Rufus Wainwright

Posted: January 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | No Comments »

Cliff Notes

Rufus Wainwright wants it both ways: to make extravagantly creative music that also sells to the masses.

You can certainly hear his lofty musical ambition in the lush production of his three acclaimed albums, which blast the high drama of his openly gay social life through the prism of his musical taste.

Born into folk-music royalty, he initially rebelled against the traditions of his parents, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, by immersing himself in opera, classical music and timeless pop a la Burt Bacharach.

On his latest album, Want One, the Canadian singer-songwriter sounds less self-conscious about proving his musical genius, perhaps because he’s more emotionally invested in the subject matter. In almost every song, he raises a variation on the same question: “What have I done to myself?”

You can find the answer on his previous album, Poses. That disc is peopled with characters Wainwright encountered during his initial flush of cult celebrity. Some of them served as cautionary tales for the singer, like the subject of the title song who finds himself “drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue.”

“I want to sell some records,” he told me in 2000. “I don’t want to wind up like the character in ‘Poses.’”

It didn’t quite work out that way. For photos for the album’s artwork, Wainwright staged a decadent party in Manhattan that never seemed to end. As life imitated art, he reportedly lost himself in a blaze of promiscuous sex and street pharmaceuticals, or as he puts it, his “descent into gay hell.”

“I realized that, like everybody else, I have an immune system and I need rest. I can’t be the center of this tornado without being destroyed by it. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I can keep partying and I’ll bet my voice will survive.’ But now I think, ‘Why even take the risk?’”

Fortunately, he pulled himself out of the downward spiral, took a much needed break, then immersed himself in recording a follow-up album. By the end of the sessions, he had enough material for two albums–Want One and Want Two.

“I wanted the first one to be more accessible radio-wise, and there were certain songs–like ‘Gay Messiah’ and ‘An Old Whore’s Diet’–that would have been difficult to sell at Wal-Mart,” he says with a laugh. “Want Two is a little racier and a little darker. Want One is like a beautiful field and the next one leads us to a cliff.”

Wainwright, however, doesn’t plan to jump.

“It’s easy to become a victim in this business,” he admits. “The music industry is the closest thing akin to prostitution in these modern times. It seems to be more of a battle to do what you want without worrying about having hits. The people who are successful in this business are not the ones who are the most musically talented. That’s not the way it works anymore.”


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