JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: We know each other so there’s something vaguely awkward about this because we usually talk like normal people, but I’m curious about some things and I’m actually eager to get your answers.
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Let’s be abnormal I love it.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: I often end up saying when people ask me about writing that a bird is not an ornithologist. Just because you are something doesn’t mean you understand why you are that thing. I was wondering to what extent you think about music as opposed to just making it.
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: It’s sort of a double-edged sword for me, especially if one considers my operatic exploits as opposed to my pop work. I tend to lean on what I know scientifically about music, about what I’ve studied over the years, harmony, and singing harmonies with my family, piano lessons, going to the opera to bring an intellectual way to that sphere. Not a lot of people do it that way so I’m always trying to be different. That being said when I go to the opera world I kind of invert it a bit and enjoy the ignorance over the years about what’s actually going on with the orchestra and have it be more about feel and less intellectual. I can flip between both theories and it seems to have served me pretty well because it’s always been about differentiating myself from the pack. I play dumb when it’s convenient.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Given that there is at least part of you, some of the time, that does think about these things, how do you think of yourself?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: If I could classify myself in any sort of file it would be American songwriter. I strongly believe that the US has really produced the greatest songwriters in the history of the world. Whether it’s Bob Dylan or Gershwin or Hoagy Carmichael, it’s really the preeminent art form of this country and it’s always been and what made it interesting it that is a fine line between intellectual prowess and emotional freedom. I have studied the history and the requirements for being an American songwriter, and you have to add Canada in there too. America’s really part of Canada you know.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: So you think of yourself as an American songwriter, do you ever think of traditions that you are a continuation of? Like Classicism or Modernism?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: It interesting because in song writing there is a very famous rift that occurred, pretty much with Bob Dylan, where singers wrote their songs and performed them and put the band together and became an entity on their own, opposed to guys working at the Brill Building where there would be a lyricist and a pianist and I think that in a practical way I may be a playing the instrument and putting the band together and so forth but my heart really lies on the other side of the river, which is an older tradition where one person wrote the music, another person interpreted them. I kind of draw on a lot of that though I’m in a more modern situation. Maybe it’s just the grass is greener on the other side, but I do think it was better when there were more people working on the song.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Having been to your apartment, I’ve seen some of the collages that you do. I was wondering to what extent you experiment in other forms? Probably you get a lot of people asking you about this movement toward opera or this experiment in opera, but are there more radical experiments that you do even if you keep them to yourself?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: It depends what you qualify as art. I definitely try to occupy myself with activities, whether its art, drawing or writing songs, or operas.
Sometimes having a slightly dark half, I like to experiment with more my life as a sort of template, but I also want to stick around and maintain a healthy relationship and be a good father. So I keep it in the realm of the art, but I would say I’ve always been attracted to people who go all the way, whether it’s Warhol Superstars or Rimbaud or Wagner, these really over the top characters. Fortunately for these people I don’t think they had Crystal Meth back then, they did in Warhol’s time though, so that’s when the death toll started to rise. Drawing is the boundary.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Do you ever have regrets about the limitations of music?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: No, no, I don’t believe there is any limitation of music. Recently, we were in LA, Jorn and I, and we saw Mahler’s 8th Symphony “Symphony of a Thousand” and until you can grasp the surface of a work like that it’s a cathedral feeling. I have tremendous respect and I’m in constant awe of what has come before. Some people might find it intimidating or oppressive but I actually find that it widens the scope of all that happens with music. That’s why I’ve always been drawn to classical music, because there’s so much variety.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Unlike most of your peers, you’re peers in pop, you’re often singled out as being an amazing lyricist and I was wondering how you think about the balance of music and lyric? Does one come first? Is one an extension?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Lyrics are definitely harder. Words have an either two-second expiry date or they last forever. Now the more speak about it, the more incommunicative I become. But I definitely feel when I strike a good lyric there is an emotional pin that’s released and that’s as far as I can go in terms of analyzing it. If I wanted to write a novel or really write poetry or prose, I don’t think I would have the heart for it. That’s something that’s the most daunting, the words.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: How does that change when you’re writing pop music or opera?