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Rufus Wainwright’s Folkocracy

Returning to his folk roots, the Canadian songmaster finds a new musical family


JUN 21, 2023 | ISSUE 12

Rufus Wainwright by Tony Hauser

“The horizon has started to show itself a little bit and you do start to recap a little bit of your experience and you realize there are people who are no longer with us and or in your life. And there we are, you do end up alone in the end.” Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright is no stranger to experimentation: over his twenty-five-year career, he has dabbled in pop, opera, and live theatre. Wainwright released his first studio album in 1998 to critical acclaim and followed it with eleven more. His newest release, Folkocracy, marks a turn to (as the name suggests) the folk genre. While traditional folk music in Canada dates back to the 16th century for settlers — and much longer for Indigenous peoples — its history is a bit nebulous, with no precise definition or characteristics. Contemporary folk rose to popularity in the 20th century, blending the traditional with other genres (such as rock or pop) and often including a political or counter-cultural slant. The 1960s and 70s in particular saw a rise of influential Canadian folk musicians (including Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Wainwright’s mother and aunt, respectively), a legacy that Wainwright attempts to uphold with Folkocracy.

The album’s release thus marks both a new chapter and a return for Wainwright (whose father, Loudon Wainwright III, is also a well-known American folk musician). In putting together the album, Wainwright drew from his childhood — spent primarily in Montreal, Quebec — where he sang folk songs and attended folk festivals with his mother and his sister, Martha Wainwright (herself a critically acclaimed artist). If the album is a homecoming, though, it is necessarily an exercise in nostalgia, as Wainwright contemplates his youth from the vantage point of his upcoming fiftieth birthday. The saving grace is that repetition, tradition, and reflection are part and parcel to folk music.

Hiding behind the veil of a studio album, Folkocracy might really just be a pretext for an artist with an illustrious career to gather together all the friends he’s made along the way. Recording appearances are made by the likes of Brandi Carlile, John Legend, David Byrne, Sheryl Crow, Nicole Scherzinger, Chaka Khan, Andrew Bird, ANOHNI, Susanna Hoffs, Van Dyke Parks, and Madison Cunningham, as well as his sisters Martha and Lucy Wainwright Roche, aunt Anna, cousin Lily Lanken, and close family friend Chaim Tannenbaum. Indeed, it’s a bit of a fancy get together. The star-studded lineup again reflects the core tenants of folk music, which is by definition a communal genre. Traditional folk music was transmitted via oral tradition, rather than throughin written words and lyrics, and the word “folk” derives from the Old English “folc” meaning “the people”.

Keeping with his experimental and spontaneous creative spirit, Wainwright recently staged Wainwright Does Weill, a five-night residency at Café Carlyle in New York performing the songs of German-born composer Kurt Weill. He followed these shows with his Folkocracy tour, kicking off June 2 — the album’s release date — at the very low-key Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. As an album, Folkocracy demonstrates Wainwright’s knowledge of, and respect for, folk music’s history and ethics, which he remains committed to throughout the record—even at the risk of alienating mainstream audiences. smART Magazine sat down with Wainwright to discover the “why” behind Wainwright’s dedication to folk and its principles.

Folkocracy Cover Art

ISSUE 12 Varsity Jacket

Rufus Wainwright - By Kalya Ramu


sM | Was there a rhyme and reason to assembling this cast of collaborators or were you more so listening to who each song was asking for?

RW ── I mean, it was a combination of many things. I think if anything it's a testament to LA not only having great weather. But if you live here there are certain perks and one of them is that it's not hard to get in touch with a lot of different types of musicians who call LA their home. I wanted to do a lot of duets on this record, I do feel like with folk music, one of the main tenants is that it's about group singing. It's about harmonizing, and it's about sharing songs with friends and so forth. We had a limited amount of time and so we just kind of sent out the call with some wishlists and that's who came in.


sM | The album opens with “Alone” (Feat. Madison Cunningham), where was it along your journey that you discovered this song, and why did it resonate with you?

RW ── What's interesting is, it's about age really. The song, I mean. When your body starts to really leave you, and I'm not in that bracket yet, I'm turning 50, so it's not that bad. But the horizon has started to show itself a little bit and you do start to recap a little bit of your experience and you realize there are people who are no longer with us and or in your life. And there we are, you do end up alone in the end. Ewan MacColl, in my opinion, is probably the greatest known Scottish songwriter, there's a lot of great Scottish folk songs, but we don't always know who wrote them. But Ewen wrote the song "Alone". He also wrote, "The first time ever I saw your Face", and, "Dirty Old Town". So he is arguably kind of a hit songwriter, but he was very rooted in the folk tradition. Madison Cunningham, who sings one of the verses and is also playing guitar, really is one of the big new forces in music right now in California, she's having her own success. I think she won a Grammy this year actually for her records. So it's great to have new talent as well.


sM | Franz Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume” (Night and Dreams) makes an appearance on this record; what do you appreciate most about Schubert?

RW ── The thing about Schubert that has always stayed with me and I always reference in my compositions is that someone once said, I think it was opera singer Brigitte Fassbaender who once said in an interview, there are two second moments in Schubert songs that are more profound than six hour long operas. And I think that's always been a real guiding principle for me, to really focus on the minutia and just try to catch that musical moment. I wanted it to be more of a dreamscape, something that you hear that could be a lullaby or something that would haunt you in your dreams.

Rufus Wainwright by Miranda Penn Turin


sM | You recorded your rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe” with Chaka Khan, how did this collaboration come about?

RW ── I first met her and Earnest during the Joni Tributes here in Los Angeles that we did for Joni's 75th birthday and we've remained in touch. The song Cotton Eye Joe, it's interesting, it's directly from a Nina Simone version, but not the one that she's most well known for. On most of her albums she sings Cotton Eye Joe in a certain way. But there's this one live version of her doing it that is unlike all the others and that is my favorite. It's a recording that affected me very deeply when I was very young. As much as I love the song, it's also very much a kind of ode to Nina Simone as well and you need a pretty great singer to do that with, and Chaka is right up there.

Rufus Wainwright by Miranda Penn Turin