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May 8, 2024 26 mins

Minnie questions Rufus Wainwright, composer, singer, and songwriter. Rufus shares why operas are one of his first true loves, how feeling ecstatic doesn’t necessarily mean he’s happy, and why he couldn’t have made it to rehab without the help of Shrek.

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
It's not a perfect piece, but in a strange way,
that kind of makes me enjoy it more because you
can see how it could evolve into something like that.

Speaker 2 (00:11):
It's emanating from it. It's a live the piece.

Speaker 3 (00:14):
I can't wait. I don't want perfection. Perfection should actually
go in a big hole in the back garden.

Speaker 4 (00:19):
Yeah, along with the words should hello, I'm mini driver.
I've always loved Preust's questionnaire. It was originally in nineteenth
century parlor game where players would ask each other thirty
five questions aimed at revealing the other player's true nature.
In asking different people the same set of questions, you

can make observations about which truths appear to be universal.
And it made me wonder, what if these questions were
just the jumping off point, what greater depths would be
revealed if I asked these questions as conversation starters. So
I adapted Prus's questionnaire and I wrote my own seven
questions that I personally think are pertinent to a person's story.
They are when and where were you happiest? What is

the quality you like least about yourself? What relationship, real
or fictionalized, defines love for you? What question would you
most like answered, what person, place, or experience has shaped
you the most? What would be your last meal? And
can you tell me something in your life that's grown
out of a personal disaster. And I've gathered a group

of really remarkable people, ones that I am honored and
humbled to have had the chance to engage with. You
may not hear their answers to all seven of these questions.
We've whittled it down to which questions felt closest to
their experience, or the most surprising, or created the most
fertile ground to connect. My guest today is the musician

and composer Rufus Wainwright. I remember waking up super hungover
in the early summer of nineteen ninety eight. Elliot Smith
had been sleeping on my sofa, and we went down
to this old diner called the One oh One, which
was near where I used to live, and we listened
to Rufus's self titled first album on my CD Walkman

leaning in so we both had a headphone. I remember
how much we loved a song called April Fools and
how that record became the anthem of our summer. Then
I used to see Rufus at the Chelsea Hotel where
my aunt Serena Bass used to have a bar, and
when his next record Poses came out, I always wanted
to go up to him and tell him how his
music spoke and gave voice to a part of myself.

I couldn't articulate. I never did, though. He's been one
of the most diversely prolific artists of the past twenty
five years, in my opinion, writing operas and musicals, setting
Shakespeare's sonnets to music, and writing songs that hum with
a kind of raw Americana that reaches out into folk
music but is really an invention all of his own.

I am so happy I got to talk to him today,
and I hope you love our conversation as much as
I do. I was talking with Sam the other time. Yes,
we were talking about our mutual adoration.

Speaker 2 (03:07):
Yes, yes, I know, I know we've all.

Speaker 1 (03:09):
Sam and I have both just been through, you know,
the whirlwind of the British of the British press with Also,
you know, I just came back from London because I
put on my first musical. I'm very happy with the piece.
I don't think it's necessarily finished. I will say though,

that experiencing the kind of English press and how they
just once they kind of find a little crack or anything.
It's just amazing how it just it's becomes like a
blood sport between all the different papers, and you know,
certain people are you know, so so so whatever. So
it's it's uh and I know with samso movie, it's

it's it's it's a it's a really brutal world over
there in that in that sense, so so yeah.

Speaker 2 (03:55):
Well but I still love England.

Speaker 4 (03:57):
So oh my god.

Speaker 3 (03:59):
I know I have only ever really been at the
hands of the British press, and it is there is
honestly nowhere more that likes blood letting more.

Speaker 4 (04:10):
Yeah, yeah, it's astonishing. Love.

Speaker 3 (04:13):
Well, I'm going to crack on with these questions, and
I'm so grateful that you're here.

Speaker 4 (04:17):
Thank you.

Speaker 3 (04:22):
What relationship, real or fictionalized, defines love for you?

