Singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright was embraced by the music scene when his 1998 eponymous debut sat him squarely in the throne of Best New Artist—a title bestowed upon him by several major critics and magazines. His follow-up 2001 Dreamworks release, Poses, positioned him as opener last year for Tori Amos and now he’s headlining his own tour of North America. What makes Rufus Wainwright so special; so different from the rest? Everything. He’s a charming indie-pop star with brightened up, Elliott Smith-clever lyrics dancing on a cabaret piano melody. He’s a hip and edgy Rogers and Hammerstein. His heartfelt voice is at once amused and energetic, self-deprecating and completely enchanting. Wainwright, son of folksinger Loudon Wainwright III (You probably remember “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road”) and Canadian folk music star Kate McGarrigle, grew up in the business, so how could we expect otherwise?
“I knew very early on and I was very much groomed [to be a musician] from a very young age,” he says. “I wanted to do it and also I happened to have a mother who was completely Victorian in her lessons. I had to learn how to play. I had to learn how to harmonize, I had to learn how to sing!” He laughs, clearly showing this hard work was no kind of punishment for him. “I’m very, very fortunate. I wish I had started younger into other things. Like, I always had this desire to be a ballet dancer-- mainly to have the body! Why not?” And hearing Rufus laugh as he say this, one has to believe that this young guy, who’s dabbled in theater and designed the packaging art for his first album, this handsome prodigy probably would have been good at ballet, too.
As a second generation famous musician, Rufus is in good company these days. But how does it feel when your fame exceeds that of your parents?
“It’s very weird for me to say, because I know Adam [Leonard] Cohen, Sean [John] Lennon, and Chris [Stephen] Stills—and their parents were certainly hugely more famous than mine. There’s no comparison! But it’s still early in the game, I think. I certainly have had an easier time surpassing my parents, and that makes sense because they weren’t as famous. But for other people like Sean Lennon, who is a dear friend of mine, I think his day will come as well. It’s still early.”
Wainwright says that while he was growing up, his parents often fretted about their careers. “We never had a ton of money, were always playing the bottom line in New York, the little clubs. It was extremely difficult when I was a child. We were poor. But as my mother said, it was ‘smoke and mirrors’. I wouldn’t complain about it, we had a wonderful life. But they had to work --a lot. My father had to tour most of the year and stay in crappy hotels. And they always complained about it, they always hated it. But in a weird way, it was great for me!” he laughs.
Rufus says he and his parents had to go through a lot of emotional turmoil when he started having real success. “There was a lot of strife and jealousy. It was weird and traumatic for everybody, but we’ve been dealing with it for a few years. Your parents are always your parents and you have to respect them no matter what. If you do anything stupid and say ‘I’m more famous than you’ or ‘I’ve done this,’ or ‘I’m selling more records,’ it really is detrimental to everyone. You always have to put your parents first, because they put you first when they were bringing you up. That’s the bottom line for me. They’re really good people. They honed their lives to bring up their kids. They sacrificed a lot of their careers for us, and that was a gift.”
To listen to Wainwright, one would think that he’d never had a problem in the world beyond being overly-successful. But his fans –especially his gay and bisexual fans—know the pain and discrimination that can accompany alternative lifestyles, and the openly-gay Wainwright has become somewhat of a mentor and idol for young homo- and bi-sexuals. When Rufus announced to his family that he was gay at 14 years old, his free-spirited musician parents didn’t embrace him for finding his identity, they did what most parents would do: they had a fit.
“I had a very traumatic experience,” he says. “My mother was ready to kick me out of the house. She was completely horrible towards me and my father didn’t know what to do.” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “And in saying that, I think it was completely understandable at the time. It was a very frightening time—I was 14, it was 1984. It wasn’t like I was coming out, saying ‘I think I’m gay,’ I was already having sex. It was dangerous time, it still is a dangerous time—but AIDS was just coming out, and I think my mother was more frightened than anything, so I don’t blame her for being hysterical.”
