A Juno-winning, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter whose lush, theatrical pop harks back to the traditions of Tin Pan Alley, cabaret, and even opera, Rufus Wainwright emerged with his self-titled debut in 1998. Quickly rising from club residencies to international headliner status, his fifth studio album, 2007′s Release the Stars, became his most commercially successful to date, with a reach that included the Top 30 of the Billboard 200 and as high as the Top Five in the U.K. and Norway. Demonstrating his appreciation for the vocal era as well as for her standing as a gay icon, he delivered the Judy Garland tribute Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall — his first live album — that same year. Challenging his composing and arranging skills, he premiered his first opera, Prima Donna, in 2009 (a recording followed in 2015), and 2016′s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets set select poems to Wainwright’s music. It included such esteemed guests as Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher, and Florence + the Machine’s Florence Welch. Wainwright returned with his first pop album in eight years, Unfollow the Rules, in 2020. Recordings of a pair of pandemic-compelled concert livestreams, Unfollow the Rules: The Paramour Session and Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios were released in the next two years, both featuring stripped-back arrangements.
Rufus McGarrigle Wainwright was born in New York’s Hudson Valley in 1973. The son of folk music luminaries Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, his parents divorced while he was a child, and he was raised by his mother in Montreal. Beginning his piano studies at age six, by 13 he was touring with his mother, aunt Anna, and his sister Martha in a group billed as the McGarrigle Sisters and Family. A year later, Wainwright was nominated for a Juno for Most Promising Young Artist, while his “I’m A-Runnin’” was concurrently nominated for a Genie for Best Song in a Film (1988′s Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller).
Coming out as gay while still in his teens, Wainwright sought solace in opera throughout his adolescent years, also becoming an enormous fan of performers including Édith Piaf, Al Jolson, and Judy Garland. After attending the prestigious Millbrook School in upstate New York, he briefly studied music at Montreal’s McGill University, eventually turning away from classical performance and toward pop and rock. Becoming a fixture on the Montreal club circuit, Wainwright soon cut a series of demos with producer Pierre Marchand. Loudon Wainwright III then passed a copy of the tape to friend Van Dyke Parks, who in turn handed it on to DreamWorks exec Lenny Waronker. The label signed him not long after, resulting in the release of Rufus Wainwright in May of 1998. Co-produced by Marchand and Jon Brion, the album landed on several critics’ “Best of 1998” lists and collected the Juno Award for Best Alternative Album. Wainwright spent the next few years touring and appearing sporadically on soundtracks (Shrek) and compilations (The McGarrigle Hour). His sophomore album, Poses, brought similar acclaim in mid-2001, including earning him a second Juno in the alternative category.
After spending much of 2001 and 2002 touring on his own and with Tori Amos, Wainwright settled into Bearsville Studio in Woodstock, New York, with producer Marius de Vries to record a sort of double album. The first project, Want One, was released in September 2003, with Want Two following a year later. In 2007, he issued both Release the Stars and Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, a restaging of Garland’s legendary Judy at Carnegie Hall performance from 1961. Release the Stars went to number 23 on the Billboard 200 and to number two on the album chart in the U.K., both career highs. Early in 2009, the Carnegie Hall album resulted in Wainwright’s first Grammy nomination, in the category of Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
In 2010, Wainwright presented his sixth studio album, the stripped-down All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, a 12-track, Shakespeare-influenced collection of original material that relied almost solely on the artist’s voice and piano. The following year, the musician embarked on his seventh album with the intention of returning to the ornate pop of his early days. The resulting Out of the Game, which was produced by Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Adele), arrived in May 2012. It was followed by the concert album Live from the Artist's Den and the collection Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright, both in 2014.
A recording of his debut opera, the French-language Prima Donna, was released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2015. The label also put out his next studio album, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, the following April. Three of the musical sonnets had appeared on Songs for Lulu but were reworked for Take All My Loves, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Its many guests included several film actors, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and singers spanning soprano Anna Prohaska and his sister, Martha. In 2020, Wainwright returned to singer/songwriter pop with the Mitchell Froom-produced Unfollow the Rules. His debut for the BMG label, its contributors included guitarist Blake Mills and drummers Matt Chamberlain and Jim Keltner, the latter of whom had appeared on his first album. The next year’s Unfollow the Rules: The Paramour Session captured a 2020 performance at the Paramour Mansion in Los Angeles that included two previously unreleases songs. Highlights from another concert livestream, Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios, followed on BMG in 2022. With Academy Award-winning actress Renée Zellweger as the only in-person audience member, it revisited Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall album, this time with only a four-piece jazz combo and a guest spot by Kristin Chenoweth. ~ Jason Ankeny & Marcy Donelson