Rufus Wainwright claims he is not a man prone to nostalgia. The singer-songwriter is embarking on a UK tour marking the 20th anniversary of his debut album – but this isn’t an exercise in longing for the past, he insists.
“I think I’m more traditional, in the sense that when I started out writing songs I was really intent on them being built to last, you know? And I worked tirelessly to construct these lyrics and melodies that would stand the test of time, and now it’s the payoff of that,” he says. “Hearing them now in this day and age gives the songs another colour. That’s how I see it, anyway.”
“I can still – with the proper lighting – look vaguely fetching on stage, so it’s all good.”
Nevertheless, Wainwright’s career has been characterised by work that has cast him as a throwback to another, more glamorous era – extravagant projects such as the ambitious Want albums issued in 2005 as a double LP, his 2006 concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York that recreated Judy Garland’s appearances at the same venue, and his two grand operas, Prima Donna and Hadrian. In fact, he has been so preoccupied with other diversions that he hasn’t put out a “proper” studio collection for seven years, since 2012’s excellent, Mark Ronson-produced Out Of The Game. A follow-up is finally finished but won’t be released until 2020.
“There are these wide gaps between projects, where my bread and butter audience – people who love me as a songwriter – kind of get taken down the garden path a little bit, for better or worse, so it’s important for me to bring them back to reality,” he says, laughing down the phone from his home in Hollywood, on a “cold and rainy” morning.
“I feel like with this tour it was important just to remind my public that this is my day job and I have no intention of quitting it, and set a runway for the next period, which will be more focused on my songwriting and work in the studio. And, you know, I can still – with the proper lighting – look vaguely fetching on stage, so it’s all good.”
When Wainwright arrived on the scene, armed with sumptuously arranged songs and a distinctive, languorous tenor voice, success seemed pre-ordained. There was his family’s musical heritage, for one thing – his father is the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, and his mother was the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle. And there was the major label backing he enjoyed. He was the first artist signed to DreamWorks by its then co-chair Lenny Waronker, who heard a demo tape that had been passed by Loudon to Beach Boys strings arranger Van Dyke Parks.
His first two albums, 1998’s Rufus Wainwright and 2001’s Poses, received critical acclaim but sold modestly. They also coincided with
a time when his life descended into chaos. His drug consumption spiralled and he was, by his own admission, “super promiscuous”, a tendency he linked to using crystal meth.
“In terms of being a gay man, you become sexually stupid,” he said in 2007, calling it a “real miracle” that he didn’t get HIV. “I had a lot of unsafe sex with people who were HIV-positive.”
These traits surfaced in the songs. On Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, the opening track of Poses, he sang: “Everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger/A little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me.” Poses, he reveals, is performed ‘top to bottom’ on the anniversary tour.
“There’s no speaking between numbers, and it does become this meditative journey for both me and the audience,” says Wainwright. “And certainly not all the time, but occasionally, I am thrust into my former self and reminded of
how vulnerable and sensitive and troubled I was in those days.”
He rejects the idea that he was chasing oblivion, however. “It can be a little tricky, but even though I was a romantic figure and liked the dark and all of that stuff at that age, I was always reaching for the silver lining. I was in no way a nihilist. My end goal was to find the light, so it’s a hopeful sadness in the end.”
He hit a crisis in 2002 when, high on a combination of crystal meth, Ecstasy, ketamine and cocaine, he temporarily lost his sight. Elton John – a fan who once proclaimed Wainwright ‘the greatest songwriter on the planet’ – came to his rescue by hustling him into rehab.
Does he feel like a survivor?
He takes a sharp intake of breath. “Oh yeah. I think any gay man in their 40s feels that way. When you think about the fact that right as I was hitting puberty in 1987 most gay men thought they were going to die, no matter what – that survivor instinct is very potent in my generation. Thankfully so. It’s something I actually cherish, having lived through that horror, so early on in my budding youth. Yeah, I definitely feel like a survivor.”