Speaker 1 (04:27):
Well, I mean, the greatest love I have to say,
or I hate to say it, but I don't hate
to say it, are with some dead composers. For me,
I really I have this inordinate love for opera composers,
especially Verdi and even you know, we went to see
a Puccini opera the other day in New York, and
I had a similar reaction or Mahler or any of

these great composers, because it is, I don't know, I
can always go to them and listen to their music
and be comforted by their spirit and their artists offerings,
and it always does the trick, you know, it always
does the trick. So I think my love for great composers,
that really is what keeps me going in a lot
of ways.

Speaker 4 (05:09):
Wow, is it the turnd do that you just thought?

Speaker 2 (05:13):
No, I saw you.

Speaker 3 (05:16):
My partner's mother is a lifelong Metropolitan opera goer.

Speaker 2 (05:22):
Oh wow.

Speaker 4 (05:23):
And she took him backstage. She took him on at all.

Speaker 3 (05:27):
And Henry, who's fifteen, said that they were bringing up
the Zephyr early sets and actually.

Speaker 4 (05:33):
Getting to see them. And he said, watching the sets
coming up and on the hydraulics and then hearing these
opera singers warming up, he said, it was the most
incredible feeling. And he has no reference.

Speaker 3 (05:48):
He's never been to the opera, he'd never been backstage
at the Metropolitan, so there was something really extraordinary about
kind of seeing it through his Oh.

Speaker 1 (05:57):
Yeah, yeah, no, no, No. Opera houses have always been
my trick, My Catheeds was.

Speaker 4 (06:01):
Like, yeah, now, why do you think that is?

Speaker 1 (06:03):
I mean, that happened early for me. And it's interesting
because I composed a requiem mass that's premiering in Paris
on the fourteenth of June. It's called the Dream Requiem,
and there's actually lots of singers and soprano. There's also
a narrator in it because there's a Byron poem that
kind of interweaves through it. And actually Meryl Streep is
going to be the narrator. Yeah, so she's coming in

for that, So we're going to do that concert. So
it's exciting. But that's all because when I was thirteen,
I heard Veriti's Requiem for the first time. My mother
brought it home and we listened to it together, my
mother and my aunt, the three of us did, and
it just by the end of that two hour stint,
I was a complete opera fanatic. It was like my
own requiem in a lot of ways of my childhood

and I just started going to operas all the time.
It was nineteen eighty seven or so, and I knew
I was gay, and you know, AIDS was everywhere, and
it was a pretty brutal world.

Speaker 2 (06:57):
So opera. I don't know.

Speaker 1 (06:58):
It became my salvation in a lot of ways, just
both the music and going to the opera house to
seeing the sets and the singers and so forth.

Speaker 4 (07:05):
That's so funny.

Speaker 3 (07:06):
At my school you had to be in the choir
and thirty's Requiem was the first piece that I learned.

Speaker 2 (07:12):
That's a pretty good one.

Speaker 3 (07:14):
By the way, starters you mean to go on, I
thought they were all that good. I know that you're
the child of musicians, But why do you think it
was composers?

Speaker 4 (07:24):
Do you think it's because it was separate?

Speaker 1 (07:27):
What I love about the whole concept of being a composer,
and this is, you know, being a traditional Western classical
music composer is the trajectory, you know. I think it
was Beethoven when he died. You know, he was obviously
very sick and deaf, and apparently right before he died
there was some thunder lightning and he kind of stood

up and it was like he was trying to conduct it,
you know, and then he died.

Speaker 2 (07:52):
And look, he arguably wrote.

Speaker 1 (07:53):
The most incredible music near the end of his life,
like the last Quartets and the Misa Solemnis and stuff
like that. In the Ninth Symphony, and that tends to
be the goal for composers, is that you write the
greatest stuff before you die, and most of them are
like that. You know, Strauss's Four Last Songs or Verity's
False Staff, you know, all of these great works. So
I guess it's the trajectory that I admire, and this

kind of constant deepening of your palette and trying to
really make it better each time, which, of course the
pop world is so lacking and has always been.

Speaker 2 (08:25):
You know, that's more.

Speaker 1 (08:26):
About youth and vigor and what's the hottest thing on
the block right now, So it's an antidote to.

Speaker 2 (08:30):
That for me.

Speaker 4 (08:31):
My god, I'm thinking about you talking about having.

