Most people talk about William Shakespeare in terms of his plays. But Rufus Wainwright would rather have the sonnets.
For proof of why he feels that way, the singer-songwriter offers Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, which comes out April 22 and includes two versions of “A Woman’s Face (Sonnet 20),” which Billboard is premiering exclusively below. “I guess a fair number of people know the sonnets, but the plays are the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s legend,” Wainwright tells Billboard. “But I’ve found in working with the sonnets they even transcend the plays, though to even fathom that is inconceivable since the plays are so amazing. But once you start to get into the sonnets it takes on this timeless, ageless, almost futuristic quality. So much of the language and so much of the sentiment is contemporary — gender and sexuality and love and hate are just so plainly exhibited that it’s really searing.”
Listen to “A Woman’s Face” below.
Take All My Loves is an outgrowth of Wainwright’s work with the sonnets, dating back several years ago to when the late Michael Kamen asked him to write a version of “When In Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29),” sung on the new album by Florence Welch. A few years later playwright and director Robert Wilson asked Wainwright to compose more music for his 2009 piece Shakespeare’s Sonnets, while the San Francisco Symphony subsequently commissioned him to orchestrate five sonnets. Three of those, including “A Woman’s Face,” appeared on Wainwright`s 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu.
“There was 10 years in there to fuel this fire,” Wainwright says. “They’ve stuck around and people have referred to them a lot, over and over, so I knew there was something there that had to be completed and had to be presented properly as an entity. Thankfully when I went into the studio, a) we didn’t have much money and b) we didn’t have much time, but somehow all the stars aligned, and I think all the past effort that had been extended with the music just sort of exercised itself and it all came very quickly and easily.”
As recording proceeded, Wainwright determined “A Woman’s Face” would benefit from two interpretations — an operatic treatment by Austrian coloratura soprano Anna Prohaska, who sings four other tracks on the album, and a “pop” version sung by Wainwright himself. “In a lot of ways it’s kind of a bookend to the project,” Wainwright explains. “It’s great to have a woman sing it once and then have a man sing it. It really is about just the fine line of beauty and how certain people in this world are smack in the middle of it. They’re gorgeous, but they’re neither male nor female and it’s very attractive to everybody — probably what Bruce Jenner might have looked like if he made the decision many, many years ago and gone as Caitlin Jenner to the prom.”
Take All My Loves also features performances by Wainwright’s sister Martha Wainwright and recited sonnets by William Shatner, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher and others. Wainwright will be performing at a concert marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23 at Stratford Upon Avon and will then stage a performance of the sonnets three days later in London with as many of the album’s guests as are available. And Wainwright’s not averse to dipping back into the sonnets down the road.
“In my opinion you can take any nine or 10 Shakespearean sonnets and put them together in a random order and something will come of it,” he says. “They’re that good.”