The concert doc Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You, Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s moving tribute to their recently deceased mom, Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, screened to a packed theater at the Berlinale last week. (Participants in the film, directed by Lian Lunson, include Anna McGarrigle, Kate’s sister and writing partner; Norah Jones; and Jimmy Fallon, who tap-dances and does a song using a washboard and spoons.) Though Rufus was a bit jet-lagged and partied-out after a long night at the Paris Bar — “a fantastic institution of classic Berlinism,” as he put it — he was happy to be back in the city where he first got together with his husband, Jörn, and recorded his 2007 album Release the Stars. We spoke to him and Martha about the film, their competitive streak, and fame.
Sing Me the Songs doesn’t have a lot of talking heads — most of the “commentary” comes from the performances.
Rufus: In my mother’s material, in her career — and even in, you know, Canada — there’s always a hidden quality, a kind of a discovery involved. Lian wanted to keep that intact, to make the film more of a maze than an exposé. Like excavating ancient hieroglyphics: If you put too much light on it, it will sort of disintegrate and fade quickly. There’s also a group of pure and underappreciated artists in there. Like Justin Bond, or Thomas Bartlett, one of the greatest living pianists — people the audience can hopefully discover and get lost in. Because so much of show business is about overexposure: What branding is behind you? Did you get your name on the Gap commercial? I’ve played that game, and I’m not one to shy away from it. But the McGarrigles were very — I wouldn't say demure, but they had a subtlety, a kind of reserved quality …
Rufus: Modesty! A modesty that I certainly didn't inherit, but that I admire.
Did you ever feel competitive with each other, growing up in a musical family?
Rufus: We all did. But my theory on the whole game is that once you're onstage, and the lights are on, and the mikes are turned up, there’s this third being that takes over. And it has no mother, it has no father, it has no siblings, it has no children. It’s just this force, and nothing will get in its way.
Martha:Luckily for Rufus and me, even though the genre we do is similar, our voices are really different — that was the saving grace that allowed us to live independently as artists in a household of artists. But my biggest influences are my parents, and I was never embarrassed to say so. I always wanted to believe I was responsible for my own … I’m not going to say success, because that's not what I have, or had, but rather I wanted to feel I was the master of my own game. But in all, being part of this family, this clan mentality — it’s pretty cool.
You don't think you’ve been successful, Martha?
Martha: It’s hard to define success. There’s commercial success, which I haven’t had a great deal of — but my mother felt that she, too, was underappreciated. Perhaps we’ve both always felt a little misunderstood. And being a woman in music and having kids, it’s very hard to do both without neglecting one a bit.
You tweeted that when you arrived in Berlin that Rufus was getting “papped” more than you, as usual. How has that been for the two of you?
Martha: [Laughs.] At first you want to be just as famous, or more famous, or whatever. But people take on different roles. It’s almost like a play: There’s no such thing as a small role. Especially when you’re working as a family: It’s a machine, and every part is so important to its functionality. Rufus deserves every pap. He’s such a character, and he’s put so much dedication into his life as an artist.
Rufus: I mean, I will say my hell-bent enthusiasm and dedication at a young age was pretty ferocious. Everybody was aware of it. But that being said, Martha really, especially in her twenties, went through one of the most amazing transformations. I hope she doesn't mind me saying this, but she was a good twenty pounds heavier when she was a teenager, and just very insecure and angry and pissed off. I wouldn't say we were really worried about her but, you know, we were concerned. And then, over a five-year period she just blossomed into this great beauty and talent and sage. It was a little later than me. But I admired that tremendously.
Are you two close?
Martha: We’re very close. We’ve been through ups and downs because we do the same thing, and I’ve always envied Rufus, but I look up to him. And of course, our mother’s death has made us closer.
Your mother was known for staying very true to her art. Do you feel you’ve always been that way as well?
Rufus: In the beginning, I sometimes felt like I was sullying my artistry, but in retrospect I was actually really true to my guns. I was tempted, and I pursued opportunities I didn't get, probably because I was gay and also because I was unusual, musically. So I was spared a certain amount, for better or worse. But my mother and aunt categorically refused Hollywood, in the music business anyways, which was handed to them on a silver platter. I mean, they had a band set up, they had stylists, they had a designer come make them dresses — and they sent all of them packing. “We just wanna play with our friends!” they said. I witnessed that as a child and I’m sure some of it rubbed off. But there was also a side of me that was like, “Come on, folks, can’t we have just one sequined shirt or something?”
What gave them the confidence to reject that stuff?
Rufus: I don't know. I respect it, but there’s a darker side to it as well: I know my mother wanted fame. She was jealous of Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell. Part of her was aching for that kind of acceptance — and let’s face it, that kind of money. She struggled with that. But she wasn’t able to handle fame emotionally, to navigate it. She didn't have the steely will to keep all the ducks in order. So she had to just focus on her songwriting. But the end product is incredible: She was able to experience and translate the full gamut of emotions women go through without any filter, without any ulterior motive, without trying to get anybody’s pants off. Her catalogue was the best gift she could have given her children.
Was she ever envious of you?
Rufus: Oh, yes. Very envious. She’s told me. When my first album came out and I was on the cover of every national paper, “Best New Artist” in Rolling Stone magazine, and it was “Rufus Rufus Rufus” all over the place — it was Christmastime and we were all sitting together, and not one person mentioned it.
Rufus: A little bit. But in retrospect, I think they felt the need to …
… not let your ego get out of control?
Rufus: Yeah. I think everybody identified at a pretty young age that I was fairly entranced with myself. And that I had to be tempered.
Do you think ego is an important part of being an artist? You need to believe what you’re saying is important, but at the same time you don't want to make it all about you.
Rufus: The thing I hate most is false modesty. The artists who are, like, “Oh, you know, I’m really not that good. Oh, I can’t believe I’m here.” I find it vaguely sinister, even. A lot of that goes around in this business; many artists are fed this line to look like this cushy, fuzzy person. I’ve always fought that wholeheartedly. Like, “Let’s face the facts here: I’m a fucking genius.” And I’ve paid the price; I definitely have a reputation that precedes me, and there is a camp that plots my demise. But then again … it’s funner that way.
When people die, we tend to focus on the good stuff. But can you think of a time when things weren’t so great between you two and your mom?
Martha: As a teenager, I was pretty typical: I pushed her away, and I regret it terribly. Rufus is probably smarter than me in that he was always very close with her — maybe it’s a mother-and-son thing. They were very connected through his love for opera, her interest in classical music. I took her for granted; I thought she’d be there forever. And then of course when she became sick, I practically moved home and tried to become more like her. We made a record together; we did as much as we could, because we knew time was limited.
Rufus: For the most part, things were swimmingly nice between us, but we had some difficulties around my success. And especially around my sexuality: She was not cool with that. I remember when Obama was first elected, I was asked to sing at one of those balls, the GLAAD ball. It was me, Melissa Etheridge, Cyndi Lauper — a bunch of us. And I called my mom and said, “I’m doing one of the big balls!” And she said, “Why aren't you doing one of the real balls?” Shit like that ... she later accepted and adored my husband, and that was her way of rectifying the situation. She had plenty of gay friends; it wasn't a prejudice thing. I don't know — I guess she had to hate something about me.
Was it difficult to forgive her for that?
Rufus: It’s not so much forgiving her that was hard; it was allowing myself to be angry with her. Especially when she was sick, you know, you can’t really be angry. We got to a point where I was like, “I’m not going to be able to argue with her about some stuff, there are certain things I’m never going to get from her, and I’m pissed off about it.” But I really just had to deal with it alone, on my own time.