While standing backstage following a small role in the Bacchanalian finale (dancing and shaking a giant bunch of grapes) he came off stage and discarded a flimsy toga, meaning his impressive tush was inches from my face. Unsurprisingly, it is an image that is difficult to forget.
Thank goodness we have many other things to talk about, including Vibrate – The Best Of Rufus Wainwright, a collection drawn from the past 15 years of releases.
He is in California, primarily to celebrate the third birthday of Viva Katherine, his daughter with Lorca Cohen, but also to work on film projects that might see him in front of the camera as well as on the soundtrack. He says the smell of French toast is wafting through the apartment, making him hungry, so he is obviously not on an LA diet in preparation.
It is almost three years since the release of House Of Rufus, a lavishly presented boxed set of every CD as well as rareties, demos, collaborations and DVDs. Playing to his famous lack of modesty, the suggestion that House Of Rufus was his “best of” gets a blast of his unusual laugh – think cheery Woody Woodpecker.
“House Of Rufus was really more a chance to flush out things that were still lying around, but dying to make an entrance. The Best Of is really a more calculated review of my pop life.
“There are a few reasons for doing it now. I can’t really tour a new pop record at the moment. I want to spend more time with my child, I am working on some movie projects, and about to start the second opera, so it is a good time.”
It is also the last album with his current label Universal. He was the first artist signed to Dreamworks in 1996 (sold to Universal in 2005) and was given time and a pretty open budget to record the first, self-titled album.
Despite the critical acclaim and popularity of live shows, none of his albums have reached the Top 40 in America. Europe is different, with two top five albums in the UK, but still no dent on the singles chart.
“It’s definitely a Best Of – it can hardly be a greatest hits! All the labels I have been on have been owned by Universal, so it makes practical sense to get the songs together now. And it is good to have a package to give to someone to say, ‘This is Rufus, top to bottom, enjoy the journey!’.”
The first draft of choices was put in the hands of past collaborator Neil Tennant and his trusted publicist Barbara Charone, the subject of a song on his last album. “I came in and made the decisions after that. My husband Jorn also had his say and, being honest, everyone has their favourites but there is only so much space.”
There are a limited number of shows soon, including Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, but being a solo show there will be no repeat of the showstopping finales that have seen him dressed as a fairy with thigh-high striped socks, crucified while singing Gay Messiah, and in full Judy Garland Summer Stock mode for Get Happy. And in a barely-there toga and laurel wreath last time round.
“Nothing major is planned, but often something comes up at the last minute that completely ruins my reputation.”
It is a rare solo outing, the last being the tour accompanying the Songs For Lulu release that came in the almost immediate aftermath of his mother’s death. Played as a song cycle with a request for no applause in between songs, the tour’s visuals of Wainwright’s blinking eye were created by Glasgow video artist Douglas Gordon. The pair developed the project, and now it forms the largest part of Gordon’s latest exhibition Phantom.
This tour will see more conventional solo shows, with Lucy Wainwright Roche, daughter of Rufus’s father, Loudon Wainwright III and Suzzy Roche, joining her brother.
From a Turner Prize-winning artist to the self-styled king of light entertainment, some have been scratching their heads about the recent collaboration with Robbie Williams. The connection is songwriter Guy Chambers, whom Wainwright first worked with as part of the BBC2’s Secrets Of The Pop Song. The result of that collaboration WWIII is featured on the Best Of, as is another co-write, Me And Liza.
“I love working with Guy – we’re very swift. He also understands the order of things. By that I mean I am the one that needs to go out and sing the song, so I am slightly more important (laughs), but I need to be open and respectful in terms of what he brings to the table. We have a good chemistry in that way.”
There will also be further releases with Robbie Williams. “Even though the next big project is the new opera (based on the life of Emperor Hadrian) and releasing a recording of the first opera, Prima Donna, I in no way intend to abandon the pop career. The plan is to get some great songs together over a period of time and I hope by the time it is ready there will be a very, very hungry public.”
