Rufus Wainwright has never been to Provincetown, though it’s been on his radar for a long time.
“We’ve kind of been circling each other dramatically for a while now, P’town and I,” says the singer-songwriter. “Now that it’s occurring, it’s very momentous.” Wainwright, who has recorded 10 albums and been nominated twice for Grammy Awards, will be making his Provincetown debut at town hall on Saturday, May 6 as part of the Payomet Road Show series.
Over the course of his career, Wainwright, who turns 50 in July, has worked across multiple musical genres. “When I was 13, I became a bit of an opera fanatic,” he says. “I’ve always had to balance different forces of music.” He eventually turned to pop music and combined it with his love of opera in a signature style that has been described as “baroque pop” or “popera.”
In 2020, his album Unfollow the Rules garnered his second Grammy nomination in the Traditional Pop Vocal Album category (the first was in 2009) and represented a return to the pop scene following a creative detour that involved writing two classical operas and an album of musical adaptations of Shakespeare sonnets. That same year, Wainwright led the Toronto-based group Choir! Choir! Choir! in a 1,500-musician cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” a response to pandemic isolation. (He had first covered the song in 2002.) Rolling Stone called it the largest — if not the best — quarantine sing-along.
Wainwright, who currently lives in Los Angeles with his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, was born in Rhinebeck, N.Y. and raised mostly in Montreal. As the son of folk music luminaries Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle (who performed with her sister Anna as the McGarrigle Sisters), Wainwright’s introduction to music literally followed his first breath.
“When I was born, my dad was working in the studio, and my mom went from the hospital to visit him before going home,” Wainwright says. His parents didn’t have a cradle or a crib, he adds, “so they put me in a guitar case.”
While he says that being born to two well-known musicians was “a great honor,” it wasn’t always easy. “I think family can be the source of the greatest love in the world but also some of the greatest frustration,” says Wainwright. “Juggling all that with music involved can heal the situation, but at other times it can aggravate it.”
After his foray back to pop music a few years ago, Wainwright was inspired to revisit his folk music background. “I realized that I could go even further back to my childhood and to my folk roots,” he says.
Wainwright’s new album, Folkocracy, will be released on June 2. “Heading for Home,” one of two advance singles, features John Legend, whose vocals mesh beautifully with Wainwright’s silky rasp. The folk-inflected collaboration was outside of Legend’s usual style, which typically hovers between R&B and pop. “It was really exciting to explore that different avenue with him and focus on a different sensibility than I think he’s used to,” Wainwright says.
The other advance release is “Down in the Willow Garden,” a 19th-century Irish murder ballad that Wainwright sings with Brandy Carlisle. Their collaboration was “a piece of cake,” Wainwright says, “and really, really fun.” The song is one of several artistic partnerships on the album, which also has Wainwright working with Sheryl Crow, Chaka Kahn, David Byrne, Wainwright’s aunt Anna McGarrigle, and his half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche, who will open the town hall show on May 6. And it continues Wainwright’s history of covering songs from other artists and periods. (His 2003 cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” stands out especially.)
For Wainwright, covering a song is a way to explore his own relationship with its sound and meaning and to engage with another artist’s vision. “It’s about morphing and transforming into whatever the songwriter is trying to create,” he says. “I try to get to the soul of the song and understand what’s going on musically, really through my more animalistic tendencies. I really have to feel it.”
As a whole, Folkocracy fits seamlessly into the musical path that Wainwright continues to imagine for himself. “It feels very grounded,” he says. And it marks a full-circle moment in his relationship to folk music: “I wanted to allow myself in my next venture to do something completely off the rails. You’ve got to have rails to go off of.”
Wainwright says that, now that he’s a parent, time has become more precious. He says his daughter, Viva, is “12, going on 42.” (Her mother is Lorca Cohen, the daughter of Leonard Cohen.)
“There’s just more of a sense of urgency,” he says. “I feel more inspired now than ever.” And he anticipates feeling a sense of familiarity with Provincetown when he arrives.
“It’s a homecoming of sorts,” he says, “for someone who’s never been there.”
A Debut Homecoming
The event: Rufus Wainwright in concert, part of the Payomet Road Show series
The time: Saturday, May 6, 7 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St.
The cost: $45-$75 at payomet.org