There are a lot of proper names on this album: Ladybird, Lulu, Maggie. Are these real women or fictional characters?
They’re composite characters, but I choose a name that will identify them, then I use that technique of stepping into their lives. “Ladybird” and “Maggie Said” are both conversations with these women I’ve created. So they’re composite characters, except for “Lulu.” That song is about a specific person, the silent screen star Louise Brooks.
What inspired you to write a song about her?
I just think she had an extraordinary life. Now that I’ve reached 50, I feel like I’m beginning to understand the journey that people take through their lives — the significant events that make you and form you. I’ve always had an interest in biographies, especially about famous women. I want to know so much about them. Did they have children? Did they have conflicted relationships with their parents? Did they have to move frequently? Were they drawn to urban spaces or rural spaces? What inspired them as artists?
I read Louise Brooks’ autobiography a couple of years ago, “Lulu in Hollywood.” I grew up near where she spent the last 20 years of her life, in Rochester, New York. My best friend Mary Beth and I used to have a fantasy. We couldn’t drive, but when we were teenagers we wanted to take the bus to Rochester and have tea with Louise Brooks. The song echoes that sentiment, but reading her autobiography allowed me to visit her in a different way. She never had children and could never keep a marriage together, and she felt like a failure in her career. Yet she endures. She rose and fell and fell and rose again. And just when she was at this low period in her life, when she was living hand to mouth and living in a studio apartment in Manhattan, there was a revival happening of her films. She didn’t even know it.
And earlier this month, Out magazine ran an interview with Rufus Wainwright regarding his latest (gay) opera commission, why Helena Bonham Carter inspires him, and the reason performing with 'slutty straight boys' was a perfect antidote to a heavy period of his life. One of the questions in the Out interview address the singer-songwriter's interest in Louise Brooks. The complete interview can and should be read here.
I was also curious: In the concert, you put on a paper Helena Bonham Carter mask on for a bit and I wondered what it was about her. We've been asking people what their spirit animal is, and I wondered if she was your spirit animal in some way?
Well she is definitely a spirited animal. [Laughs] That's for sure. She's amazing. I admire her and have a slight crush on her as well. You know, what I love most about her is she's whip smart, so intelligent. She has depth. Besides being a fantastic actress and fantastic beauty, she's also really witty, intelligent, and kooky broad. And I love that about her.
So how would you answer that question: what is your spirit animal?
My spirit animal is Louise Brooks from Pandora's Box. That character she plays in the film, Lulu. That's why I wrote Songs for Lulu, she needed to be appeased.
Both artists can be heard on RadioLulu, the Louise Brooks-inspired, silent film-themed online radio station from the Louise Brooks Society streaming music of the Teens, Twenties, Thirties and today. RadioLulu plays Natalie Merchant's "Lulu," from her new self-titled album, and Rufus Wainwright's "What Would I Ever Do with a Rose?" from his 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.