There is no doubt he becomes particularly animated when talking about his favourite classical pieces and arias, as he did recently on Radio 3’s Private Passions. “That was great. It’s always good to do things like that and reflect on music that inspires you. I have not done Desert Island Discs yet though. I would like to do that. Let’s put that thought out there…”
Home is now Montauk in New York state. “We have a beautiful home on the ocean, but also a place in Toronto as Jorn does most of his work there now. We also have a tiny apartment in New York. I need to sell a lot of records to continue this mad life.”
The talk of New York and how artists can be allowed to be almost anonymous in the city leads to the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“He was a wonderful man and came to a few of my shows. We did hang out. He was absolutely the best actor of his generation.”
With his own well-documented addiction problems behind him, Wainwright says of heroin: “That’s a drug that … really, you don’t want to go there.”
There seems to be a flirtation with acting but “I think if you are an actor you focus on that wholly. That being said, if I was offered a role that I could relate to and was not too much of a jump, it might happen. I would want to be good though … I could never be Philip Seymour Hoffman good, but I would want to do interesting work.”
During the spring tour he will head east to the Baltic states, Czech Republic and Poland for the first time. “That is exciting, casting the net a bit wider. If they are as loyal as Scotland has been, it will extend my career for a good while,” he jokes. He laughs a lot, much happier and relaxed than in previous interviews.
So, finally an admittance to being one of his hedonist grape shakers during the last Edinburgh show, prompting, “You were great!” So, who knows, maybe acting is where his future lies.
Vibrate: The Best Of Rufus Wainwright is released on March 3. He plays Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on March 5
The Scots Magazine
When we spoke, KT Tunstall was about to release her album Invisible Empire/ Crescent Moon.
It was something of a departure and had been written and recorded at a particularly difficult time in her personal life.
Despite that she was open, funny, and friendly. Still committed to music rather than the fame that came with success, she enjoyed being somewhat isolated in the Arizona desert to record.
Loudon Wainwright III
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The Scots Magazine
WISDOM comes with experience – that isn’t news to anyone. However, when that wisdom combines with relentless passion for what is still to be achieved, it has even greater dignity.
To describe Rab Noakes as dignified is correct in that he can seem serious at times when discussing music and the wider culture. As he says himself, he’s never been a student of the notes, but he certainly has a thirst for knowledge when it comes to the context of music as well as what it can do to affect lives in a very real way.
And often, when he appears to be overly earnest, there’s a huge grin and he laughs heartily.
It’s incredible thinking that he first strapped an acoustic guitar to his back and headed for London in the mid-1960s. Trim, dapper, and well groomed, he’s off on the road again shortly after we chat at his home in Glasgow. It’s not his hometown, that’s Cupar, but he has been here for almost 20 years, the longest he has lived anywhere he says. It’s easy to why, with open views on greenery but not too far to the motorway and a chance to get on the road again.
This year has been particularly busy, with the 40th anniversary re-issue of his seminal Red Pump Special, the album recorded in Nashville with Elliot Mazer, who had just produced Harvest for Neil Young. But there has also been a mini-album of duets with Barbara Dickson, Reunion, to mark their series of concerts together. The two first met 50 years ago, as young troubadours playing folk clubs in their native Fife and beyond.
He has also toured with Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes, presenting a fascinating combination of cultures with performances of The Two Sisters/Minorie (A Bhean Iadiach) and An da fheannaig (The Twa’ Corbies).
“I love singing with women,” he says. “It’s good to have women in that musical situation; I’ve never been comfortable with that all boys together band. I also think that men should listen to female voices more. I can’t quite identify what is different but I love the way women sing and phrase.
“Of course with Barbara, we’ve been singing together since we were teenagers. She’s still in good voice and I’m not in bad voice so the show with two voices and two guitars just worked.”
