Rufus Wainwright’s Voice

March 8, 2006

(This is a rough draft of a chapter I’m working on for my book. Feel free to make ANY comments or suggestions. I’ve left out footnotes and citations. If anyone knows the photographer of the picture below, please contact me.)

“My voice is somewhat ravenous and tends to require blood in order to survive, so I like singing stuff that’s challenging, but also that people want to hear.”

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Perhaps the most controversial aspect concerning Rufus Wainwright is his voice –– the timbre and style of his singing voice, as well as his resonant speaking voice. Why should the timbre of an artist’s speaking voice be an issue for concert goers?

Think of vocalists with distinctive voices you know and love:

Frank Sinatra, Janice Joplin, kd lang, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Dido….

Now think singer songwriters:

Carole King, Nina Simone, Kurt Cobain, Tori Amos…

Do you know what these songwriters’ speaking voices sound like? Do you know the sound of Richard Rodger’s speaking voice? No. Or his singing voice? No. How about Kurt Weill? No. Cole Porter? I see a few hands. Madonna? Again, lots of hands; she speaks in some of her songs so we remember her voice. In Rap Music, ranking behind the beat, the spoken word or the speaking voice is the most important “instrument” in the orchestration.

Those of us who grew up in the 60s remember hearing interviews with the Beatles, and many of us knew the difference between John, Paul, Ringo, and George’s speaking voices. A few years later, I remember Cream, and the band members congratulating each other at the end of each song; Jack Bruce would bark: “Eric Clapton!” who would in turn say : “Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker!”

People who attend live concerts where the songwriter introduces their next song might likely to be able to identify the artist’s speaking voice –– that is, if it’s a memorable voice. Rufus Wainwright’s voice is memorable –– annoying to some, but nonetheless memorable.

I have heard Rufus Wainwright’s speaking voice described as “whiny” but I don’t think this is an accurate description; a “whiny” voice would likely have a complaining tone to it. “Nasally” is another appellation and there is an element of truth to this, but the term is not precise enough.

There is a spectrum of “nasally” speaking voices that range from the way you sound when you have a “code id your doze” to that unique nasal sound the French pronounce so beautifully –– think of the word “vingt” or “Rheims” where the volume of the tone emanating from the nose is louder that a non-French speaking voice. The sinus cavities actually resonate and and this timbre an important part of their speaking voice. Rufus’s voice is in this realm; but clearly not all French or French Canadians sound like this.

In the upper-midrange of Rufus’s voice, there is a range of harmonics that is stronger and more resonant than in most people’s voice: and oddly enough, a vocal timbre that tells the listener: “I’m gay.” I’ll say it another way: the timbre of his speaking voice consciously or unconsciously implies his sexual preference –– weird eh? but true. We all know people who have “these kinds” of voices. I must confess that before I came out of the closet, I didn’t want to associate with people who “talked like that” lest people think that I might be gay. The timbre of this kind of a voice makes many people uncomfortable –– whether it reads from the phone book or talks like a bitchy queen.

The voice is a physiological emanation, and variations of vocal timbres are physically and muscularly driven. Why do some gay men sound like this? Is this physical difference genetic? and why does it always seem to manifest in gay men? and never straight men? Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t know, nor does anyone else.

The most visible swathe of gay men are identified as gay due to their “being effeminate” –– a word that means “having or showing characteristics of a woman; unmanly.” When hearing Rufus’s speaking voice, does it really sound like a woman’s voice? No, this is just not accurate –– it is a vocal timbre. Rufus (or anyone else) didn’t learn this way of speaking from a parent, a sibling, or a friend –– his voice was always like that –– the home movie part of the All I Want DVD proves it. Content aside, when Rufus speaks, he sounds like a queer.

Who cares?

How could anyone hear Rufus’s speaking voice any more than any of the artists listed above? First, he tours ALL the time. There are lots of illegal concert recordings that get shared over the internet via Bit Torrent software, and a lot of live songs available through point-to-point file sharing software where we hear Rufus introduce his songs.

These confessional introductions are interesting to many because he is so blunt about queer things, or his sex life, or his drug use. Rufus’s chat is unique: rarely has a straight audience had to listen to the trials and tribulations of a single gay guy in real time and in song.

