Art Works Blog

My Artist Crush: Rufus Wainwright

I knew the first time I heard Rufus Wainwright sing that he and I would have a long and happy life together.

Music has always been important to me. It’s in my gut, and has shaped me as a person. Music can make me incredibly sad or incredibly happy. I can listen to a song 100 times and on the 101st, find something new. Music has also served as a time machine –- listening to a certain song, album, or old playlist can transport back me to a specific place or event in my life.

I was first introduced to Rufus in college. It was not too long after the first Shrek film was released, and his version of “Hallelujah” was everywhere. I heard the song, liked his take, and immediately went to the record store and purchased his [then] most recent album, Poses. From there, the floodgates opened. I couldn’t get enough. I was blown away by his beautiful voice, orchestral-scale compositions, and melancholy lyrics. As I was currently going through the uncomfortable transition from adolescence to adulthood, hearing Rufus express his troubles navigating through life filled a need in me I had not known existed.

Rufus became my constant companion. When his next album, Want One, came out my senior year, I played the CD so much it eventually wore out. How could I not, with songs like “Vicious World” and “Vibrate,” or my favorite, “Dinner at Eight,” which paints a sad portrait of Wainwright’s complicated relationship with his father, folk legend Loudon Wainwright III:

Why is it so
That I've always been the one who must go
That I've always been the one told to flee
When in fact you were the one long ago
In the drifting white snow
Who left me

The companion album, Want Two, came out the following year, and I finally had the opportunity to see Rufus in person at the Vic Theater in Chicago. He did not disappoint, nor has he in the multitude of times I’ve seen him since. I loved Want Two even more than Want One, and was once again blown away by his writing on songs like “The Art Teacher,” which tells the story of a young student with a crush on her teacher. I had developed a huge crush on one of my English teachers in high school, and was in awe of how he perfectly captured those feelings in a four-minute song.

In the fall of 2010, I heard an old interview with Rufus about his 2006 tour, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, in which he recreated Judy Garland’s famous 1961 concert. Somehow, I had missed this completely. Fortunately, the tour was supplemented by a concert album and DVD. I immediately downloaded the album and fell in love with him all over again. As much as I enjoy Rufus’s lyrics and compositions, what initially drew me to him was his voice –- and this concert served as a reminder of that fact. The Great American Songbook was a departure for Rufus, and I loved hearing him sing the old songs. Some I knew: “Zing! Went the Strings,” “Foggy Day,” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and some were new to me: “San Francisco,” “Just You, Just Me,” and what quickly became my favorite, Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All.” 

I mentioned the concert to my father, because he is a huge fan of the Great American Songbook, and I thought he might be interested on a new take. He surprised me by telling me he grew up listening to the Judy Garland album with his mother, who adored Garland and played it frequently.

“Well that’s a cool coincidence,” I thought.

A few months later, I rented the Rufus concert DVD so we could watch it together. I delighted in my father’s reactions to hearing the album again. “So far, the orchestrations are exactly the same,” he said during the overture. While watching the concert, I was struck by two thoughts: The first was Rufus’s joy in performing these songs was palpable, and made the viewing experience all the better. (Check out “Zing! Went the Strings” to see for yourself.) The second –- and more important –- was the bond I felt with my father and grandmother. I loved that I had discovered something that meant so much to my grandmother and held strong nostalgic value for my father. That we held a shared love of this music made me feel closer to my grandmother, and I felt grateful to Rufus for sharing this concert and songs with a new generation of listeners.

In October of 2011 just shy of her 94th birthday, my grandmother passed away. Leading up to her funeral, and for weeks after, I listened to Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall constantly, taking solace in the connection we shared. I never had the opportunity to tell my grandmother about the album, but it didn’t matter. The bond was still there. If anything, I felt the power of shared generations even stronger. One of the final songs from the concert, “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” features Rufus’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, on the piano. It felt like coming full circle: Rufus shared these songs with his mom, and I shared them with my dad, who had shared them with his mom.  By the time I was introduced to the album, McGarrigle had passed away, and that knowledge made their performance together more poignant. To this day, I cannot listen to the song without thinking of my grandmother.

Rufus has released several albums since the Carnegie Hall tour, written an opera, and performed all over the world. He’s taken risks, like with his scaled-back 2010 album, “All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” and become a family man, writing tributes to his late mother and baby daughter.

While I have every subsequent album, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall remains my favorite. I cannot express how grateful I am to Rufus for being there for me during that period of time. And while I’m sure I’m not the only one to have been touched so deeply by his music, I hope that one day he will know how much it has meant to me.

If nothing else, we’ll always have Oz. 

Sarah Metz is a Media Arts Specialist at the NEA. Even though she has seen Rufus Wainwright in concert at least four times, she is still disappointed to be missing him when he comes to Wolf Trap at the end of July. 


Submitted by Nicki (not verified) on

Yes!! Beautifully written sentiments about how you can connect with an artist and appreciate your own family in a whole new way. Felt like I was reading about myself. 

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