The next release for early 2015 is being mastered and reflects his connection with young artists. Again, female voices are important, with Alice Marra a new favourite of his.
Rab worked with her father, the late Michael Marra on many projects, such as John Byrne’s TV drama Your Cheatin’ Heart and was the safe and caring pair of hands that his wife Peggy entrusted to the Celtic Connections tribute show All Will Be Well, in January 2013.
This was just a year after his important friendship and collaborations with Gerry Rafferty was recognised when the Rafferty family bestowed on him the task of putting together Gerry’s tribute concert, Bring It All Home.
His connections reaches from the youth of Alice Marra to pioneers such as Jimmie McGregor. “They’re both on the new album actually. Someone like Jimmie needs to be celebrated. He really did blaze a trail in the 1950s, heading down to London with a guitar when guitars were an exotic rarity. He is someone fundamental to the culture and one of many people who have fallen off the list who should be referenced.”
The idea of being Scottish is something that he feels is irrelevant. “I’m not really in favour of the flag-waving notion of nationalism. I don’t think it’s relevant to be described as such.”
The first time we met was 14 years ago when he invited me to take part in a BBC Scotland radio show that he did through his independent production at the time. This was The Brand New Opry that covered every possible element of country, roots and Americana.
He’s not scared of dashing a few fondly heard myths that somehow Scottish settlers and the traditional song they took with them were solely responsible for the phenomenon that became country music.
“I was a massive fan of the Everly Brothers, who came from a background of Kentucky folk music. Sometimes I think that the Celtic connection is a little overworked. There’s no doubt that there was an influence, but a lot of European music had an influence, as did black music, which obviously arrived with slavery.”
He makes the point pretty succinctly when he points out that “If you looked at a record collection and saw Waylon Jennings and Jim Reeves, you were much more likely to see Elvis alongside rather than Jeannie Robertson.”
One part of the “tradition” if you like is the power of singing. “I really don’t think of myself as a musician. Any skills in that way I’ve developed as accompaniment. I like singing – that’s where the communication comes in for me.”
Rab’s mum sang and he tried in vain to find recordings she did for the Radio Scotland when he worked there as senior producer of music programmes. “My mum and dad sang at parties as many people will recognise from their own families, but it would have been great to find the recordings.”
He’s a stickler for detail, preparing meticulously for a show that might only involve him, a couple of guitars and his microphone. After so many years playing, he knows that being a performer can mean leaving behind more than a ticket stub and some CDs.
“You arrive and do your thing, but there is really no knowing what you have left behind. It’s not hard work but a day on tour can be gruelling. You travel early, then I do workshops before the gig and I take a long time getting myself prepared for the gig and by that I don’t mean just clothing but presentation is important.
“It’s important to remember that coming to a gig isn’t just buying a ticket. It’s getting to the venue and back, maybe getting a babysitter… No performer should ever undervalue what part the audience plays,” he says quite seriously but then a broad grin breaks out again. “If they can make the effort so can I.”
k.d. lang bold on the brink of 50
To say k.d. lang is back with a bang is a dreadful pun.
However it’s also perfectly true, as her new album, Sing It Loud, released as k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang, has been her most critically acclaimed recording for years.
It’s also the first time she has been billed with a band since 1987 and the ground-breaking country album, Angel with a Lariat, recorded with The Reclines. Now it seems, almost 25 years on, that she’s embracing the prospect of touring as a band again.
“There was no real plan to get a band together,” she says, “but when we wrote the music together, it just felt more like a band dynamic, so we decided to get together as more of a unit.
“When we started recording, we just all feel in love. Well kinda…” she laughs, “and there was such a great communication in what was going on that I knew this wasn’t just a k.d. lang record.”
The Siss Boom Bang aren’t just the latest young hotshot session guys, these are guys with solid playing chops, it has to be said mainly in country with resumés that include time with artists like the Dixie Chicks and Dolly Parton. Although the album isn’t straight country or pop, it seems to combine elements of the early country albums with the lush pop productions of albums like 1992’s mainstream breakthrough Ingenue.
