In the world of singer/songwriters, Rufus Wainwright is more than a bit of a legend, having made ten studio albums and three live records — receiving Grammy nominations for one of each — but also having worked with many other well-regarded songwriting legends, including Elton John, Burt Bacharach, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Sting, and many more.
After releasing his exceptional album, Unfollow the Rules, in 2020, Wainwright provided the song “Secret Sister” for Pedro Kos’ doc, Rebel Hearts, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It takes a look at L.A.’s Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, the nuns who challenged the Catholic Church’s patriarchal conventions fifty years ago and are still taking a stand today. If you’re unfamiliar with Wainwright’s music or his distinctive voice then “Secret Sister” is a great entryway with the gorgeous production that’s typical of his records.
Below the Line got on Zoom for a short conversation with Mr. Wainwright, which you can read below:
Below the Line: I guess the most obvious first question is, how did you get involved with Rebel Hearts? Did you know [the film’s director] Pedro Kos or anyone else involved with it?
Rufus Wainwright: I love his work. He’s a great documentarian, but I also live in Laurel Canyon, in Hollywood, and we have a 10-year-old daughter who goes to school, so I can’t jump out and jump on the road all the time and travel around. I have to be pretty centered at home. Essentially, songs and movies, in general, for TV shows or documentaries is very good for me, because I don’t have to travel. I was looking for projects, and then this one came up, and a little bell went off in my head, and I realized that my grandfather’s second wife had actually grown up with these nuns in LA and really was there at the height of the whole kind of renaissance that was occurring in that order. I had heard stories about these ladies for years, so it was nice to finally get into the nitty-gritty of it.
BTL: Did Pedro already have an edit for you to watch beforehand?
Wainwright: Yes, I watched an edit, and I had this melody kind of wandering around in my head. I have many melodies at all times, kind of ready to go. Melody-wise, it’s almost like a condition [chuckles] — it can almost be annoying. But then, I knew I had to write something for this film. Actually, the drive that I take every day from Laurel Canyon to Silverlake, where our daughter goes to school, goes right by the convent. So, I just started to have these visions of what was going on behind the gates? What was going on in the streets, and how, in a lot of ways, that was the Sisters of Immaculate Hearts’ philosophy, to open the gates and go out and be of service and make the world a better place. That’s sort of where the idea came from.
BTL: What was the timeframe like? How long ago did he come to you with the movie and show you something?
Wainwright: It was near the end of the process. I think they were on their final edits of the film. I essentially saw the film. They hadn’t completed all the animation, and that does take some time, so it wasn’t like right at the end, obviously. I think that they’d been working on this film for many, many years, let’s just say I was a little bit of the cherry on top.
BTL: I guess I meant more if it was a year ago or in the middle of the pandemic?
Wainwright: It was in the middle of the pandemic.
BTL: I assume you have a recording studio and did it all there?
Wainwright: No, no, I actually did it with my friend Blake Mills, who’s a fantastic guitar player, famous young man, who’s really a virtuoso, and he has this amazing studio. He and some other people have bought or leased — I don’t know what the deal is — but the old Sound City Studios in the Valley. So I did this there. I did this in the same room as [Fleetwood Mac’s] Rumors was recorded, so it was a classic, old school session with only Blake and I, and also Matt Chamberlain, the drummer. He played percussion, so they’re pretty good players.
BTL: Did you write this on piano? It’s such a guitar-driven song.
Wainwright: No, I wrote it on guitar. I write a lot of songs on guitar — I do both. Whether it’s on the piano or the guitar — one can usually tell by the Spirit they kind of emanate. My guitar songs are much more driving, whereas my piano ones tend to be a little more introspective and unusual.
BTL: Are you a MIDI guy at all? Do you sit at computers and write as well?
Wainwright: I use MIDI a lot, but that’s only when I’m composing operas. ‘Cause I’ve written two operas, and I tend to rely heavily on sample sounds, just to navigate my way through a classical orchestral score. I do in that sense, but when it comes to pop stuff, I’m pretty old-fashioned.
BTL: And you always replace those sounds with live instruments or a live orchestra?
Wainwright: Yes, yes, eventually, with operas as well.
BTL: You mentioned doing music for movies, and I’ve spoken to quite a few composers, including Marius de Vries, who produced a lot of records with you. Have you considered doing any musical scoring for movies, even if it’s just instrumental scores?
Wainwright: Yeah, I mean, I’ve thought about it. I am waiting for the perfect project that I can really exert myself fully and feel creatively satisfied. I think it’s a very hard thing to do. I only say that, because I admire that craft, and it’s not something you just sort of take lightly. As I said, I live in Hollywood, and I can’t tour so much, so it’s actually probably a good time for me to investigate that stream.