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Starting with the first day of the covid 19 lock down in March 2019, Rufus Wainwright performed a song each day for his Instagram Followers calling this new series “Quarantunes”. His fans around the world embraced these daily musical messages from his home in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. A few months into the pandemic he decided to embark on A Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective, a series of 20 live stream concderts from his living room with his guitar player Brian Green and pianist Jacob Mann going through his entire studio album song catalogue in chronological order. Each 45 minute show had a micro-audience of one from Jamie Lee Curtis to Renee Zellweger, James Corden to Darren Criss, from Zach Galifianakis to Paul Rudd.
For his 3 concert Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective at the Philharmonie in Paris Rufus has decided to take a different approach and focus on his pop studio albums and arranging the songs not chronologically but thematically into 3 main categories: Songs of Youth and Addiction, Songs of Love and Desire, Songs of Contempt and Resistance. This is the first time that Rufus is presenting his retrospective live. He is enlisting the help of the same two musicians. While his albums are overflowing with lush orchestral arrangements, back up vocals and harmonies, that showcase his many influences from Opera to Broadway to Chanson, operetta and experimental pop, for his three Paris show, the presentation of the songs will be stripped down, focusing on the craft of the songs and Wainwright’s unique and gorgeous voice that let’s him immerse himself deep into the emotional world of a song and take the audience with him.
Over the last 20 years Wainwright has collaborated with some of the most acclaimed visual artists of our time. He created an hour long video with Douglas Gordon for his “Songs for Lulu” live shows. With Francesco Vezzoli and Cindy Sherman he created a film for a concert version of his first opera Prima Donna that was presented among others at the Philharmonie de Paris, the Teatro Colon in Argentina, the Maison Symphonique in Montreal and the Cour d’Honneur of the Palace des Papes in Avignon. For his Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective he is once again soliciting the support of an extraordinary visual artists. Italian painter and media artist Gioele Amaro is creating art videos that will accompany each of the songs over the three night retrospective. “A master of the art of synthesis, Amaro combines, transforms, and blurs the boundaries to construct a dialogue between traditional mediums (painting, photography, drawing) and new technologies. His work is digitally painted, then printed on canvas. He then meticulously reworks each canvas, applying several layers of varnish. By bringing his own touch to this original technique, Amaro shifts figurative representation into the abstract and captures the essence of the subject from real life.” Where his canvases might remind the viewer of more visually and colorfully aggressive Rothko paintings, for Wainwright’s songs he is diving more into a digitally surreal world and greatly expanding his and frankly our visual world: Amor sculptures lost on the moon, cathedrals on floating rocks, Michelangelo’s David hovering on a coral reef, a woman kissing a pixelated beau. The images are as rich and wondrous as Avatar but greatly exceed them in poetry and mystery. They are sets to trigger dramas and plays in our imagination similar to Wainwright’s songs that often tell autobiographical stories. The videos are not there to illustrate Wainwright’s songs but add new layers to them. They change slowly as if moments of split seconds unfold in much longer measures of time like songs folding fleeting memories and impressions into timeless melodies. They will invite the audience to listen better, allowing them to hear the songs in a new light. Wainwright’s songs are full of historical cultural references and Amaro’s videos play with cultural history and artefacts in a similar. They are lush and and almost over-saturated with color but not in a superficial, pop-art, barbie-esk way but in a more lugubrious, feverish, hallucinogenic way that takes a complex look at the human mind and emotions just like Wainwright’s songs are overboarding and daring expeditions into the human condition, packed with complex harmonies, frantic climaxes and shimmering sonic layers.
The three nights at the Philharmonie in Paris on the 9th, 10th and 11th of October will be the premiere of this exiting collaboration. Wainwright says “I have always admired Gioele’s art. It is poetic and steeped in cultural references yet it is incredibly of today and almost hyper-contemporary which my songs aren’t necessarily. Yet I see a kinship between my songs and Gioele’s imagery especially the new much more surreal direction that he is taking for our project where the images create a sense of wonder, of story and could be seen as enigmatic metaphors for what the songs could mean to the audience. I am truly excited to perform in front of these videos and feel how the audience reacts to this audio-visual synthesis.”
Wainwright debuted his first album at the age of 25. His songwriting goes back more than a decade before. He has been outspoken about his struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol but ultimately his addiction to life and his art and music has been greater and prevented him from a darker fate. Addiction is an expression of obsession and Wainwright harbors many an obsession that show up throughout his entire catalogue: with love, with men, with opera, with Hollywood’s Golden Period, or with chocolate. It is these obsessions that are fuel for his searching as an artist.
When obsessions lose their edge, the true nature of feelings gets revealed. Obsessions are what drives an artist forward, that makes them leave their homes to find new unchartered territory and ultimately new homes. But the places they are looking for are the safe places from obsessions, the harbors of love and other fulfilling desires. Wainwright’s songs over and over again find these moments of happiness, in his love life, his family life as a father, as a son or as a friend. These are great moments of peace, of being aligned with yourself and your world that he expresses in his unique melodies and lyrics.
Any highly original artist is going to find resistance from the outside world against their work and if they want to be successful will have to put up a fight for their position in the world. He will also fight himself, his doubts and demons. These fights can be political, artistic, or personal. Exuberant as Wainwright is in his song-writing, these feelings fuel some of his most epic songs and lyrics from Old Testament references in Jericho to symphonic climaxes in Go or Go Ahead. But as in all of Wainwright’s songs, there is a joy and irony in what he is expressing, a lust for the art of songwriting that lifts these personal struggles into a much higher plain of human experience.