Speaker 3 (08:34):
Suffered whatever British press reactions to the musical that you've written,
but you're answering that by going to Paris to perform
a requiem written with Meryl Street narrating it. To me,
it feels like that's the trajectory that you're talking about.
It's not chasing the white hot popularity contest music.

Speaker 1 (08:54):
Yeah, And what's interesting about the requiem is that is that,
like Verity, what I'm hoping is that, you know, if
the piece does well, there's really pre requiem and post
requiem for verity. After he wrote that piece, he became
a much better composer because doing a religious piece you.

Speaker 2 (09:12):
Have to go to this other dimension.

Speaker 1 (09:15):
I mean, I'm not particularly religious per se, though I
was a little shocked by how well it all fits,
like all the Latin texts and the prayers and stuff like,
it's all in there. But nonetheless, even if you're not
a religious person, if you're writing religious music, you know,
you have to at least try to believe in something.

Speaker 3 (09:36):
Yeah yeah, wait, did it encourage you to believe more
in some Yeah?

Speaker 2 (09:43):
No, I question.

Speaker 1 (09:44):
I mean I was never baptized, but I had to
go to church, you know, because of school and stuff
as a kid. But I did have thoughts of maybe,
you know, getting baptized just for the hell of it.
But then I did go to church a few times,
like over Christmas, I went to midnight Mass, and I
was reminded of how boring.

Speaker 2 (09:59):
It was.

Speaker 1 (10:01):
And how I really don't like the whole actually being
in church and all of that stuff.

Speaker 2 (10:06):
I find it needs an update, major updates.

Speaker 1 (10:11):
I love it, an update, but the prayers themselves and
the stories and also Jesus.

Speaker 2 (10:17):
I think there are.

Speaker 1 (10:18):
Things that Jesus professed which we need to actually really start,
you know, thinking about.

Speaker 3 (10:24):
I think perhaps also we need our approach to be updated.

Speaker 2 (10:28):
Yeah, yeah, I think all of that.

Speaker 4 (10:31):
Could we need a little.

Speaker 2 (10:32):
Bit, Yeah, yeah, we need we love.

Speaker 4 (10:35):
Less Didge. Where and when were you happiest?

Speaker 2 (10:56):
I would say.

Speaker 1 (10:59):
Probably a few months ago when I had nothing to
do in the evening and I was just having dinner
with my husband and our thirteen year old daughter, Viva,
and we were just talking about the day, and then
afterwards we played the game of Uno. And I think
that fundamentally, it's when I've been happiest. You know, those

nights are few and far between because I work so much.
But I just hit fifty And what I'm realizing is that,
you know, when you're happiest is not necessarily when you're
happiest that's good meaning, that's sort of you know, the
euphoria of being happy is tricky. But when there's this
sort of there's a moment of peace and calm and

and just beauty, I guess that I think is true happiness,
even though it's not you know, ecstatic. So yeah, because
the ecstatic thing always I love it, obviously, but it
also you know, I've had a lot of ecstatic moments
when in fact I was very unhappy without sort ofly
knowing it.

Speaker 3 (12:00):
I wonder if that is something that comes with age,
because it was the same with love. It was like
love had to be ecstatic or I didn't recognize it
as love. And the same with happiness, and I think
there's such a what's the word.

Speaker 4 (12:14):
Maybe it's mellowing?

Speaker 2 (12:16):
Yeah, yeah, around.

Speaker 3 (12:17):
Happiness and love. It's not less, it's ten times more,
but not be.

Speaker 2 (12:22):
And it's what you refer back to.

Speaker 1 (12:23):
I mean, you know, the touching moments in my life
are when I think of those evenings of just me
and my husband and my daughter having a nice meal together,
how important that is, and how great that is, and
how thankful I am for that, and how happy I
am in that space.

Speaker 4 (12:38):
Can I ask you about writing from that space?

Speaker 2 (12:41):

Speaker 3 (12:41):
Yes, Like, is it harder to write from a happy
place than it is from a sad place?

Speaker 1 (12:46):
Well, look, I was kind of licking some of my
wounds from some of what the press said about Opening
Night and really went to a dark place, and then
all of a sudden, all I could do was write
another song, you know, And I started writing this other
song and I think it's quite good, and it was
a bit like, you know, you just got to move on

to the next thing. And it did come from strife.
So I mean, I don't want to say that.