Rufus Wainwright doesn’t holler angry slogans for change, or take on labels for himself or other gays as ‘victims’. Instead, he’s an optimist and a philosopher. “I want everyone to live an alternative lifestyle in their own way. Alternative in that, life is beautiful, and life is short. It goes by so quickly. One of the things I’m realizing right now is, where I am in my career, this moment, it seems like the blink of an eye from when I’d first started. And I remember there were moments--within that blink of an eye-- when it felt like it was going to be an eternity before I had any success. Now that it’s happening, it seems to go by so quickly. For my fans, or anyone who gets into my stuff, it’s about enjoying the beauty of life now and not fretting about anything. Just look for that silver lining. That’s my basic message for everyone.”
Wainwright says he appreciates young gays looking to him as a role model, “…because I do know.” But he happily adds, “Gay teens and bi-teens really have nothing to worry about. There is a fabulous history, an ancient history that accompanies them through their life. And the thing that’s wonderful about being gay—the best thing about being gay that is often forgotten--is that part of that strife, part of that having to look under rocks and search and not take the norm--it brings great knowledge, a great understanding of the way the world really is. Even though it’s tough and it’s hard, you will be a smarter person, a more learned person. Being gay, you really have to do that. Some people who are straight don’t have to go through that.” Wainwright’s voice sounds wistful as he contemplates the hardships of being gay and he adds, “I still think in my life that having kids is probably the greatest thing in life, and, well, that’s life. [Not easily having children,] That’s a gay people problem. But it’s a great honor to be gay.”
A self-proclaimed “complete art snob,” Wainwright did all the packaging design for his first album, but he’s not sure whether he’ll be doing that again. “I think at this point, the only way I can do that is to put myself in the situation where it accompanies my music. For instance, I’d love to put out a songbook with the actual piano accompaniments, and then do illustrations of that. Sheet music is one of my goals. The exact piano arrangements. But I’d also love to do work in a theater for a production and have a big part in that.” Rufus says none of these dalliances would take over his musical profession completely, and there is no timeline on any of these daydreams. He hopes however, that like his next CD, it will all just happen, “sooner rather than later.”
Rufus says the next CD, which is in the works now, will be focused on larger issues and will be more philosophical in mood. “I don’t want to sound trite in saying that. It has nothing to do with the war on terrorism or September 11th. September 11th is a cog on a big wheel and now we are feeling the effects of it. When I was a kid growing up, ancient history seemed to be so far away. Like a storybook—Aladdin and the forty thieves. I find it really fascinating and amazing, and everybody has to question that in their hearts and find out what it means to them. It’s a big questioning period. It’s affected my work and it’s affecting everyone’s work.”
Wainwright says that throughout his musical career, he’s been unusually blessed with artistic and directorial freedom. “I really am probably the luckiest guy on Earth. In terms of the record industry and selling albums and getting a single on the radio, it’s hell for everybody. I would say for anybody who’s going to go into the business, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. But in terms of my own situation with the records that I want to make and the ideas and where I have control over the project, it’s really quite amazing. I’m very, very lucky. It’s very rare.
“It’s not due to my family connections, it’s due to my connection to Lenny Waronker, who is the president of Dreamworks. He really championed me. And I know when people read this they will want to stab me to death and if I was in their position I would want to do the same!” he laughs.
Rufus says that the best thing about his success is having people who are interested in what he has to say. “It’s wonderful, there are so many people in this world who have stuff to say who are not listened to, not paid attention to, and are swallowed up by the world. And I don’t have that problem. And that’s the best thing.” However, when we ask him the worst thing about success he says, laughing, “Probably that everyone is interested in what I have to say! You can’t get swallowed up by the world and become totally anonymous. The best thing is the worst thing, always!”
Rufus Wainwright may no longer have the anonymity he sometimes longs for, but he likes the fact that his music is well appreciated and he is so adored. He doesn’t take young people’s comments too seriously, he doesn’t let it go to his head, and he regards everything with humor whenever possible. It is a little eerie for him to drop into his Dreamworks message board under an assumed user name, and see for himself what people are saying. “I have only recently really started to go on that message board. I have moments of elated joy and also moments of extreme horror. I really think it’s wonderful, but I don’t want people to lose their perspective. What can I say? I’ll take the job-- but don’t come and break into my home!”