Rufus Wainright interview
He’s the scion of a musical dynasty but his problems are all his own. After a well-documented battle with his demons, hail the greatest Wainwright of them all. Craig McLean meets the slinky singer-songwriter
Late last month, Rufus Wainwright was in Los Angeles, treading the hallowed boards of the Hollywood Bowl, whooping it up as only Rufus can whoop it up. He had brought his acclaimed Judy Garland Live At Carnegie Hall show to town. Just him, an orchestra, conductor, Garland’s daughter, Rufus’ sister, Rufus’ mum and Rufus’ giant, hilarious, ballooning ego.
It was the last time he’d ever do the show. So, being Rufus, he had a little fun: for the encore, a rendition of ‘Chicago’, the final song in Garland’s original 1961 show, he reprised his jawdropping turn at this year’s Glastonbury – he came on dressed in fitted black jacket, tights, heels and a fedora. Just like Judy.
‘The Judy show is enjoyable but somewhat horrific as well,’ Wainwright says. ‘I did the show in Paris and actually lost my voice, and that was a lesson in showbiz survival. [But] I am adamant not to let that demon overtake my life, and for me all of a sudden to be propelled into a vaudevillian stage of existence.’
Well, almost adamant. The LA engagement marked the end of the Judy show, 16 months after he first performed it in Carnegie Hall itself. He also made a CD and DVD of the whole hi-octane, high-camp triumph. Yet, in between all that, this spring, he managed to release his fifth album, Release the Stars: a gorgeous, melodramatic, swoonsome slice of baroque’n’roll. Another one. Rufus Wainwright’s last two albums were hardly restrained affairs either – Want One and Want Two formed a ravishing psycho-sexual diptych.
Rufus Wainwright doesn’t do anything by halves. When he undertakes tributes to his icons, he does so to the point of energy-sapping madness. When he took drugs – back in his high New York 90s – he did so until he went (briefly) blind. He indulged in terrifying bouts of wanton, unprotected gay sex. Ask him, professionally-speaking ‘What next?’, and he’ll blilthely reply, ‘Oh, to write an opera’, one commissioned by New York’s august Metropolitan Opera no less.
And when Wainwright embarks on a new studio album, he can’t help but go crazily, indulgently over the top. Luckily, this singer/songwriter/composer/arranger who doesn’t do anything by halves also has twice the talent of most of his peers.
‘It’s funny – I was originally gonna make this record as a darker, more intimate, bare-bones affair,’ he cackles in his signature throaty warble before embarking on a quote in which Wainwright, bless his couture cotton-socks, refers to himself in the third person. (Devilishly charming Rufus Wainwright is the only person in the whole entertainment cosmos who gets away with this.)
‘I wanted to strip back and investigate the inner recesses of Rufus,’ he says of the writing process leading up to the making of Release the Stars. ‘But what ended up happening – I think due to this intersection occurring, of my prime age, my being allowed to write this opera for the Met, being in very good health, having all my family around me doing as well, and also having other artists equally experiencing some sort of recognition – it feels like, no, this is the time when you have to lay it out all on the line, and just make it as fabulous as possible. And that is sort of what happened – without trying – with this album.
‘This record was definitely officially The New Me. I’m approaching songwriting and stardom and showbusiness and my 30s with a kind of prime coating. Meaning, this is as strong and magnificent and young as I’m ever gonna be all at one time!’
Listen to – immerse yourself in – Release the Stars and you’d be hard pushed to disagree. It’s a staggering achievement, stuffed with the richest of melodies and the deftest of lyrics, recorded in Berlin with the cream of Germany’s young classical players, and executive produced by Pet Shop Boy and longstanding Rufus champion, Neil Tennant.
This America-born, Canada-raised artist who has found greatest favour in the UK opted to record in Berlin because ‘in order to really feel relaxed making music, I needed to be somewhere that had experienced defeat.’ He’s only half-joking. ‘I was quite bereft at the whole idea of being true to your artistic muse in an atmosphere where it’s all about success, and indestructibility,’ he continues, by way of explaining why New York, where he lives – albeit a lot more soberly than he used to – was out. ‘I just need to feel a little bit of decay or something. If it wasn’t me that was gonna be fucked up I guess it had to be the city . . . so I went to Berlin.’
Wainwright is, by his own admission, a serious control freak. So why let Tennant take a pivotal role in the making of Release the Stars? Typically, Wainwright offers an answer that is both lofty and gimlet-eyed savvy.
‘I would argue that Neil is probably the foremost professor of both high and low culture. He has a real firm grip on both ideas. And that is something that is really essential in my musical world. Because I know very little about low culture. And when I say low culture, I’m not being derogatory – popular culture’s a better way to put it. So, I’m kind of in the dark, but [knowing about it] is necessary for me to work with the hoity toity shit that I do know about. And Neil’s a good way to bring me out of the heavens a little bit.’
Ask him to give an example of Tennant’s influence on the album, and Wainwright highlights ‘Tiergarten’, his new single.
‘Originally “Tiergarten” was a slow, slow, slow, slow ballad. It was gonna be with harps only and no drums, this languid thing. Neil immediately told me that he was bored. And I said, well, I don’t want Neil to be bored. Vicious When Bored: Neil Tennant. We pushed it up and tried another approach.’
Wainwright is not one to give up. He bounced back from rehab, a chaotic love life and disappointing album sales (his first two records stiffed) to become one of the most fêted, most imaginative artists around. His opera for the Met will take him, literally, years to write. (‘My hero right now is [Czech composer] Janácek, because he wrote his first great opera in his 50s. So I’m starting to pace myself,’ he says.) At Glastonbury, his high-kicking finale of ‘Chicago’ was ruined by appalling sound problems (it was cleaned up for TV viewers). Then the sound broke down completely. Unabashed, Wainwright started all over again. The sound was still terrible. The crowd’s boos turned to cheers. What a trouper. His imminent UK tour may not be ‘the Judy show’ but you can bet it’ll be a triumph of theatricality. Wainwright will be thoroughly spent at the end of each one. Then he’ll do the same thing all over again the next night.
‘I think I just have a lot of respect for who and what’s happened before,’ he says, eyes shining. Then, as his wont, bursts into delighted laughter. ‘I don’t know, I guess I’ve made the sacrifices to the right temples.’
Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, Sun 14 & Sat 15 Oct.