Speaker 2 (13:15):
I don't know.

Speaker 1 (13:16):
Unfortunately, I think artists have to always kind of put
themselves through all of it.

Speaker 2 (13:20):
I don't know. I'd like to let go of that notion.
I don't know. There's a grain of truth in there. Yeah,
So I don't know. I agree, No, I agree.

Speaker 3 (13:28):
I always think about Joni Mitchell, about her blowing up
her relationship and then writing Blue because she was just
too happy and too yeah yeah, was too beautiful as
we yeah yeah, yeah yeah.

Speaker 1 (13:41):
I think being fundamentally happy and in a good place
isn't necessarily conducive with great art. But I could be wrong,
and I'm willing to also accept that if I am, hopefully.

Speaker 4 (13:56):
What is the quality you like least about yourself?

Speaker 1 (14:00):
My lack of initiative and kind of terms of the
heart meaning that I I don't know. I think with
the arts and with artistic pursuits and even with my career,
I'm pretty good at shooting the arrow where it needs
to go. But in terms of my personal life and
so forth, I seem to have like this delayed reaction

to everything. You know, I'll only realize three or four
days later that I've been hurt emotionally or that I've
done something a bit off, you know. And there are
moments where I kind of know that I'm saying something
or someone is saying something to me that's not productive,
and I just sort of clam up. It's like a
defense mechanism, and I just was in the moment I

could actually say what I feel, and say what I need,
and say what I really want and just you know,
get to the meat of the matter. So that's what
I hate about myself sometimes.

Speaker 4 (14:53):
Wow, that's interesting, the delay. But it's that it's not
you thinking later, oh what I said about that person
or to that person, but rather also for yourself. Like
that's really interesting you saying I didn't know that i'd
been hurt.

Speaker 2 (15:07):
Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah.

Speaker 3 (15:09):
With things that you find difficult about yourself, do you
consciously work on them when they're not actually happening, or
do you notice them when they do and go shit,
I got to get to that.

Speaker 1 (15:20):
Well, I found more now and once again, I'm still
referring to this experience I had of putting on a musical.

Speaker 4 (15:27):
Do you talk about it? It's very fresh.

Speaker 1 (15:28):
So I've gone through that experience and now I find
just now I'm back to life and back to normal
quote unquote existence. Yes, there are things that you know,
with bringing up a child, or being married, or or
dealing with you know, financial things, you know, nuts and
bolts of life that I'm like, I got to just

deal with this right now. You know, I can't blank
out here, and it's easy for me to just lie
in my bed and oh, I'm this tortured artist who
has no room for anything else but creativity in my mind.
But the truth is that you actually should probably you know,
express this, And so I kind of slip into the
artist mood to kind of avert some just normal things

in life which would eventually bites you in the ass.

Speaker 3 (16:17):
Well, as my dad said, you never run up a
bar tab you don't eventually have to pay.

Speaker 4 (16:23):
Yeah, it's horribly.

Speaker 1 (16:26):
It's horrible, and I think especially now because you know,
because we have a thirteen year old daughter and she's amazing,
but it's a really treacherous road right now bringing up
kids and yeah it is, and you've got to really
be on the ball and be ready to act immediately.

Speaker 4 (16:39):
Real quickly.

Speaker 3 (16:40):
I agree, I agree, I mean it does it forces
you to be like vigilantly present having a teenager.

Speaker 2 (16:47):
I'm so I'm trying to do that.

Speaker 4 (16:52):
What question would she most like answered?

Speaker 1 (16:56):
I would say, oh god, I'm going to kind of
go for the million dollar one. You know what happens
after death? Yeah, you know, it's the one question that
nobody has the answer to.

Speaker 4 (17:08):
So do you think it would make your life better
if you knew?

Speaker 2 (17:13):
I don't know.

Speaker 1 (17:13):
It's something that and this goes back to like the
composer thing is that is that you know, when you
listen to that music, which is still so alive and
still grappling with all of those big feelings and philosophies,
there's always something screaming out from beyond the grave, you know,
like come to me, or I know there's messages coming
from there.

Speaker 2 (17:33):
You know that I hear loud and clear.