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: For pop music a lot of it has to do with whatever pops in your head at that time. Pop is directly connected to rhythm and rhythm is directly connected to walking. Oftentimes Ill be walking down the street, humming a tune, and then these words will come and I’m off to the races. The next thing you know it’s finished and hopefully I haven’t had to think about it too much. There’s a mechanism there that will pull the words from the ether and deliver them to the world. Opera is a little more complicated. Other than lyrics, I don’t think that I could write a novel. I don’t think I could really write poetry. I could maybe write a play that the one literary ability that I could investigate, and I sort of have with the opera. I wrote the libretto for that. That’s the one area that I am interested in and in fact, I used to love reading plays.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: What about the opera? One thing we didn’t mention there when talking about the balance of words or story were songs that you wrote in French. What did that do to the process?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: That was because a lot of the music came out of the language. The opera takes place in Paris it’s about an opera singer and her career and thoughts about what she’s been able to do and not do. There’s this romantic sentimental (intelligible) to go into the repertoire, which for any diva is rooted in the 19th century or early 20th century. The French lends itself well to that style, much more than English. I started to get a lot of melodies from the language and had to go with it. My next opera is going to be in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, so we’ll see what kind of melodies come out of that. Maybe this also pertains to songwriting where the music has to come out of the words. The words contain the music. I imagine that’s probably the truth with writing in general.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: This idea of one thing coming out of another, the poet W.H. Auden said “I look at what I write so that I can see it (?)” and I was wondering for you is the creative process to approach the piano (or whatever creative process you are working on), with an idea or does the idea come out of the piano?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Well, the idea comes out of life. Certainly what I was referring to before in terms of I wish my daily existence was more (intelligible) do tons of drugs and sleep with whomever and be this crazy bohemian. That’s always been a secret demon in my life. But of course I haven’t gotten that, but in turn have been in a relationship, am getting married, I have a daughter. My mother passed away from cancer and I was really present for that. What I found in terms of being here and being an active member of society, what the earth throws at you is so momentous and so much bigger than your little art or little play and will direct you in terms of what must be said and what must be expressed. The lives that people lead are just so dramatic.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: With this opera, you are obviously working with a lot of people. I know that one project kind of primes me for another and I feel like I want to do more of that or I never want to do more of that again. I wondered to you have any insight that you want to retreat into solitude and not be in conversation with other people?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: The process of writing the opera is very solitary and then you have to share it with a lot of people. For instance, when I started writing Prima Donna, it was right when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I was on the road a lot and (intelligible) presented with this mammoth project and essentially you have to dive in alone. I’ve often equated it to the male version of pregnancy. Whether it’s the orchestration or the libretto you have to create these things on a big scale. And a lot of people laugh at me and say compared to “you’re mother dying of cancer this is a fucking walk in the park.” It was a vacation in reality to be shut off and alone in this entire world at that time. Subsequently, it’s been interesting. When I first heard the first through of the piece with singers, I was totally devastated because I realized of the emotions that I couldn’t really come to terms with were being battled out in the music before my very eyes. It became kind of a mirror of what I’d gone through, without realizing that I had gone through it.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: It’s true that not only did your next piece of work respond to your last piece of work, but it’s become much more responsive to your life. People will remember this period of you life as the most artistically tumultuous.
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: We’re in our thirties and it’s time to go out there and make the big move and it can last for a good 25 years at a high-level. Pop is more about being really young, really ephemeral and kind of nihilistic. It‘s fabulous in a sense to observe, I don’t want to live it. I did sort of live it in the past, but now I want the big fish.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: My last question, which I guess is the big fish question or at least related to it. Do you have in the script sort-of, an ambitious or romantic place in your mind that it’s embarrassing to share, some future project that “I’ve always imagined myself doing this” that maybe this thing will happen. Do you have anything like that?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: I still think of us doing a musical darling! I still think about that. I will stay that every one has asked me for my entire career when I’m going to quit it and write a bloody musical and calm down already. I would say that in a sense it’s an obvious move, but often times the obvious moves are the most challenging. It’s definitely hovering.
Jonathan Safran Foer is one of the most acclaimed young writers of his generation. His books have received numerous awards, including a National Jewish Book Award and a Guardian First Book Award, and have been translated into thirty-six languages. He garnered remarkable praise for his first two novels, Everything Is Illuminated (adapted for film in 2005) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (a 2011 Academy Award best-picture nominee), and for his New York Times bestselling work of nonfiction, Eating Animals. His New American Haggadah, with a new translation by Nathan Englander, has been lauded as “the best book of modern religious thought in recent memory.”