When asked if he always knew that he’d be a singer, 27-year-old Josiah Wise—better known as serpentwithfeet—can only laugh. “I always had big ambitions,” he says. “I wrote a letter to Oprah when I was really, really little basically telling her that I wanted to be the first child talk show host. As a kid, I remember every day waiting for a phone call from Oprah being like, ‘I’m going to give you money to start your own talk show!’ When that didn’t happen, I had to figure out other ways to express myself…and then I just never stopped.”
Warm Leatherette, Grace Jones’ career-shifting 1980 release, gives a glimpse of the artist just as her true genius was coming into sharp focus.
Over this past Memorial Day weekend, four of the original members of the Anniversary — the much-beloved band from Lawrence, Kansas — reconvened to rehearse a few of their old songs. This would be the first time that the four of them — Josh Berwanger, James David, Adrianne DeLanda, and Chris Jankowski — had been in one room together since the band awkwardly and officially broke up back in 2004. It was a reunion that no one ever really seemed to think would happen. Having parted ways well over a decade ago, most of the band now live in different parts of the country and literally everyone has children, which makes the idea of getting everyone back together in a room to play songs that were written when most of them were barely out of their teens seem not only logistically difficult, but financially and commercially implausible. Still, after several months of chatting and testing the waters (everyone seemed genuinely surprised by the almost cult-classic status of their records), four of the original five band members managed to clear their schedules for a spate of reunion shows that will take place this fall. (Fifth original member, guitarist Justin Roelofs, isn’t currently involved, though he encouraged the other members to proceed with the reunion. Ricky Salthouse will be joining the band on guitar for the upcoming shows.) Fittingly, the reunion took place in same place the band first played together back in 1997 — the basement at guitarist Josh Berwanger’s mom’s house.
Back in 2006, I had the pleasure of seeing Rufus Wainwright perform Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, which, for a young gay man still high on the fumes of being relatively new to New York, was a kind of watershed moment. Arguably our only proudly “out” pop star at the time (even now we really only have two or three), Wainwright gleefully recreating Judy Garland’s iconic 1961 live performance felt like a revelation.
For those of us whose experience of being gay was either negated entirely by the institutions in place, or who had witnessed the renegade joy of gay culture being almost entirely quelled by the specter of AIDS, Wainwright’s performance was not only a celebration of Garland’s life (and the great American songbook), but also a testament to what it meant to be gay and alive. Equal parts serious homage and camp spectacle, the unbridled joie de vivre of the show was a much needed shot in the arm—a not so subtle reminder of the importance of embracing not only our history, but joy itself.
Now, an impossible-seeming decade later, Wainwright is once again reviving Garland’s opus, performing the show for two nights this month, on June 16 and 17, at Carnegie Hall. Though he’s confident that he can still sing the songs (and perhaps even better now), Wainwright is the first to admit that he is a much different person than he was 10 years ago. Over the course of the past decade he has experienced great joy—he married his longtime partner, and fathered a child—and no small amount of sadness, especially the loss of his mother, the late, great singer Kate McGarrigle.
Wainwright has also piloted a wonderfully unpredictable route creatively, having now released eight studio albums and one opera, 2009’s Prima Donna. His latest release, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, not only sets some of the Bard’s greatest work to music, but also includes contributions from the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, William Shatner, and Florence Welch. His second proper opera, Hadrian (a take on the gay love story surrounding Greek emperor Hadrian), will open at Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company in 2018. It’s hard to imagine another contemporary artist, particularly one who entered the cultural arena as a young pop star, with such a wildly disparate catalog of work. But somehow with Wainwright, all of these things—pop music, opera, Shakespeare, Judy Garland—make sense together.
When I spoke to Wainwright on the phone as he prepared to begin rehearsals, he connected his wide-ranging output as a simple byproduct of growing older. “I think it’s a thing that happens to people in their 40s,” he explained. “You really get this sense of like, ‘This is it, baby.’ I don’t want to waste time.”
A few days later, I ran into Wainwright at the closing night of Kiki and Herb’s show at Joe’s Pub. When I ask him if he was feeling anxious about his upcoming dates, Wainwright was characteristically flip. “I’m really not that nervous about singing the songs,” he told me. “I’m just nervous about the shows selling out. I need to know there’s a full house if I’m gonna get up there and do this again. Please! I need everyone to buy a ticket!”