Turning 50 later this year, k.d. has that quarter-century of experience to draw upon, as she has moved, seemingly seamlessly, from country to pop to the Great American Songbook and her interpretation of the “Great Canadian Songbook” on Hymns of the 49th Parallel.
“I can’t quite believe it’s been 25 years, but to be honest, it’s not something I think about too much. I don’t think too far into the future either. The whole focus for me has to be on the current record and the current tour. Maybe halfway through I’ll hear something or see something that provides a little bit of a glimpse into the future, but I wait to be inspired and as long as I keep on being inspired, I’ll keep on singing.”
Her personality during the chat comes across as refreshingly unpretentious, verging on bubbly, and even rather girlish at times — something that may surprise those who would put her in the same category as Viz’s Millie Tant when it came to campaigning for animal rights and freedom of sexuality.
“I definitely think that people who don’t know me or much about me think I’m pretty serious, and I definitely have a serious side to me — everyone does. But I definitely have a sense of humour too. I don’t take myself too seriously, but the music is a different thing. That deserves to be taken seriously.”
The observation that she seems perfectly at ease when performing and seems to be very comfortable in her own skin, is met with another hearty laugh. “Well, I guess I am what I am and I’d better learn to like it. I really think I’ve made an effort and a conscious decision to be that way. Life is a lot easier when you’re confident and happy.”
A Buddhist for the past decade, she met her partner Jamie Price, who has also been in her life for the past 10 years, at an event given by her teacher. Life in Beverly Hills (In Rock Hudson’s former home) with Jamie and two dogs seems to be domestic bliss, but how does that affect the writing of a sometime torch song writer and singer?
“There’s no doubt that life does give us our character and our direction and that’s inseparable from my music. You know though, I think it’s about how you are. Some people love writing when there’s chaos in their personal life, some people love being happy and stable. There’s a decision you make as an artist that you have to get on and write whatever else is happening.” She laughs again. “I tell you something though, when your personal life is stable and happy it certainly gives you a lot more time to focus on the music, rather than juggling girlfriends, or fighting all the time… unfortunately I had to dabble at the other end of the spectrum to find out that I didn’t like it.”
The UK tour, which ends on Monday, June 6, at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow, will not be a time when the notebooks and guitars come out in hotel bedrooms when inspiration strikes .
“Oh no, I definitely compartmentalise my musical life. On tour I’m a performer — I really focus on those two hours a night and put everything I have into that. I don’t even listen to music when I’m on tour and I don’t write when I’m not home. My time to write is my time to write, so the reserve is full when I get there. And then I only write 11 songs — I only write as many songs as I need for the record! Maybe I’m just lazy I don’t know…”
As a teenager, she was inspired by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Rickie Lee Jones, all songwriters with distinctive voices. “I knew I wanted to sing and I started doing that about the age of five, but I realised that songwriting was going to be an important part of what I did and I first wrote songs at about 12 or 13. I don’t write for other people though,” she laughs again. “If I can squeeze out a decent song then I’m keeping it for myself!”
With that voice, however, there’s barely a songwriter alive who would be displeased to hear that k.d. was giving it her particular treatment. “That’s a beautiful journey to go through as a singer, the relationships you develop with songs during your life. I love the art of interpretation.”
As much as her voice seemed fully formed on her first recordings, subsequent collaborations over those years have been an education. Working with someone like Tony Bennett, for example.
“He helped to create the Great American Songbook,” she says. “Working with him is like going to the university of traditional pop music and being schooled by the best professor there is. It enriches you on every level of your life.”
Her place in Canada’s songbook is assured along with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, but she also cites Arcade Fire and adopted Canadian Rufus Wainwright as artists who continue to raise the bar for Canada’s contribution.
