Rufus Wainwright reveals how a childhood experience of Scottish folk music and festivals has been the inspiration for his new creation, Folkocracy

"IT was an incredibly powerful force when I was growing up."

RUFUS Wainwright isn’t talking about the crystal meth addiction that almost cost him his eyesight in his tender years, nor is he talking about the impact of his folk star parents’ rancorous failed marriage when he was a boy. Instead, when the Canadian singer=songwriter pitches up on the end of a Zoom in his LA home, it’s to acknowledge the impact Scottish folk music had on his tender ears.

“My mother Kate McGarrigle and my aunt Anna are more of Irish descent but when I was 14 we came over to Scotland to do the Transatlantic Sessions with Ally Bain in Glasgow,” said the son of Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate.

“We were there for a week singing with people like Dick Gaughan and Mary Black and that was a memorable thing to do with my family.

“I was already a huge opera fan by then and I remember arguing with Ally Bain about opera, as he didn’t really care for it so much. We argued about what money should be spent on in the arts. It showed me there was a huge debate there about that sort of thing. People do really care about culture and the money spent on it. It’s a real hothouse of creativity.”

No kidding. Neither the debate about Creative Scotland’s awarding of £85,000 to a project featuring explicit sex, nor the decision to cut Glasgow’s Aye Write literary festival, had featured in Wainwright’s Los Angeles news feed when we speak, but he’s not surprised to hear they set the creative cat among the publicly-funded pigeons across the ocean.

Maybe he’ll hear more about it when he returns to Scotland next month for dates in Inverness and Perth, eight weeks after the five-star performance that he gave with the BBC SSO, performing the songs from his acclaimed companion albums Want One and Want Two on their 20th anniversary at Glasgow’s Concert Hall.

The National: David Byrne

There’ll be no orchestra this time, just Wainwright, his guitar and piano, playing songs from a career that has veered from collaborations with Mark Ronson (his 2012 album Out Of The Game) and Carly Rae Jepsen (he sang on her 2022 pop single The Loneliest Time) to an album of Judy Garland covers, an opera, a requiem mass to be performed this summer in Paris and his latest album of folk covers, which pairs him with a glossy roster of co-singers from Brandi Carlisle and Sheryl Crow to Chaka Khan and David Byrne (above). 

The album, Folkocracy, is a tribute to his musical roots, of childhood summers at folk festivals watching his family on stage. Wainwright says the album starts and ends in Scotland, with Alone (written by Ewan McColl, born to Scottish parents) and Wild Mountain Thyme, derived from Scottish poet Robert Tannahill’s words and adapted to Belfast-born musician Francis McPeake (whose parents were Scottish, if we’re looking for connections).

More immediate than any married-on-to connections of Scottishness on the album, though, is the presence of David Byrne in the panoply of stars, chipping in on a version of Moondog’s High On A Rocky Ledge.

The National:

“I sometimes have to pinch myself when I think back to my youth,” said Wainwright of the Dumbarton-born Talking Heads singer.

“It was crazy. David Byrne would come to my gigs and hang out after. I was impressed at the time but maybe wasn’t aware of the magnitude of it. Now I look back and see how special it was and how lucky I was.”

It’s not the first time the pair have worked together, having recorded a version of Bizet’s Au Fond Du Temple Saint for Byrne’s 2004 solo album Grown Backwards as well as collaborating on an all-male night of musicals at Toronto’s Luminato Festival in 2014. 

“He’s one of the most constant forces in the arts, one of the greats. I’m very fortunate that we have maintained a friendship.”

Some perceived Scottish connections might be considered tenuous to Scots, but the root stands: the music made over here affected Wainwright and his family, over there. And it went deeper than music.

“When I first came to Scotland as a kid in the 1980s, when my dad was living in London, we drove up to the Isle of Skye and I remember crying because it was so beautiful,” he said.

“We’re going to do a tour when I’m back there in the summer between the shows, and I’m looking forward to showing Jorn [Wainwright's German husband] the nature, and getting across to the islands.

“In terms of the Scottish influence on my musical taste, it’s very much related to my classical side. Scotland is considered a holy place for drama and intense sentiment in all sort of classical works. Composers like Mendelssohn were hugely influenced by Scotland.”

As a father to Viva, whom he had with Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca Cohen, and married to Jorn, Wainwright fears what a Donald Trump return to the White House might mean.

“There’s a good chance he’ll revoke gay marriage, if he gets in again,” he said. “We are a target. And what’s happening with abortion in this country now is medieval. There are women dying from septic shock. I don’t think people realise how dire and grizzly things have become.”

Wainwright has spent a lot of time on this side of the Atlantic this year, working on the music for Opening Night, the West End musical adaptation of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film, starring Sheridan Smith. We speak days before news that the show will close early, amid a hail of mixed reviews. Even then, Wainwright’s words are telling.

“The joke I learned while making it is, if Hitler had somehow survived the war and was alive today, his punishment would be to put on a musical. It is so much work, so many parts and everybody wants their little piece. And it has to make money.

"But that being said, it is thrilling when it comes together. And it’s for the love of song. But it’s not for the faint-hearted, that is for sure. We made an incredibly divisive piece of art, which some people love and some people hate. But I’m used to that.”

Rufus Wainwright plays Perth Concert Hall on June 20 and Eden Court, Inverness on June 22. Opening Night runs at London’s Gielgud Theatre until May 18.