Speaker 1 (17:36):
I Mean, I can't say what they are exactly, but
I'm very attuned to the other world. And if anything
is just to like calm me down a little bit
so I can focus on something else.

Speaker 3 (17:49):
I love it, So you'd like to know so that
you can just relax a little.

Speaker 2 (17:53):
Yeah, but I don't think we'll ever know.

Speaker 4 (17:57):
No, I don't. I don't. I don't know that we
will eat. But you're sure. I think you're right. You
can feel it?

Speaker 2 (18:03):
Yeah, oh yeah, no, I feel it all the time.

Speaker 4 (18:05):
Do you have a right from that place?

Speaker 2 (18:06):
Oh? Yeah, right from that place all the time.

Speaker 1 (18:08):
I mean in my pieces, there's often references to death
and whether it's gleeful or sad, I don't know. I
think that's probably my Irish side, you know, from the
mcgaragyll side.

Speaker 4 (18:20):
Do you think that a requiem could be happy?

Speaker 2 (18:26):
Oh yes, very much so mine isn't those.

Speaker 4 (18:31):
Sadly, it definitely could be mine.

Speaker 1 (18:33):
It's when I think of happy requiems per se, I mean,
I love for by the way.

Speaker 4 (18:38):
That's the one that was the second one that I
learned to sing.

Speaker 2 (18:41):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Speaker 4 (18:44):
It has a very happy middle.

Speaker 1 (18:46):
Yeah yeah, has moments like that, and Mozart's requiem has
a sort of sense of relief and peace. Mine the
end especially is a little bit more spooky because it's
a bit like where are we going?

Speaker 2 (19:00):
Where is this leading?

Speaker 4 (19:01):
Well, in terms of you wondering where are we going?

Speaker 1 (19:04):
Or yeah, well that's are we being led to salvation?
Or are we being led to a living or are
we being led to hell? There's a real question mark
at the end of mine. It ends with like a
child's chorus and they're kind of being led off. But
it could also be like the pie piper.

Speaker 4 (19:19):
Oh that's creepy. I like it. Yeah, that's super creepy.
So actually your answer to the what question do you
most like answered that is something that you ruminate on?

Speaker 1 (19:29):
Is this after Yeah, I think on one end and
one thing I'm obsessed with, and I'm also very afraid
of it.

Speaker 2 (19:35):
It fascinates me. Do you know?

Speaker 3 (19:36):
I became less frightened of it when my mother died
because I keep thinking, if she's there, I have this
idea of tethering that because she.

Speaker 4 (19:46):
Was this portal in that there will be some sort
of like you know, like the guys doing the sammaphore
or me with the aeroplane. I just can imagine her
there with headphones on and.

Speaker 3 (19:57):
Like two cons and like a high vis vest, being
like in coming this way, this way to paradise.

Speaker 4 (20:03):

Speaker 1 (20:04):
I had to serve of an opposite experience than that
with my mother, because my mother passed away too, about
fifteen years ago, but it was her birthday, it was
my birthday, sorry, And this was maybe six or seven
years after she died. And she wrote this song called Mendocino,
which was a beautiful song and it's obviously it takes
place in Mendocino, California, where I'd never been. And so

I decided to take a trip to Mendocino, my husband
and I and we had this little dog named Puccini,
this beautiful little dog, and we went to Mendocino and
it was gorgeous and it was a wonderful day, and
it was my birthday and I sang her song on
the beach and we filmed it, and it was this
kind of like a happy moment, a little maybe a
little bit like what we talked about before, like are

you sure you're happy when you're happy? And then the
next day our dog was killed by a big dog.
We had a little puppy and this big dog killed
Puccini in front of us, And there was a definite
feeling that I had, and it had to do with
my mother. She was like, don't come too close to

me now, like it was like, don't tempt death this way.
It was very Kate, Wow, it's this fascinats move. And
I had moments when I love death and you know
when I wish for it certainly.

Speaker 3 (21:35):
So what person, place, or experience most altered your life.

