Interview: Rufus Wainwright: Musician

Rufus Wainwright.
Rufus Wainwright.
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RUFUS Wainwright is on the couch. His blue eyes are closed, his hair fanned out on a stars ’n’ stripes cushion, his white shoes – embroidered with thorns and roses – are up on the armrest.

He is talking about birth and death, the mother he lost and the father he has become. “I’ve really had the full tour of tragedy,” he says, opening his eyes and laughing a little wearily. “The big things in life have happened to me.”

He is in London to talk about his new album, Out of the Game, his seventh, a record he hopes will bring him the mainstream commercial success that has so far eluded him, and after which he has lusted, with varying degrees of ardour, for most of his 38 years. Not that he is a nobody. Far from it. As he sings on ‘Welcome to the Ball’, “I will never know how it feels to be just anyone.” The son of the singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, he grew up in a milieu where performance, acclaim and a certain degree of fame were the norm.

Now, Wainwright himself is a household name in households with a taste for cerebral, dramatic music that can break hearts and engage minds. His music is often extraordinary; ‘Vibrate’, a beautiful song from his 2003 album Want One, is a classic example of his ability to make the profane (it is the story of bar-hopping in search of a go-go dancer he had slept with) sound almost sacred.

On the other hand, to play devil’s advocate, he has so far been too overwrought and self-regarding to ever win over a mass audience. He sells out concert halls around the world and is regarded as an important songwriter by Elton John, Lou Reed and Michael Stipe. Yet taxi drivers do not whistle his melodies. Couples, with the possible exception of some civil partnerships, do not choose his songs for the first dance at their weddings. Out of the Game – produced by proven hitmaker Mark Ronson, best known for his work with Amy Winehouse – is a glorious attempt to put this right. It is, by some distance, his poppiest material, and is arguably his best work.

Wainwright, for his part, considers it rather a sexy record, the result of intense personal chemistry with Ronson. “Mark and I are totally in love with each other. Big time,” he announces in his rather blithe camp drawl. “But he’s married and I have a boyfriend; he’s straight, I’m gay. Everybody knows this. We joke about it, but I am in love with Mark and he is kind of in love with me. Nothing’s going to happen. That would ruin it. But it’s in the music.”

And what do their partners make of this situation? “Oh, they think it’s funny. We’re very open about it. I know the boundaries and it’s fine. I think it’s often the case with a really good artistic exploit that the players involved will have strong emotions for each other. You need that sexual tension, and that’s in the album. It’s a nice testament that it’s OK for a straight man and a gay man to flirt.”

Out of the Game, emotionally, is all over the place – joyful one moment, tear-stained the next; the latter sentiment a reaction to McGarrigle’s death from cancer in January 2010. “One of the most important maxims that I was ever told was your mother gives birth to you twice – once when you’re born and once when she dies,” Wainwright explains. “And I do feel with this album I am kind of a new person. There’s this very well-rounded, fully formed other human being. It took my whole life to create this individual and it really took my mother’s death to allow that individual to be completed, and I mean that in the most positive way. I wish she had never died. I wish she was still here today, and I mourn her loss intensely still. But in a funny way I’m really singing for myself now.”

The other enormous change in Wainwright’s life in recent times has been the birth of his daughter, Viva, last year. He and his friend Lorca, the daughter of Leonard Cohen, agreed to have a child together, though they are not a couple. Wainwright, in fact, is engaged to Jörn Weisbrodt, the German director of a Canadian arts festival, and they plan to marry this August; though Wainwright has not always been keen on gay marriage, the arrival of Viva has convinced him that his relationship with Weisbrodt – the little girl’s “deputy dad” – should have formal status.

The couple live between Long Island, Montreal and Toronto (“we go to the various palaces depending on the season”) while Lorca and Viva have homes in Los Angeles and France. The situation, therefore, is a little complex, and Wainwright – a compulsively confessional songwriter – has written about it on the new album’s ‘Montauk’, in which he imagines his daughter visiting him and Weisbrodt in Long Island and hoping that she will want to stay for a while. “That came very quickly after Viva was born,” Wainwright explains. “A lot of people are very affected by that song and can hear a certain sadness.

I’ve seen my daughter about 11 times in the last year. She just turned a year old at the beginning of February. So I’ve been present as much as I can be. Her mother has full custody. We’re going to have time with her as well down the line, but right now it’s about her and her mother. I have been around, but all that’s going to change because I have to tour. I’ve made this album, and I have to go out in the world and do my thing. I’m not even going to see my fiancé that much. So we’re at another juncture here. There’s a lot of sadness in that, there’s a lot of remorse, a lot of worry.”

He is not allowing himself to feel the full strength of the sadness, he says, because he wants to be able to concentrate on his music. “I have to be somewhat sparing in my emotions concerning my daughter at the moment. We’re going to be separated from each other a lot. It’s not some great tragedy, but it is difficult. And to be totally honest, I’m still dealing with my mother’s death. It has only been two years, and we were so incredibly close, and it still haunts me. So I’ve got to do one thing at a time.

“But I’m looking forward to spending time with my daughter and finding out what her needs are when she can communicate them to me. I want to be open to that. I hope she just feels comfortable and a desire to tell me what she needs or wants. I’ll do anything for my little girl."

Later, he says, “I don’t think fatherhood will ever be simple, but certainly when I’m walking my daughter down the aisle to her future wife or husband then that’ll be a reward I’m sure.”

Given that Wainwright’s own parents separated when he was three and he grew up with Loudon absent, the father-child relationship must be especially important to him. “It is, but it’s so big that I can’t even conceive of it. Because this [having a child] wasn’t part of my plan at all. It all happened at this very chaotic moment while my mother was dying. She was actually the one that really pushed for it. So I was, like, ‘OK, let’s this try this.’ The whole thing was very, very loose. But it’s often the case that you can’t plan too far ahead for kids.”

