Monday, September 10, 2007

Rufus Wainwright for sale

Rufus Wainwright has that age-old Saturday-evening dilemma – what to wear? In a plush portable building backstage at Perthshire’s T in the Park, midway through the summer festival season, the singer is surveying a rail of outfits not even his pal Elton John could call subtle. There is a white, glitter-littered, Elvis-esque suit (which he eventually plumps for), a franti-cally patterned baby-blue jacket and a pair of beige lederhosen, custom-made in deerskin. Missing, however, are the high heels and fishnets in which he saw out his Glastonbury set. “Wear them twice?” he gasps, in mock horror. “I’d look like I’m angling to work in the ghetto. Na-ha-ha-ha-nah-ha-ha-ha.”

Wainwright’s laugh is almost as daft as his dress sense. Half manic cartoon character, half braying donkey, it carries on too long and, today, arrives at the end of every other sentence. Throw in wildly gesticulating arms, a drawl that drags out every vowel, a pretty face framed by pointy sideburns and the stand-on-end hair of an 1980s teenager, and it strikes you: if Disney had conceived an acclaimed, camp, opera-obsessed singer/ songwriter, Wainwright would be him.

At least, he would this year. A dark, druggy past, heavy family history – he is the son of feuding folk stars Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle – and a cult, not commercial, back catalogue kept the old Rufus on the fringes of pop. In 2007, aged 34, the Montreal-raised, New York-based musician has been on a quest to become what movie studios might call “family-friendly”. So, he has hit the rock-festival circuit, carting the same pair of mud-caked rubber boots across Europe from June to September, despite performing a set more suited to sit-down theatres than soggy fields. “I consider myself a musical ambulance,” Wainwright giggles. “When the kids are tired of being raped by rock, they can come see me for a break. Na-ha-ha-ha.”

Next month, he sets out on a big British tour. There has also been a flurry of television talk-show appearances, including an awkward encounter with an enthusiastic but nonplussed Andrew Marr on Sunday AM and raucous banter with Jonathan Ross. Crucially, Wainwright is not selling out, he is selling himself – and his current album, Release the Stars – to a mainstream audience for the first time in a near-10-year career.

“I wish I could sell out,” he says, sprawled on a sofa backstage, incessantly readjusting the square, brown, 1970s-style sunglasses he refuses to remove. “I do try to make my music more commercial, but only within the boundaries of my own mind. If I put in a chorus, that’s a big move for me. Of course, I want to sell well, but I could never write a straight pop song. It just doesn’t interest me.”

In March, Release the Stars became by far Wainwright’s biggest British hit to date, entering the charts at No 2. “And the next week it was No 22,” he notes. “But I’m working on getting it back up there.”

Recorded last year in Berlin, the self-produced album was intended to pare down the grandiose orchestrations and operatic inclinations of its four predecessors. Instead, it was lavished with French horns, piccolo trumpet, flute and harp, with the London Session Orchestra on strings and an oration by the Welsh actress Sian Phillips, of I, Claudius fame.

“I fled to Berlin with the idea of having an Iggy or Bowie moment,” Wainwright recalls. “I planned to hang with cool electro-clash kids and get a weird haircut. But I’m an old-fashioned soul. Straightaway, I was eating sausages, visiting baroque palaces and wearing lederhosen. Did the locals think I was taking the piss? No, they saw the shameless joy in my bright little eyes and knew I was the stupid American. They probably pitied me more than anything. I’m amazed I was the only one in lederhosen, though. They’re an incredibly comfortable garment.”

From the age of five, Wainwright lusted after fame, having seen his parents separately on stage and begun an obsession with MGM musicals, in particular The Wizard of Oz, scenes of which he performed at home, dressed either as Dorothy, in his mother’s apron and high heels, or as the wicked witch, in her evening gowns. By 13, he was a veteran of McGarrigle Family tours with his mother, aunt Anna and sister Martha, now a successful artist in her own right. At 15, he appeared in a children’s fantasy film, Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, singing the theme song, one of his own compositions; the following year, he was nominated for a Juno award, the Canadian equivalent of a Brit.

Yet Wainwright’s failure to become famous in his twenties – or as famous as he craved, because his debut album, with strings arranged by Van Dyke Parks, and its masterful follow-up, Poses, had made him a critics’ darling – was largely responsible for a downward spiral into drink and drugs during a spell on New York’s party scene. In 2003, after a crystal-meth binge left him temporarily blind, he checked into rehab for a month, and he has enjoyed a largely clean lifestyle ever since.

Today, however, he claims his desire for huge fame is on the wane. “When I was more naive about the actual outcome of fame, I was desperate for it,” he says.

“I still have that animalistic quality that hungers for all things bright, and I probably always will, but the older I get, the more ridiculous fame seems. As a young person, I very much subscribed to the classic Hollywood model of fame – Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo: godlike figures who were utterly inhuman. Although I still pray at that altar, it’s not necessarily where I want to see myself. I have found fame very similar to sugar. It looks lovely and tastes great, so you want to eat a lot of it, but once you’ve had your fill, there’s a crash. The key, I think, is to maintain a sense of gratitude. Perhaps because I’m not super-famous, I am keenly aware of the legion of artists behind me who would happily slice me to pieces to have what I have.”

On a sliding scale of fame then, where would Wainwright place himself?

“I’d say I’m a prince among pop stars. I’m not heir to the throne, but I have a fiefdom – a nice plot of land and some serfs. I’m comfortable with my present status as a satellite. I get all the perks and a bit of privacy as well.”