“I feel like I’m a hybrid. I have the influences such as Tony Bennett, but I also come from the place that Roy Orbison and Elvis were. When I get out there and the music starts and the energy is flying around the room, I just can’t help but start doing my thang…”
She remembers fondly the Glasgow audience’s tendency to be rather vocal and welcomes that, saying that the energy coming from an audience is responsible for “I’d say 50% of the show’s success. The audience is a huge part of the show.”
Tokens of love tend to litter the stage during her shows so it’s a good time to ask if there are any requests. Food seems to be an interest. As part of her partner Jamie’s Tools for Peace camps, which aims to help people to solve problems through Buddhist teachings, she has volunteered as a cook, but travelling the world can be more of a culinary adventure.
She finds vegetarian haggis “absolutely yummy”, though they could do some damage being propelled on to a stage. “You do know I love a potato scone,” she says. Once her vocabulary is corrected she adds, “Tattie scones, yes, I love those… food is a subject I could talk about forever. A tattie scone with, of course, some butter and a little salt and pepper would be fantastic right now.” Perhaps room service received a strange request once the chat was over.
What’s next? It’s too soon to tell. It’s too early in this tour to see those glimpses ahead, but one thing k.d. has learned is to follow her gut. “I guess my direction is initiated as a listener. I start to fall in love with a style of music then become intrigued by it as a genre and then I follow it as a singer. The fan of music is always the person leading the charge.”
k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang play the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow on June 6.
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The Scots Magazine
Barbara Dickson is, at heart, a singer of Scottish traditional song. Although her career to her to the West End and the pop charts, her love still lies with the songs she sang in Fife folk clubs as a teenager. Here she spoke about that and her plans to move back to Scotland from Lincolnshire.
The link is a shortened version of the interview below.
IT MIGHT be a strange thing to say, but Barbara Dickson is much smaller than expected. Why her talent and strength of character should have been in the body of someone taller I’m not sure, but I did expect to be looking up to her physically as well as professionally.
That resonant voice is immediately recognisable, however, and has lost none of its east coast softness despite the fact that she has spent a fair bit of the past 40 years living in England, latterly in the Lincolnshire market town of Louth with Oliver, her husband of almost 30 years and their three sons Colm, Gabriel, and Archie.
She has just come off stage at Pitlochry Festival Theatre after a concert with her good friend and occasional musical collaborator Rab Noakes. They have known one another since the age of 17 (almost 50 years now) but this is the first time in many years that they have performed together. Two voices, and a few guitars are all they need to entertain the audience – two friends who are in tune in so many ways.
They were brought together by a shared love of music and have been performing throughout the UK as well as recording an EP “Reunited”.
“In about 1972 Rab and I did some gigs with Archie Fisher as a trio. They were great fun. I went to an agency I work with and asked if he thought there would be any interest in Rab and I as a duo, and he was inundated with offers.”
“Barbara is someone I love to sing with,” says Rab. “We have the same background – council house in Fife, then off to the civil service and off into the folk world. There has never been a time through all these years when we haven’t been in touch.”
Listening to Barbara talk about her work, the passion is that of someone right at the beginning of a career. She has come almost full circle to her early days in folk clubs, but right through her successful pop and musical theatre years, there has always been an element of the traditional Scottish music that is closest to her heart.
“Even if I look at the lists from concerts during my pop period, there’s more depth to them than I recall. I instantly think of the superficial stuff, but even in 1980 I was singing MacCrimmon’s Lament,” she says.
Barbara was born and raised in Dunfermline, with music always in her life. She was only five years old when her fingers first went to the piano and with folk becoming more of an influence, she picked up the guitar at the age of 12.
The folk movement was gaining popularity with clubs throughout Scotland. She would go along and eventually take floor spots singing. Rab is from Cupar so their paths crossed in the clubs of Fife. When she left school Barbara headed to Edinburgh to work in the civil service but continued to perform in the evenings.