The timbre, or tonal quality of his singing voice is the most problematic selling point for Rufus enthusiasts. “I can’t stand his voice” is a phrase we’ve all heard after confessing our Beatles-like infatuation for Rufus. “Yeah, I understand, but his songs are amazing.” “Sorry, I can’t get past his voice.” We’re not talking Flora Foster Jennings, or Tiny Tim, or Mrs. Miller here. For that matter, I was always baffled how in the early 70s, the Bee Gees made millions (and they were not gay) with those silly high falsetto voices.

Rufus’s earliest recording is “I’m Running” that appeared in the Canadian film Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller (1989), we hear the 14 year old Rufus with an adolescent voice that can hardly be called one that foreshadows a career as a great singer. Likewise, his solo in the Stephen Foster song “Better Times are Coming” from the 1991 recording Songs of the Civil War, we hear a somewhat deeper voiced Rufus enthusiastically singing in a timbre that foreshadows his later sound.

I should clarify what I mean by “effeminate.” Some voices can imply effeminacy through a wagging wrist, eyes that look up, mouths that open wide for emphatic punctuation (e.g. Paul Reuben), and eyebrows that arch for exaggerated punctuation while telling a story. Effeminate speaking can be implied through the imitation of Hollywood divas like Sophie Tucker or Tellulah Bankhead, or anyone that can emulate a rapid fire retort as in the rosetta stone of gay camp, the 1939 film, The Women. Men’s voices can seem effeminate when they are in drag (think of Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot; Dress a straight man in drag and virtually anything they say sounds hilarious). There is the effect achieved through broadening the sides of the mouth with a little baby talk thrown in heard in voices like Paul Lind or Peter Lorre. There is the overly articulate voice of actors like Vincent Price that make us suspect the speaker to be gay.

I’ll offer Igor Stravinsky’s taste-free joke here: “Question: How do you tell the difference between and Englishman and a homosexual? Answer: I don’t know.” And finally there is the dead give-away of male homosexual identity: the sibilant “s.” The mouth and tongue act as a high-pass filter allowing the higher frequencies to s-s-slide off the tip of the tongue that make the John Wayne-types wince and flee.

And then there is Rufus Wainwright. What is it about his singing voice that sounds fey or gay? Is it that it sounds gay? or is it just the way his voice sounds?

A number of people have difficulty with his voice on his first album, Rufus Wainwright. The opening song, Foolish Love begins with Rufus singing: “I don’t want to hold you and feel so helpless.” The opening sustained and swooped “I” perhaps encapsulates the sound that some people find so difficult to appreciate. There is a resonance, a slight nasal whine that is cloying to many. His voice has evolved since then (1998), become stronger, more mature, but I’m afraid it’s still there. I heard him sing in 2004 at the Hollywood Bowl. My guess was that most of the people at the concert (he opened for k.d. lang) had no idea who he was. I heard many disparaging comments on the way out of the concert –– especially about his voice. His second song that night was the (somewhat indulgent) Agnus Dei where his long lines of melismatic vocalizations on the vowels ah and oo cameo the voice of Rufus Wainwright unencumbered by text. Some of my friends call this sound “whiny.” The only response I have been able to muster is to try to hear past his voice, and tune into the remarkable craft and artistry of his songs. Hearing past his voice seems to be a barrier to many. In this day and age, no doubt someone could come up with a variable notch filter to cut out the offending upper overtones in his voice to mellow it out.

The final song on Want Two also tests ones’ tolerance for his vocal sound: “An Old Whore’s Diet.” He almost howls the lyrics. I must confess that I had to get used to it myself. Once I did, I then had to learn to tolerate his singing partner’s voice (Antony) whom I certain Rufus was well aware would challenge even the faithful Rufus fans. Anthony has the strongest sibilant “s” of any artist I’ve heard to date. The “s” in “An old whore’sss diet, getsss me goin’ when I want to.

Rufus has some of the strongest lungs in pop music today. By that I mean, he’s able to sustain a long melody, a very long melody for an remarkable length of time. I can only point to opera singers as examples of artists with similar abilities. Besides opera singers, perhaps his mentor, Nina Simone might be another example of a long-line singer.

For the younger readers, I’d advise listening to his father, Loudon Wainwright III to genetically hear where his beautiful tenor voice comes from.

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