Speaker 1 (21:40):
I would definitely say that when I decided to go
to rehab back in the nineties of my own volition,
that was an amazing gift of grace that I bestowed
upon myself because I wasn't forced to go there and
I just kind of packed up everything and I knew
I had to get my shit together. I didn't stay

sober necessarily the whole time, and it was kind of
a rocky road for a while, and it's a battle
that you never totally get over. But just having that
moment at that point in my life, when I was
twenty seven twenty eight, of just saying like, stop the world,
I got to take care of myself. I'm stepping out
and I'm going to go off and do this was

just so valuable. And I say that to this day, like,
whether you stay sober or you don't stay sober, if
you're able to just stop everything and just totally focus
on yourself, one hundred percent nobody else for a good
chunk of time. If you're able to do that, then
do really take that chance, because it makes all the difference.
So I'd say say that was probably a.

Speaker 4 (22:42):
Very very young to have been able to take yourself
in hand like that.

Speaker 2 (22:48):
Yeah, it was young.

Speaker 1 (22:49):
I mean there's other It's an interesting thing because I
actually had no money at the time. I was pretty
or i'd had some success. But what happened is I
had done that the song halle for Shrek, and not
knowing at all what that meant or anything, just I'd
done it in an afternoon because they told me to
do it, and then my life was all crazy and

I said, you know, I really have to go away
to rehab. And then the day after I decided to
do that, my first check arrived for Hallelujah, and it
was for seventy five dollars and it was the exact
amount of money needed to go right into rehab. So
it was like my first big check ever was from
that song. And that's the other thing is that I
think if you really do anything like that profound and

it's true, and you really have the intent to try
to follow through on it, you know the world will
help you get there.

Speaker 2 (23:39):
So I was lucky to have that experience.

Speaker 3 (23:41):
Yeah, I think thatwithstanding the storm and keeping on is
is most of the battle.

Speaker 2 (23:49):
Actually, yeah, totally totally.

Speaker 4 (23:56):
What would be your last meal?

Speaker 2 (23:59):
My last meal? Oh my god?

Speaker 1 (24:01):
Yes, it would definitely be Vener schnitzel. First, I would
say Vener schnitzel by my husband, because he makes amazing
vener schnitzel.

Speaker 4 (24:09):
Is he German or is he Austrians German?

Speaker 1 (24:12):
Yeah, he's German but he but he can make a
really good vener stencil. Second though, is the Veener Schnitzel
from Delawnay's in London.

Speaker 4 (24:22):
I love from the Delauney that's right.

Speaker 1 (24:25):
They Yeah, they do a great vanis Stinsel there, So
it would be a Delaunay vener Sninsel.

Speaker 3 (24:30):
So you'd have double schnitzel. I'm actually double schnitzel. Yeah,
husband schnitzel and then they.

Speaker 4 (24:42):
Very good. Now did you like that before you met
your husband or is it because he that's a love food?

Speaker 1 (24:50):
Well, I mean I I think I think I knew
I loved it, but then you know, subsequently he would
make it. But we would also go on these wondrous
Viener Schnitzel expeditions, you know, go to Vienna and all that.
And also especially there's a great place in Berlin. You
probably know, Borchard's.

Speaker 4 (25:04):
I don't know.

Speaker 1 (25:07):
Yeah, it's a great it has an amazing but also
especially in the spring, you have it with white asparagus,
and that's a big German thing. And and and so
the vner Stinsel and white asparagus is you know, that's
that's I've died many times, I guess.

Speaker 3 (25:27):
Oh rufus. Thank you so much for answering my question.
I want to tell you Phogocracy is one of my
most played.

Speaker 2 (25:37):
Yeah, that's great.

Speaker 4 (25:39):
It is, honestly, it's masterful and beautiful. I love the
music that you make.

Speaker 2 (25:44):
Thank you, thank you.

Speaker 4 (25:46):
Thank you a million times for doing this.

Speaker 2 (25:48):
Thank you.

Speaker 4 (25:52):
Many Questions. Is hosted and written by Me Mini Driver,
Executive produced by Me and Aaron Kaufman, with production support
from Jennifer Bassett, Zoey Denkler and Ali Perry. The theme
music is also by Me and additional music by Aaron Kaufman.
Special banks to Jim Nikolay Addison, O'Day, Henry Driver, Lisa Castella,

Annick Oppenheim, a. Nick Muller and Annette Wolfe a w kPr,
Will Pearson, Nicki Etoor, Morgan Levoy and mangesh At Tickedore
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