In musical circles, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright is considered a genius, a “baroque pop” genre unto himself. Leonard Cohen, Sting, Morrissey, Jools Holland, Alanis Morissette and others can’t heap enough acclaim on him. A decade ago, Rolling Stone magazine pronounced him Best New Artist, and Elton John has called the 34-year-old “the best songwriter on the planet.”
But while his music soars, the man has howled in the gutter. It took years of monumental partying and substance-fuelled hard-living to work an alchemy that has forged talent into almost-sinful accomplishment. A 14-year-old rape victim in London’s Hyde Park, a drug abuser overloaded with insecurity and tormented by demons, Wainwright’s a genius who inhabits a world of dark harmony. But he’s learned to leave the shadows and now feels that his worst days are behind him.
Seven years ago, stricken by temporary blindness due to crystal meth addiction, Wainwright, candle in the wind, turned to pop music’s agony uncle, Elton John, for help.
“When you’re really down in the grips,” he tells Prestige Hong Kong, “there’s really no sense of reality, or moral imperative, and it’s really up to supernatural powers at that point. Or Elton John.
“I called him when I was very, very distraught and really didn’t know what else to do. He immediately confirmed my suspicions that I had to go to rehab. The interesting side of that story, for me anyway, is that he had done that a few other times with other people, but I was one of the only people who actually went right away.”
His destination was the Hazelden treatment facility in Minnesota, where he detoxed and underwent therapy for a month. And while it’s not clear that he’s since stayed entirely upright in the sobriety saddle, his tone implies serenity as he muses on the epidemic of celebrity substance abuse and, while commiserating with chronic casualties such as Lindsay Lohan, suggests that they, too, might benefit by a call to mentor John.
Born with the lyrical equivalent of a silver spoon bracing his tonsils, Rufus Wainwright is the son of folksingers Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, who divorced when he was just two years old. Almost from the toddler stage, he regularly entertained house guests with a precocious rendition of Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Now he’s a global attraction. With Wainwright well into the second year of a continent-hopping tour, ticket demand from Barcelona to Melbourne to Tokyo has promoters scrambling for bigger concert halls and additional dates. His latest CD, Release the Stars, sold 54,000 copies in its first week in the UK and US, a breakthrough for a so-called popera singer whose original-music record sales until now have never matched his name and growing appeal.
Openly gay since adolescence and a gay icon himself, Wainwright has performed sold-out Judy Garland tributes in London, Paris and New York, recently concluding a final concert-length selection of Garland songs at the Hollywood Bowl and ending the show with her lyrical yearning for bluebirds over the rainbow.
All the success and plaudits raise the question: Is it hard to be humble?
“I’m not so much known for my humility,” he admits. “I’ve worked really hard at what I do and I’m very flattered and honoured to receive the compliments. On the other hand, my favourite musicians are dead. [He cites opera giants Verdi, Wagner, Janacek and Strauss.] Those are the kind of guys that I fantasize about . . . so that I can put somewhat of a cap on the ego.”
His hubris is not misplaced. His lush baritone apart, this year’s much-heralded album, his fifth, was written while he also composed, in French, a work-in-progress commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Wainwright – who also plays guitar – composes at the piano but hears an orchestra in his head, which makes tuneful embellishment irresistible. He acknowledges as much while reflecting on Release the Stars. Recorded in Berlin, he had intended a modest production. “I just got there, and the next thing you know, I had this huge gilded album. It was kind of an amazing experience because I didn’t intend it to be that way.”
Going to a Town, the album’s lament-for-America track – he was born in Rhinebeck, New York – is another example of off-hand inventiveness. “I wanted to spend time somewhere that had been destroyed and had then gotten over it and recreated itself. I felt that New York was a little bit prissy. 9/11 was a huge tragedy, but this whole thing of ‘we’ll never be the same’ and ‘we’re under constant threat’ is, I think, a little much compared with the rest of the world.
“I had 10 minutes to spare one night before going to dinner and I just sort of sat down, and I guess all those thoughts had been swirling around in my subconscious and next thing you know that song kind of came out.”
Such casual creativity defies categorisation. While Neil Tennant – lead singer of the Pet Shop Boys and executive producer of Release the Stars – says Wainwright’s basically a folksinger, friend and rock musician Teddy Thompson describes him as almost a genre in himself.
Wainwright’s well aware that he sounds like no one else. “I am definitely in a genre by myself,” he says, “for better or for worse. I don’t use that as an emblem of my greatness. I’ve always tried to be different, and that was very unusual for a long time. I spent most of my time in an industry that requires that you kind of fit into a certain category and plug into a certain audience. I never ever wanted to do that. If anything, though, I want to be known as a great songwriter.”
Throughout our conversation, I get the impression of affability fighting for equal time with the accolades. Touched by the shadow of mortality following his mother’s brush with cancer, he dedicated the latest album to her; he’s still not immune to insecurity and cites his anxiety at his first meeting with the iconic Leonard Cohen, who was in his underwear and chewing sausage which he fed to an injured bird. Wainwright also frets about his looks, annoyed with his “self-loathing body dysmorphia thing.”
When I tell him he reminds me of a young Oscar Wilde, he laughs, but he’s not amused. “Well, I hope I’m a little better looking than Oscar Wilde.” I tell him it was meant as a compliment. After a moment’s silence, he says, “Okay, I’m a prettier Oscar Wilde.”
Just as well I didn’t mention Dorian Gray.
Story by Graeme McRanor originally published in Prestige magazine.