Not that the self-confessed egotist is about play down his own talent. “One thing this festival tour has taught me,” he says, “is how one-track-minded most modern music is. I have seen amazing artists from all over the world, but every song they play is related. By the third or fourth, I lose interest. I’m one of the only singers who varies their set. The festival show is a watered-down version of my upcoming tour, but, even so, I’ll put a Judy song next to a pop one, mix the tempo and the mood, offer a panoramic experience. If I was in some of the big bands here, I’d be worried. There’s only so long you can sell people the same song.”

Indeed, it may well be Wainwright’s musical activities outside pop that earn him power-player status. His profile rose considerably last summer when, song by song, he recreated Judy Garland’s celebrated 1961 Carnegie Hall concert in the same venue. This time, even the critics had their doubts – not to mention the Garland devotees who protested outside – but his performance proved a triumph. In February, he repeated the feat at the London Palladium; next week, he will be Judy again at a sold-out Hollywood Bowl.

He continues to dabble in film, with a part in the Oscar-nominated director Denys Arcand’s forthcoming feature, The Age of Ignorance, in which he sings an 18th-century aria, following an appearance in The Aviator that led Martin Scorsese to dub him “a one-man Greek chorus”. Fittingly, earlier this year, he had a real-life Disney moment, performing two of his songs for the animated movie Meet the Robinsons. Then there is his long-awaited move into opera – he is already one act into a commission for the New York Met.

“I converted to opera at the age of 14,” Wainwright says. “One day I hated it, the next it was all I could listen to. It was around the time grunge came along, when there was a real disillusion with mainstream pop culture. Whereas most kids my age went for Kurt Cobain, I went for opera, although the two have a similar intensity. Both are dark, sinister, dramatic, but one has better outfits.

“Ever since, opera has been my main squeeze. It’s my religion, my philosophy, oftentimes my lover. Ha-ha-ha. I was writing one for years, without a story, then the Met commissioned me. It’s now called Prima Donna, and it’s about a day in the life of an opera singer. I reckon it’s a couple of years before it’s finished. I am confident in my ability, but opera is a tough medium. When I finally enter the arena, I want to lay down the gauntlet, lay myself bare.”

Prima Donna, Wainwright insists, is not a one-off, but it will not signal the end of his pop career. “My plan was to be the biggest pop star possible, then walk dramatically away, to the hinterlands of classical music. But I will continue with pop because, er, I do love young people. If I quit, I would miss the tight skin. Nah-ha-ha.”

He would also miss the bright lights. While Wainwright’s obsession with fame may be waning, his burning desire to be the centre of attention is unlikely ever to leave him. Does it stem, I wonder, from growing up in a family of performers, having to fight for his share of the limelight?

“Oh, I never found attention hard to come by,” he insists. “As the eldest, and a boy, I was very much the apple of my family’s eye. Mind you, when Martha was born, my mum said she saw a rainbow-coloured fan open up in front of her, and started to cry. She called it a beautiful, cosmic experience. When she recalls having me, she talks about going to the grocery store the day before I was born. She bought a ham that was 9lb 5oz. ‘Then, Rufus,’ she says, ‘you came out exactly the same weight.’ So I was a ham and Martha was a rainbow! Perhaps I did have to fight more than I thought.”

Since childhood, Wainwright appears to have lurched from one dramatic episode to another, much of it fuelling his songwriting. There was his troubled relationship with his father, whom his mother left when he was three, and with whom he communicated only through music until recently; a horrific first sexual encounter, when he was raped, aged 14, in Hyde Park; an uncomfortable coming-out to disappointed (but surely

“A bit of both. But what I’ve learnt about the nature of my life is that as soon as I’ve handled one set of challenges, a whole other pack of cards is dealt – more bright, glorious problems to struggle through. Even beating drugs had its downside, because drugs are fun, and I’m no fool.

“But I’m happy to be in a place now where I can face my problems. With Martha, for example, I make an effort to go to her shows and support her, although there will always be a rivalry. I don’t want life to be dull. Admittedly, the excitement factor has degraded somewhat, but there’s still some grime in those cracks.”

You wonder if Wainwright could exist without a daily dose of drama. He must be a nightmare at home. “A lovable nightmare,” he says. “I traipse about in this chaotic mess I create in our apartment, and my boyfriend, Jörg, picks up after me. I’m the one throwing underwear on the couch; he’s the one with bite marks all over him.”

Jörg, he says, is desperate for the pair to adopt, but it seems there are some dramas even Wainwright can’t cope with. “I told him that if he wants to stay home and take care of them, that’s fine. Then I watched someone change a diaper in the park the other day, and it, eugh, it really threw me. He-he-he. Still, a girl might be good. There have been some kids on this tour, because my band members have them. When the boys see me in high heels and lipstick, they call me a faggot. Man, they are vicious. Then the girls come to my dressing room, straighten the wardrobe and clean up. I like that.”

Wainwright’s attempt to be family-friendly is almost working. What, apart from the prospect of nappies, keeps the currently content singer awake at night? He leans over and puts his hand on my knee – partly, I suspect, to show off the enormous diamond-encrusted ring on his middle finger, a gift from Elton.

“Listen, I’ll let you in on a secret. Outside work, I have the same insecurities as everyone else. I’d like to look like a porn star, but I don’t. Some days, I’m convinced I look like a frog. A cute little frog, mind you, a Kermit-type character. Then there’s my tummy. What do you mean, ‘What tummy?’ See this? I can’t get rid of it.”

Suddenly, Wainwright catches sight of himself, shirt pulled up, flab in hand. “You know what I should do next,” he announces, standing up and plucking the Elvis suit from the rail. “Return to painting. I used to go to art school, and I loved it. I did these great big canvases. Of what? Oh, myself. Me in a dress. Me out at night. Me as the Virgin Mary. That last one’s a joke, but, you know, it’s not a bad idea.”



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