,” says his aunt Anna McGarrigle, who sang all her life alongside her sister in sweet, nunlike harmony. “She was the boss, the life force” of the family. “She was a trouper—nothing would get in the way of her doing what she needed to, even if the world was falling apart around her—and I think Rufus is the same way.” Anna doubts she’ll sing again now that Kate is gone.