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Beginnings And Endings With Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright

Photo by Tony Hauser

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Beginnings And Endings With Rufus Wainwright

The chamber-pop luminary speaks with GRAMMY.com about the symbolic nature of returning to Los Angeles, closing the book and the potential for a future en français

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2020 - 08:04 pm

Rufus Wainwright has come home. In the past, the singer/songwriter's taste for decadence has taken him to creative extremes. There was a GRAMMY-nominated Judy Garland tribute concert, staged at Carnegie Hall (and then again at five different historic venues across the world). Two operas, 2009's Prima Donna, and 2018’s Hadrian. And even a brief role in the 2005 film The Aviator (alongside his sister Martha and father Loudon). 

But for an artist who named not just one but two albums after the idea of longing, he's now found himself shockingly at peace, not only with the state of his career but also in leaning into life as a husband and father in the Laurel Canyon enclave he calls home. Sure, he's also quick to call himself an old-school artist in the days of rapidly shrinking production budgets. But music is an art that he takes seriously, even if the idea of legacy is something that he’s willing to poke fun at. ("I'm sorry!" he yelps, when I reveal references in his self-titled debut served as my gateway drug to Puccini.)

It's that mental headspace, one mixed with realistic expectations, undeniable decadence, and yes—a sense of humor—that marks his 10th studio album, Unfollow the Rules, his first mainstream release since 2012's Out of the Game. Sure, there's a hint of nostalgia to his baroque piano pop, and lyrics that reference both the diaphanous nature of existence and dirty dishes. But know that Wainwright is already looking ahead, and despite his deep bench of work over the last 20 years, this only marks the end of the end of act one.

Ahead of the release of his new album (out now via BMG), Wainwright spoke with GRAMMY.com about the symbolic nature of returning to Los Angeles, closing the book and the potential for a future en français.

Other than your daily robe recitals, what’s the vibe around your house right now?  

We [he and husband Jörn Weisbrodt] share custody of our daughter, our nine-year-old daughter. So, we have a week of kids-centric times and then a week of us-centric time. So, it's actually a nice a nice mixture for us. We're very fortunate.

You lived in L.A. back in the 1990s. What's it like for you coming back at a completely different point in your life?

I made my first albums in Los Angeles, and before that I hung around a lot in New York and didn't really gain a steady footing on the East Coast in terms of what I was trying to do artistically. It was really when I came to L.A. that I found my groove and what I was doing was really understood by the establishment. Because I fell into a tradition of songwriting and record production that is a little more, how shall we say, psychedelic and unusual, and less hard edge than New York. So it worked out really well from the outset, and then I ended up moving back to New York and taking over that city. I had great time there and I still keep an apartment there. But, over the years I've always returned to L.A. and I have a lot of friends here. And this is where my career began. And now that I'm back, I really do consider it my number one spot. I'm very fortunate.

You've talked about moving into your second act. How have you defined that idea?

I started out in a period that even back then was on its way out. In the sense, I was one of the last real kind of major label-signed unusual artists. So, there was a lot of attention, and a lot of money and a lot of time lavished to create what I wanted to do. And, and I think in the end of the day, it was worth the effort. You know, I made great music. But that being said, it's a kind of a sensibility that does not exist anymore, mainly because the record business has changed dramatically. But now in returning to L.A., I'm sort of harkening back to that moment. I wouldn't say that this is a second act, I would say it's the end of the first act. Meaning that this is a bookend to my first record. And now I'm ready to start the second act with something completely new and different.

I love the way you've unpacked this. I feel like a lot of times in pop culture, artists get saddled with the midlife crisis card, which feels unfair. 

What very helpful for me is that I'm a big opera fan. I've written two operas. And I intend on writing another one. In terms of working in that world, you become very aware quickly, that it's only in your 40s that you really flourish, especially as an opera singer. There's a whole slew of credible roles that you can't really sing if you're in your 30s, because you just don't have the weight and the gravity and tenacity that someone in their 40s has. So, I tried to translate a bit of that to my popular work as a musician.

Do you feel like you specifically brought some of that ethos back to Unfollow the Rules?

Unwittingly for sure. I never try to have the intention of bringing pop to opera, or opera to pop. I feel that the two very different polls. When you're in one, you gotta respect it fully. That being said, I think that naturally things travel with me and to the other genres. This stuff does rub off for sure. I do feel that it's been very valuable for both my pop singing and my opera work to make this journey because you know, the human, the human soul can't help but learn. Especially in this day and age—you have to just go crazy.

Did you give yourself any guidelines or goalposts other than sit down and write?

There were some guidelines in the sense that I wanted to make an old-school kind of L.A. album with session players, strings and beautiful studios and so forth. But we had a fraction of the budget that I had many, many years ago. So, there was much more attention paid on economics. And so, we couldn't be anywhere near as lavish which in a strange way, was a great help to us. Mitchell Froom, the producer, spearheaded this concept and because we didn't have so much time and so much money, we had it had to be great right away. There was a sense of urgency that I think translates into the music.

Is there a nervousness that comes with feeling like you have to nail it?

Recording for me has always been—and this is something that I'm now can comfortably professes—a very natural fit. I have the ability in the studio to kind of let go and see where the music wants to take me. I have been in situations where the track isn't working or there's certain frustrating elements, but in the end, I always seem to enjoy the challenge when that occurs.

Where did this provocative title come from?

My daughter Viva came up with that phrase. One day she walked in and said, "Daddy, I just want to unfollow the rules" and then walked out. She dropped it kind of like a mic. It became a song, and when we were producing the record, I kept asking people different ideas, and shopping different titles, and that one just kept coming around. And so, we decided to go with it in the end. For me, it's a double-edged meaning in the sense that, on a more profound level, it's not about destroying the rules. I'm not an iconoclast. It's about turning around and going backwards and reexamining the path that you took prior to where you are today, and then deciding what you want to do. But then the other side of that, it's a very 21st century expression to unfollow. Now, whether it's Facebook or Instagram, just kind of press a button and everything disappears, which as we know is not what happens.

How much of the track was "For the Ladies" influenced by your female fans?

I always feel like I'm five years old. [Laughs.] So, I lose perspective. Now I've got younger fans than me who I think are like, my mom. And it's not because they look like my mom, but I just always feel like a child. It's like an artistic problem. But it's definitely kind of devoted to female fans who are so enamored of me in so many ways, whether they're like my mother, my sister, my, my grandmother or a real member of the family. They're just 100% devoted and become quite crazy, which of course I adore, and they've been really supportive my career for the whole time.

I know you said you're not an iconoclast, but what a cool position to be in where you mean so much to so many different groups of people.

I try to write different fields and different perspectives. And that's very rare now. Often times you'll listen to a new album and everything's kind of related. This is this similar thread that runs through it. I find slightly dull a lot of the time, because I like every song to be its own kind of universe. And in turn, I think that's given me a very wide variety in my fan base.

If Unfollow the Rules ends an era for you, do you have an inkling of what might be down the road?

There's a lot of projects I'm starting to conceive of. One thing I've always wanted to do is make a French record. And when I say a French record, I don't mean like me singing Edith Piaf songs. But doing something very avant-garde and crazy, and something that 14 year olds would enjoy. I'll suddenly become the French Billie Eilish.

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards