When the average 14-year-old becomes lost in the pubescent angst of sexual frustration and family dysfunction, he or she often turns to drugs, drinking or even premature sex. For singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, son of legendary folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, internal conflict sucked him deep into the sticky web of… opera music.
“I was sort of corrupted and infected by opera at a pivotal age when I was hitting puberty,” Wainwright said. “I very much knew I was gay and right at that time – 1985 or so – was when there was an idea around that if you were gay, you were automatically going to die because AIDS was rip-roaring away. At that moment, there was this sort of a crystallized event that happened where opera immediately spoke to that sense of dread and fear in me. I kind of ran toward it and really shut out the rest of the world for a few years. Opera became my religion.”
Some 11 years later, Wainwright began reaping heaps of critical acclaim from the success of his first self-titled album, a record infused with much of the operatic styling he had mastered over the years. His second album, Poses, arrived in 1998 and only furthered Wainwright’s standing as an artist to stop and take notice of. It appeared as though his years immersed in Giuseppe Verdi and Maurice Ravel managed to produce a terribly talented songwriter with a pitch-perfect singing voice to boot.
“A lot of people think of opera as this kind of form where there’s just weird singing and wigs, but the truth of the matter is that opera is the history of popular music for about 800 years,” Wainwright said. “It was like the pop music of its day and it’s very modern and very ancient at the same time. So, that’s where I got those tricks. It’s all in there. Then, of course, I’d have to say both my parents really know how to write a solid song and are really well-versed in musical history.”
Those parents, though divorced while Wainwright was still a young child, wasted no time getting their only son well versed in the art of song crafting and music making. He began playing the piano at age 6 and by 13, he was on the road with his mother, aunt Anna and sister Martha in a group billed as “The McGarrigle Sisters and Family.” Within just a few years, Wainwright was nominated for the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy – the Juno – as Most Promising Young Artist, and it would only be a short while before he landed a record contract with Dreamworks.
His music is often described as wistful, theatrical and bittersweet as it vividly hashes through much of the drug addiction, sexual frustration and family turmoil Wainwright has been working to put to bed throughout his years. On his most recent album, Want One, he cracks the door ajar just a little bit wider, bringing his audience that much closer to his methods of self-healing.
“I think that this record is definitely connected to the other two and is a result of an odyssey that I experienced [after] coming into this business,” Wainwright said. “This record was a catharsis and kind of cumulating of a lot of aspects of my career and my life as well. First I hit a wall, then brushed myself off and climbed over it. This is definitely a defining moment for me.”
For Wainwright, much of his life had been shadowed not only by the legendary career of his father, but also his father’s striking absence during the majority of his youth. Though Loudon helped get his son’s demo tape to Dreamworks execs, a heated rivalry seemed to be brewing as Rufus’ career took flight. In the song “Dinner at Eight,” the last song on Want One, Wainwright delves quite openly into his tense relationship with his father. Interestingly, the song had been written some years ago after a particularly stinging spat between the elder Wainwright and his son.
“It’s kind of a magical story. Years ago, my father and I had done this photo shoot together for Rolling Stone magazine that ended up being completely horrific. We were posing together for a few hours and then, at the end of the shoot the photographer said, ‘Um, could you guys actually touch each other?’ And we did. Then that was the shot they used and it just so encapsulated what was going on – just this battle that was sort of raging between us, between our careers, and after that shoot we had a huge argument and didn’t talk for months.”
“After that fight was when I actually wrote ‘Dinner at Eight,’ and originally it was supposed to be kind of vindictive, like an ‘I’m gonna tear you down’ kinda thing. I wrote it and shelved it subconsciously. It took a couple of years for my dad and I to figure out a system that works for our relationship, which we’re still working on, and then as this record was coming around, ‘Dinner at Eight’ just sort of seeped back into my consciousness. In the end, I realized it was actually kind of like a love song and, if anything, it was something that was wanting to sort of connect to him more and understand him.”
Here’s a sample of some of the lyrics from “Dinner at Eight”: “But why is it so / That I’ve always been the one who must go / That I’ve always been the one told to flee / When in fact you were the one / Long ago, actually in the drifting white snow / Who left me?”
Judging from just a small snippet of the song, it’s clear that words are not minced, and Wainwright is clearly calling his father on having abandoned the family to pursue his career. Still, all’s fair in love and songwriting for the Wainwrights.
“I’ve heard some stories that he’s shed a tear or two while I’m performing it,” Wainwright said. “He loves it very much and doesn’t feel hurt about it, which I was concerned with. Actually, when I wrote it, I said to him, ‘Dad, I have this song on the album that’s about you and I hope you don’t mind if it’s personal.’ He turned to me and said, ‘You know, Rufus, I’ve written so many songs about so many people and whatever it is, I probably deserve it.’ So that was great.”
Another interesting twist to Wainwright’s Want One journey is the planned second installment, Want Two, with its still unspecified release date. It seems Wainwright’s fans might have to take proactive measures for the album to see the light of day.
“[It will be released if] you write my record company, Interscope,” Wainwright said. “If there’s a public plea. It’s a bit of a campaign only because there was such a shuffle in my record company – well, Dreamworks sort of disappeared and were bought by Universal. So, I’ve had to sort of reconnect with [new label] Interscope, and it’s been postponed. I think it’s going to take a certain amount of public persistence.”
Assuming it hits record shelves sometime in the next few months, fans can expect a more melancholy tone in Want Two that directly connects to the duplicitous nature of Wainwright’s own personal odyssey.
“It’s a little bit darker and even gets more operatic on certain points – but there’s certainly pop elements,” Wainwright said. “It spreads all over the place and I think the major difference is that most of the songs on Want One deal with my own personal victories and defeats, but Want Two is sort of when I turn around and face the world. I realize it’s still a very dark planet and that things are looking a little messy.”
Beyond merely completing the two halves that Want One and Want Two represent for Wainwright, it’s imperative to the singer-songwriter that he close the book on the two records in time for the upcoming presidential election, so that he may devote full attention to championing his cause.
“I genuinely believe that this next election is the most important election in human history,” Wainwright said. “I don’t think the stakes have ever been higher. And certainly it has boiled down to the individual in terms of, if you do nothing you’re really – I wouldn’t even say part of the Republican [Party] – but part of the Bush takeover. So, if you don’t stand up and express your views and be proactive, somebody else will. I’d just really like to have both albums under my belt and be able to focus on the unification of at least the Democratic party, but I think it’s more than just that – it’s all nonfearing, free-loving Americans.
So, who has Wainwright’s vote as of now?
“I’ll go with [John] Kerry if he’s the one. You know, the funny thing about Kerry is that everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, he’s kind of boring and he talks with that kind of monotonous drone,’ but fuck, I’m dying for a boring president. I’m so sick of flashy presidents, so just give me a boring president now.”
For those who’ve already licked the stamp on the letter to Wainwright’s record label, there are still numerous ways to keep satisfied with all things Rufus. He’ll be touring throughout the United States for the next month and a half, including a visit to the Ventura Theater this Saturday night. He’ll also be appearing in Martin Scorsese’s Leo-starring, Howard Hughes biopic, “The Aviator,” due out sometime later this year.
“I play a ’20s Bing Crosby-esque singer at the Coconut Grove, and I don’t have any lines but I’m actually singing during one of the scenes,” Wainwright said. “Then my father is a singer in the Coconut Grove in the ’30s, and my sister, Martha, is a singer in the Coconut Grove in the ’40s. So we’re all in the same film, which is great.”
For a boy once enlivened solely through the larger-than-life drama of the operatic stage, Wainwright has managed to carve quite an impressive niche for himself as a solo artist in the music industry and even the silver screen. But don’t let that be an excuse not to pick up a pen and force Interscope to deliver the other half of Wainwright’s emotional journey onto a record store shelve near you.
For more information on Rufus Wainwright, visit www.rufuswainwright.com. For ticket information on this Saturday’s show at the Ventura Theater, visit www.venturatheater.net or www.ticketmaster.com.