Wainwright was born in New York, but when his parents divorced he was taken aged three by his mother to her native Canada along with his younger sister Martha. He came out to his parents at 18, news they found difficult to accept, much to his anguish. Four years earlier he had been assaulted in London’s Hyde Park
by a man he had picked up in a bar; he was sent to boarding school following
the traumatic incident.
From the outset, in interviews and as a recording artist, Wainwright was absolutely clear and very frank about his sexuality. Today, young gay pop singers like Sam Smith and Years and Years’ Olly Alexander are accepted wholeheartedly and the debate in contemporary music about personal identity has widened to encompass gender and feminism, a push led by acts such as Christine and the Queens.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword for me,” he says. “On one hand I’m really, really appreciative of all the young talent who are able to be themselves and make it more about the music and not have to worry so much about being discriminated against, though I think that can turn on a dime. But, that being said, I do get a little frustrated in terms of how I’m viewed by the queer community.”
He is, he feels, something of an unacknowledged trailblazer.
“I really was kind of the first in the sense that I don’t know of any other mainstream young artist who just came out of the gates totally out and totally themselves, and totally writing about their experiences in the gay world. That was incredibly unusual, and I’m not sure if I got the proper credit in that department,” he says.
“But, you know, it’ll happen eventually. And also I think it’s a bit of what I bargained for in the sense that, at the end of the day, I wanted it to be all about the music, and the craft, and not about me being gay necessarily. And that happened. So I suppose it’s all kind of what I wanted.”
If there had been such a panoply of musical role models during his youth, would it have stopped him exploring his sexuality in dangerous ways?
“Erm… no,” he confirms. “I love danger. And I think sexuality will always be linked with danger, and I think that will always be a fact that human beings will have to trip around. Certainly in this day and age with the #MeToo movement there’s a whole other arena of battles, but that has always been the case with human sexual relationships – they always bring up conflict and also union at the same time. Humankind will never be out of the woods in that respect.”
The United States, he thinks, is in a “desperate political situation”. He addressed Donald Trump’s presidency last year on a download-only single called Sword of Damocles, and bemoans the “pitfalls” of climate change and troubled race relations.
“It’s a real boiling cauldron at the moment, which I think in general is a call to arms for all artists to get out there and interpret it however they can. I definitely feel my next record will be appreciated, and hopefully relevant.”
Meanwhile, several opera companies are expressing an interest in staging Hadrian outside Canada, where it premiered last autumn. He can envisage the piece, based on the Roman emperor’s life, being performed near Hadrian’s Wall. “I would love that,” he says eagerly.
The opera critics, however, have been hard to please. Both of his productions received mixed reviews.
“I’d like to do a third opera but I don’t think it will be for a very long time,” he says. “In the interim I’d like to do some musicals. I’m living in Hollywood now, so working on films is always an option.”
Wainwright, 45, is married to German arts administrator Jörn Weisbrodt, his husband of seven years. Their daughter Viva, eight, is being brought up in a “parenting partnership” with her mother Lorca Cohen, daughter of revered singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.
“She’s great,” says Wainwright, who conceived Viva with Lorca. “We’re very blessed with a powerhouse of a child.”
Is she showing any musical inclinations?
“She’s definitely aware of the situation, and is expressing interests in that department. But she also of course wants to be a scientist who teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
Viva will have no shortage of advice should she pursue the family trade. Martha continues to record and tour in her own right and Loudon has stepped up to the role of sole grandfather following Leonard’s death in 2016.
“He’s very good at that, and my sister has two boys… My aunts are still alive, which is really wonderful. It seems like these are the good times, you know?”
Wainwright’s relationship with his dad, once incredibly strained, is much improved these days. Fatherhood has helped “somewhat”, he says, but ultimately there is a straightforward explanation. “I think we’ve just worked really hard on it, as people.”
Rufus Wainwright: All These Poses Anniversary Tour 2019 is at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on 24 April (rufuswainwright.com)
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