Rufus Wainwright may be best known for his stripped down cover of Leonard Cohen’s love song turned Shrek-dirge “Hallelujah,” but as an artist and composer Wainwright has long been recognized for his orchestral sensibilities and complex song arrangements. Today, we talk with Rufus Wainwright about his ballad “Going to a Town” and his use of music theory to enhance his songwriting.*
Z: Rufus, welcome to Zac Swann Blog
R: It’s good to be here.**
Z: The words of your song “Going to a Town” have made a deep impression on listeners. You lament the challenges of living in a country that condemns you on account of your most sacred action: having loved. How did you go about arranging music to accompany these powerful words?
R: Of course. In “Going to a Town” I wanted to use a rather long chord progression. Since each verse builds to a sort of punch line: “I’m so tired of America,” I wanted the music to keep the listener suspended until I sang that line. I ended up playing a progression that follows the Circle of Fifths. It begins with a minor four chord and kind of wanders through the different chords in the key until it finally arrives at F minor.
Z: For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the Circle of Fifths: there is a very old idea in music theory that a V chord followed by a I chord is the most powerful, resolute progression in Western music. Essentially, this could be any two chords with bass line that moves down a 5th [or up a 4th].
R: Sure, so the bass line keeps moving down a 5th or up a 4th creating these very resolute changes. It’s quite a dramatic set of chords. There’s even a diminished chord near the end, and many of the chords have 7ths added to them as well.
Z: I see. Near the end of the song you sing, “I’ve got a life to lead, I’ve got a soul to feed” and the tone of the music changes rather dramatically. Can you tell us about that?
R: Yes, for those lines near the end I modulate to A-flat major. Those lyrics are a bit more confident or triumphant than the rest of the song, so I wanted to lift the mood a bit.
Z: I was particularly surprised by your use of a Neapolitan chord to return to F minor.
R: Oh, yes, I suppose I have to pull out some old tricks once and again. [laughs]
Z: Rufus Wainwright, thank you for taking the time to visit with us.
R: Thank you, as well.
*Zac Swann Blog will periodically post articles focused on various aspects music theory. If you are not a professional musician, that’s OK. These posts may still interest you as a music listener. After all, music theory is simply the stuff people write about music after listening to a lot of it.
**Sadly, Rufus Wainwright was not really available to talk to me about his music. I had to imagine this dialogue to the best of my ability. Enjoy!
Cover Illustration: Mariel Swann