A version of this story about Rufus Wainwright first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
From the time he was a kid, Rufus Wainwright was vaguely aware of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, a group of a few hundred nuns who defied the conservative archdiocese of Los Angeles in the 1960s in order to work for progressive causes. Wainwright’s mother, singer Kate McGarrigle, had been traumatized by the strict Catholic nuns she encountered growing up in Montreal, but his grandfather’s second wife grew up in L.A. and spoke glowingly of the nuns who had taught her in school there.
“It was an interesting juxtaposition that started when I was very young,” said Wainwright, who wrote the song “Secret Sister” for “Rebel Hearts,” Pedro Kos’ documentary about the Immaculate Heart sisters and the ideological battle they waged from their school of the same name in Hollywood. “To finally write this song, it felt like I’d finished some sort of cycle.”
Once Wainwright watched footage from the documentary and agreed to do a song for the end credits, he quickly hit on a melody that was floating around his head. “I knew I had to write a song about this place and these people,” he said. “I would drive by the school often, and also drive down Hollywood Boulevard, which is a bit of a show in terms of the homeless situation and addiction and poverty and destitution. So this vision started to emerge of the sisters walking through the gates and going into the streets to do their duty.”
In other words, he said, the song came as much from what’s happening now than what was taking place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when most of the film takes place. “I was very much writing about today,” he said. “And I think that’s part of their ethos and their whole philosophy, to be current and in the world today. And they were fighting against this kind of medieval view of what nuns should be, which was basically contemplative quiet slaves.”
As if to take his own stand against those medieval views, “Secret Sister” is also slinkier than you might expect from a song about nuns, with a lilting South American beat. “Brazil’s a pretty Catholic country and the pope is from Argentina, you know?” he said. “The fact that the song sounds South American is a good way to promote it. I’d say it’s a seductive call to go out and be a part of humanity.”
He shrugged. “I mean, you don’t bring up sex and nuns in the same breath often, but I think there’s a certain, how should I say it, humanity in the act of opening up and being generous. Nuns love, and they know what they’re doing and we don’t, so let’s all have some fun.”
And it’s also a call, he thinks, that reverberates with the specific circumstances in which it was composed. “This was written during COVID,” he said. “And during a time when we all felt like nuns a little bit, sequestered in our cloisters. There was a lot of praying going on and a lot of fear mixed with rest. And so in terms of lyrics and images, I think the nun-isms were actually really apropos for the time.
“It came quite quickly, which is usually a good sign,” he added. “It wasn’t something that I had to slave over – it just was all ready to go forth.”