Inside Gramercy Park with Rufus Wainwright
GRAMERCY — A conversation with Rufus Wainwright is never dull.
The 39-year-old singer-songwriter sprinkles witticisms into conversation with an ease that mirrors the way in which he came to music: He's a natural. Born of folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, the Montreal native has made New York City his home for many years — currently spreading his time between here, Montauk, Long Island and Toronto.
He and sister Martha Wainwright are preparing for the release of a documentary and live concert album, "Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle." This tribute to their mother's career will bring the siblings together on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music along with guests Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris and Mark Ronson on June 26 (with a screening of the documentary to take place the night before). Proceeds for these concerts will go to the Kate McGarrigle Foundation, which benefits research into sarcoma, the cancer from which she suffered. Mr. Wainwright spoke to DNAinfo New York about the two-day event and the beloved spot in the city that he calls home.
Q: You used to live in the Chelsea Hotel. How did you then settle on Gramercy Park?
A: After the Chelsea Hotel, and the Hazy Days of Wainwright during that period, I felt like I kind of managed to get my life back into gear or just, you know, to mature a little bit and realize that, you know, f—k all tomorrow’s parties. I want to live! The one thing I realized is that with the little money that I had at the time — and I really didn’t have a lot — I wanted to own a little piece of New York. The market was good. It had tumbled slightly and interest rates were really low, so I bought this.
I’d grown up staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel whenever we came down from Montreal to do shows. That was the old Gramercy Park, which was kind of funky and worn down and inexpensive and great. So I always spent time in that area as a kid, so somehow it spoke to me on a visceral level ... We saw this one little apartment. It’s 450 square feet — tiny, really, really small. It’s right on the park, which is great. I mean, there’s no window on the park. It’s probably, like, a super’s apartment or something, but it’s in a very beautiful building and you get a key [to the park] and so forth. So I just love the place and lo and behold, it just worked out that I could get it at that time.
If everything falls by the wayside and I’m cast into oblivion, then I’ll always have that piece of Gramercy Park to keep me grounded.
Q: So you have a key to the park?
A: I don’t have one now. They don’t just give you a key. You have to buy one each year for about 300 bucks. Not everyone’s allowed to buy one. You have to live on the park in order to do that. I haven’t been in the city for a while now because I’ve been on tour. I didn’t get it this year, but I’ll probably get it once I get back. But I am eligible for a key.
Q: So what’s it like in there?
A: You’ve never been? It’s pretty amazing. I think they just put up a big [Alexander] Calder or something because Calder used to live on the park. There’s that statue which is of the cousin of the guy who shot Lincoln, which is odd, but he was a famous actor. The Booths were all famous actors. It retained a certain formal, I would almost say European sensibility — i.e. no one’s allowed in there — that New York offers occasionally, glimpses of, so it’s nice to have it there.
Q: Being near Gramercy, where do you go out if you’re just going to stay close to home?
A: I’ve always gone to this Japanese restaurant Choshi since I was a teenager. It’s a decent, decent Japanese place. I wouldn’t say it’s top of the line, but I really like it there because it’s laid back and it’s really close. I get coffee a lot at 71 Irving. They’re always lovely over there. But in terms of really whole hog, let me think. There’s a Batali restaurant — [Casa] Mono, which is a great restaurant, though I find it’s an unfortunate name. I don’t really want to go to a restaurant that’s called Mono, but it is good food nonetheless. And then also there’s Pure Food and Wine, which is really interesting because that’s all raw foods. You know, once a month you like to do something vaguely healthy.
Q: Do you exercise in the neighborhood? Do you go to the gym?
A: Ummm, no. I don’t go to the gym in the neighborhood. I walk over to Chelsea. Chelsea is where you gotta go for your gym-age, because you have to advertise the goods for whatever stupid reason. It’s more of a gym-centric area, obviously. Gramercy is more about having a coffee.
The other thing that’s a little annoying about the area is that the park has ginkgo trees. In the fall the leaves fall down and they smell like dog s—t. They’re the most digusting smelling leaves and so you always feel like you’re stepping in dog s—t. It kind of ruins the European vibe. It makes it very New York, also. So you can do that — pretend to step in dog s—t. Or you can go to the Gramercy Park Bar. That can be kind of fun, if you want something vaguely glamorous and silly. I’ve done that a few times.
Q: I spoke to your sister Martha Wainwright. She said that with the the album release and the documentary, you’re moving into a new phase — rather than mourning your mother, you’re now celebrating her life.
A: Yeah, well my mom, the great Kate McGarrigle, passed away about three years ago now. Certainly I can attest to still being grief-stricken and upset about what’s happened. On the other hand, life goes on, and I think after a certain time, it’s important to move forward and the possibilities that my mother’s legacy has gifted us with, whether it’s her material or her children or this great film that [director Lian Lunson] made or the people that knew her. There’s just a lot to move forward with. This concert is the first of many which is really about upholding her legacy and about keeping her memory alive, but in a celebratory fashion.
Q: And so a copy of the album comes with the ticket, right?
A: That is apparently the case. I think that was agreed upon early on in the process, and it’s great. At first I was like a little bit, “Really? Oh my god.” But it’s great. For one thing, it’s a fantastic record. I honestly believe that it’ll be critically championed and really go down as one of the important live concert albums of all time. That’s the way I feel about it. I’m a little biased, but it’s a great record and everybody gets a copy so yeah, you gotta come.