In 1968, she decided that this was her path and gave up the day job. Soon she was mixing with the varied characters who made up the flourishing folk scene – Rab Noakes of course, who had gone to Glasgow to work but also made the break into full-time music. There was Archie Fisher and a duo by the name of The Humblebums – a young man by the name of Billy Connolly and a man who was to become a great friend and collaborator, Gerry Rafferty.
We lost Gerry Rafferty at the age of just 63 in 2011and last year Barbara released an album of his songs “To Each And Everyone”.
Of course Gerry Rafferty had some hugely successful mainstream chart successes but, in a way like Barbara herself, much of his work is there to be discovered by those who delve deeper than the Greatest Hits albums.
This is something that she has explored on the album. ” I was sent some rareties by a relative of Gerry’s, so I had demos, B sides, and many things that had disappeared into the mists of time,” she says. “But in the end I did want to stick with tracks that had been approved by Gerry and had appeared on albums.
“So I started right back at the beginning with The Humblebums songs that I knew he had written and worked my way through the catalogue. I had a shortlist of around 18 or 20 songs and took them to my collaborator of the past decade Troy Donockley. He was a good person to work with on this as he wasn’t aware of Gerry beyond Baker Street and maybe a few other songs.
“We sat around a kitchen table and I sang them all and explained what they were all about. Troy takes things back to absolute basics and we made the final choice together. The album has a basic piano accompaniment with some strings – very different from Gerry’s sequenced instruments and full production.”
Barbara and Troy felt that at times, the production actually detracted from the song.
“Sometimes it can and sometimes it can help. For example, the hit “January February” – that was a good pop record but strip it all back and it’s not a great song, while something like “Caravan Song” – I can perform that even in the gigs with Rab. Just me, an acoustic guitar and Rab joining me on the choruses. It has some depth. Regardless of what people think I am as an artist, a depth in music is where I started and what I’m about.”
Her path diverted from the folk – she had already recorded well-received folk albums – when Willy Russell offered her the chance to perform in his 1974 play with the music of The Beatles “John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert”, initially at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and then in London’s West End.
What followed was a bit of a whirlwind, being signed to a major record label, hit singles, Top of the Pops, a bonafide household name, and inhabiting a world that she never expected to even visit.
“All I can really say about that time is that I feel that I allowed myself to be misrepresented but you put these things behind you. I think that in the last eight or nine years I’ve arrived in a place where I want to be. I’ve shaken of the perception of me as just “I Know Him So Well” – that’s 30 years ago now.
“People think I’m being disrespectful, but when I watch that video, and they always play a clip when I’m interview on TV, I just think, ‘What do we look like? A couple of drag queens!’. It’s hilarious to me.
“I know it’s beloved by people, but they can go and sing it at a karaoke – I’m not a camp old diva, but that the way you can be perceived.”
Another hit with “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” from “Evita” reconnected her with musical theatre but it was Willy Russell again who convinced her to tread the boards in 1983 as the first leading lady in his new musical “Blood Brothers”.
It might not have been her main ambition but this and a role as Viv Nicholson in “Spend Spend Spend” brought her Best Actress in a Musical Awards from the Society of West End Theatres and the Olivier Awards.
There was also success with “The 7 Ages of Woman” and straight acting roles in the likes of “Band of Gold”. There will be no more acting, however.
“I won’t be doing any more theatre unless I’m offered a really interesting role in something like a Bill Bryden-type production. Being based in the same place for as long as a year doesn’t suit me. I prefer to be moving. Basically I’m a musician really.”
Her next move will be back to Scotland it seems. “My husband and I are looking to live in Edinburgh. We already have a flat there but we need something bigger. The three boys aren’t living at home officially but they’re not married and away yet, so we need to have room for them.
“I think there will be more opportunities for me if I’m back in Scotland too. Being in Lincolnshire has served us well, being somewhere in the middle but I’ve always felt Scottish and my heart has always been there. I still have my dad’s side of the family in Fife and friends all over – like-minded people.”