McGarrigle pushed for him to have a child? “Yes. It wasn’t my mother’s idea. But when I came to her and said, ‘Lorca wants to do this. What do you think?’ She, in no uncertain terms, told me to do it. In fact, commanded me to do it.”

And that helped him make the decision? “I had no choice. Your mother tells you to do it, you gotta do it. I was like that with her.”

His mother is commemorated in one of the album’s best songs, ‘Candles’. “That’s all based on a true story. When my mother was dying, I lit candles for her in various places: churches, mosques, synagogues, wherever I could do it. I strongly believe it actually helped. At one point she was given a couple of months, and she ended up living for three years. So when she died I immediately wanted to light her a candle and I went to three different churches in New York and they were all out of candles. I took that as a message, meaning, ‘I’m OK, don’t worry about me, get on with your life.’

“Then I was in Paris not long after that, and I went into Notre Dame cathedral and there was a full heraldic mass going on: incense, choirs blaring, organ music. So I went and lit the first candle after her death and it dawned on me that she just wanted to get a real send off – ‘If you’re going to light me a candle, it better be at the Notre Dame de Paris.’

“And actually, on leaving the church I had an epiphany – to be grateful for how this happened, because even though it’s terribly tragic and shouldn’t have occurred at this point, it was actually a very beautiful death.”

Wainwright says that he is not religious, but rather a “spiritual seeker”. He and his sister Martha, also an acclaimed performer, grew up in Quebec, a province of Canada that, traditionally, has been dominated by the Catholic faith. They were taught the catechism at school and attended mass but were never baptised, which Wainwright says meant that they couldn’t receive the sacraments. “We would go to church, but we couldn’t do communion, we couldn’t ask for forgiveness. We never got our glow-in-the-dark rosaries like everybody else.

“I don’t quite understand why my mother put us through that, but in a strange kind of way it did somewhat instil this sense of apartness, of isolation from the rest of the world, that both Martha and I profit from to this day in terms of what we do and being the individuals that we are.

“At one point, when I was really in trouble with drugs, I thought I should get baptised, and it was all because of this lack that I was having all these problems. I then straightened out a little bit and realised that there was maybe some bigger issues than even God.”

How important, I wonder, has Weisbrodt been in getting him through these last few difficult years? “Oh, he has been essential. I would not be around without him. The thing about Jörn is he’s definitely a prime example of what I need in terms of (a) a wonderful human being, (b) extremely good-looking and very tall and proportionate, and (c) which is probably what keeps it together, he really has no desire to party or spend time in clubs. He likes hanging out at home, having foot rubs and watching the news. That’s where he gets his kicks. And that is crucial. I could never date someone who is a creature of the night. I couldn’t. It would be too volatile. So he’s the yin to my yang.”

Was Wainwright previously afraid of intimacy? “Oh, yeah. I had no concept of the whole shit show. I would have one-night stands with gay boys and then I would try to have long-term relationships with straight boys. Those would be who I would fall in love with. In fact Mark Ronson’s a prime example of someone who, in another life, I would have practically slit my wrists over. But I think behind all of that, and this was told to me by a psychiatrist, and I believe him, is this fear of intimacy.

“It’s a fear of actually having to be close to someone, and to open up to them, and to fall prey to their desires. I think I’ve somewhat worked through it, but it still comes back to haunt me and it always will.”

What changed? What made him able to contemplate settling down with one man? “I strongly believe that I got together with Jörn – and this was about a year before my mother got sick – because I couldn’t have dealt with her death alone. I think I would have died. I really do. In fact, my father almost died himself when his mother died. And my grandfather died a year after his mother died. Just grief. We’ve always been very close to our mothers in the Wainwright family. So there was some grace or spirit or some kind of angel that brought Jörn to me right before that occurred.”

The world would be just a little better, a little more interesting and funny and profound, if Wainwright did, at this point, become the global pop icon he desires and deserves to be. Really, what we’re talking about are his record sales catching up with his inherent star quality. There are times, he admits, when he does feel a little bitter, when he finds himselflooking on YouTube and wondering why his videos haven’t had as many hits as those of some artist he considers inferior. But he knows from childhood experience that this is an unhealthy attitude. In the 1970s, when disco came along and the stock of folksy singer-songwriters plummeted, his parents found themselves resolutely uncommercial for a long time. “They struggled to survive for a good ten years,” Wainwright recalls. “They will go down as two of the greats of their era, but it was very hard for them. And I grew up with that. I saw that happen. And I don’t want to go there. I have a fear of that for sure.”

But after all, what with writing operas and appearing in Martin Scorsese films and performing Judy Garland songs at Carnegie Hall, being a cult doesn’t seem too bad. Why, then, is mainstream success and fame important to him? “It has been dangled in front of me for so many years,” he replies.

“Even when I first started, I was right on the cusp of it. So I figure let’s have one last heave-ho and just go for it.”

But why? Why does he want it so much? “It’s annoying. It’s annoying that I haven’t had a hit. If I don’t garner it on that massive scale then that’s the will of the gods. But I think this album is a pretty goddamned good attempt.”

Wainwright sits up on the couch and runs a hand through his hair. He looks a little tired, a little sad; maybe it’s the jetlag blues, maybe something deeper. “I have an amazing career,” he says. “I have a beautiful boyfriend, I have a beautiful daughter, some money and my health, but it’s so intoxicating – success, fame, youth, whatever. You’re still affected by it, no matter what.” n

Out of the Game, by Rufus Wainwright, is released on 23 April on Polydor