Interview with Rufus Wainwright

The singer, songwriter and, now, opera maven has switched his rock ‘n’ roll habits for some new preoccupations: fatherhood, weight-watching, and making a substantial living. Craig McLean meets him

For Rufus Wainwright, sitting in a dressing room backstage at Latitude festival, rock ‘n’ roll habits die hard. The man who once took so much crystal meth that he went temporarily blind is guiltily eyeing up another illicit substance. I have brought him a freshly baked muffin. Would he like it?

“I’m not supposed to,” he purrs.

His assistant, a muscular twentysomething called Marcus, has gone off to fetch coffee for me and hot water with honey for Wainwright. Marcus is the 39-year-old’s “manny/nanny” and also, it seems, his diet minder. But Wainwright – the New York-born, Montreal-raised singer, songwriter, arriviste opera maven and only son of American troubadour Loudon Wainwright III and the late Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle – is not a man with a history of restraint. He was raped in London’s Hyde Park aged 14, entered rehab at Elton John’s urging, has long battled with his father, lost his beloved mother in January 2010, and has tackled all of these events in confessional songwriting or interviews or both. After casting a furtive look towards the door, he dives, face-first, into the double-choc treat, stuffing a full half of it into his chipmunk cheeks before setting it aside.

“I didn’t have any of this,” he says through muffled mouth. “Hide it.” As Marcus returns, I assure him his secret is safe with me.

Wainwright is looking healthy (he hasn’t touched drugs in a decade), albeit with a slight thickening round the waist and a flushed face. The latter at least could be ascribed to his coming fresh from the stage. He and his group of musicians and backing singers have just performed an hour-long set in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

They played songs from his recent, Mark Ronson-produced, pop(ish), seventh studio album Out Of The Game; a selection from his luscious back catalogue; and an encore of “The Man That Got Away” from his Judy Garland tribute album/concert/DVD, the finger-snapping, torch-singing spectacular Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall. There was no room for any music from Prima Donna, his opera about a day in the life of an ageing opera singer. It was first commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera and has already been performed (to mixed reviews) in Manchester, London, Toronto and New York.

Those ruddy cheeks might also suggest he’s been enjoying some fine red wine on the European leg of this five-months-and-counting tour. I note, though, that his dressing-room rider is teetotal. Is there really no alcohol on the menu? “Not at the moment.” He smiles. “I wouldn’t say this tour is 100 per cent healthy, but I’ve gotten to the point where you have to treat touring as somewhat akin to warfare.” His dry, Woody Woodpecker laugh rattles from his chest. And an army, I say, marches on its stomach. “Yeah, and if you want to make it to the end, and be more developed than when you began, heh heh, then you have to pay attention. So I’m very fit on tour. I try to eat well, try to sleep. But it’s still rock ‘n’ roll,” he insists, lest anyone should think he’s anything less than fully committed to the boho-hedonist life of the artist.

From left: Kate McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright, Lily McGarrigle, Anna McGarrigle and Martha Wainwright

Touring, he admits, is the source of most of his income. “It’s a really treacherous climate in terms of how to sell records. As my friend Antony – from Antony and the Johnsons – told me recently, the new Apple [MacBook] has no disc drive in it! Neither does the iPad. So figuring out who’s buying the records is challenging. And sometimes a bit discouraging.

“That being said,” he brightens, “I’ll do these huge shows like this festival, or the ones we’ve done in Europe, and there will be 30,000 to 40,000 people there. In fact, in Montreal I played for 100,000 people and you could hear a pin drop. So I feel like there’s a flux out there. But it’s OK – I’m bio-diverse enough to survive this slaying!”

The last time I met Wainwright was in Portugal in late 2008. He was travelling with a seven-piece band and multiple tour buses, and he was playing three-hour sets. “I’m really not cutting it financially for myself on this tour,” he winced at the time.

“On that tour I took a serious loss,” he says now. But his next tour was based round his last album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu (2010), an intense set of chamber-like piano compositions clouded by his mother’s terminal illness.

“That show was just me solo, so I replenished the coffers. Now it’s more of an even keel. But I am probably one of the most fortunate performers on the planet because I can do solo shows. At any moment I can just cut the strings and head off, commando-style. That’s very much leaning on my parents’ legacy, especially my father’s, who did that partially because he enjoys being alone, ha ha ha,” he laughs drily, “but also because financially it had to be done.”

On that tour Wainwright’s diet seemed to revolve around Marlboro Reds. Has he now cut out the cigarettes? “No, no, they’re in my pocket … ” He is, he admits, “easing” himself into all-round health. “But I am getting married this summer, so I do have to look somewhat presentable.”

With fiancé Jörn Weisbrodt

The wedding, due to have taken place two days ago at the Wainwright home in Montauk, New York, is to boyfriend Jörn Weisbrodt, a German arts administrator. The beachside residence is hymned in a song of the same name on Out Of The Game. This rippling piano ballad is addressed to Wainwright’s daughter, Viva, born in February last year. One day she’ll visit, Wainwright writes, and see “your dad wearing a kimono” and “trying to be funny”, while her “other dad” will be pruning roses and “seeing through me”.

Viva’s mother is Lorca Cohen. Her grandfather is Leonard, whose song “Hallelujah” Wainwright covers respectfully and brilliantly in concert. Even when having babies with childhood friends, Wainwright accompanies events with a glorious musical flourish.

His lifelong desire to sally forth and dazzle the world has, he notes, been reinforced by fatherhood. Lorca has custody of Viva, and mother and daughter live in Paris and Los Angeles, with Wainwright visiting whenever his travels allow. But while he might have no option but to be a part-time dad, he’s a full-time breadwinner. The instinct to provide for his offspring has kicked in hard.

“I want to set it up so that at some point I will have enough collateral to just stop touring for a bit and spend some time with my daughter. She’s only a year-and-a-half – and apparently kids don’t have memories until they’re three. So I’ve got a bit of time. They don’t need us at this point.”

He’s giddy with excitement at discovering all the evolutionary tics associated with parenthood. How infants look like their fathers, so we don’t run away “or kill them”. How the developing eyesight of a newborn can initially only stretch as far as the important stuff: from breast to face.

“Well, I know some men who are still like that, ha ha ha! And,” Wainwright adds with a customary campy flourish, “some women I should say!”

With his father Loudon Wainwright III

With his DNA – and his ambition – Wainwright was always going to be a musician. But success took a while. He left Montreal in 1996, first for New York then Los Angeles, and began hustling for a record deal. Family connections – as well as his talents – paved his way into the industry. Yet for a long time he had little more than a cult following. His diptych Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004) attracted rave reviews and lots of press, but little in terms of sales. His fortunes improved with 2007’s more commercial Release The Stars – an album that he unashamedly heralded as “going for the sound of cash registers”.

Most of the Rufus love came from the UK, where his flamboyance, candour and way with a big pop melody struck a colourful chord. Yet in his adopted homeland, for all his sell-out status at venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall and LA’s Hollywood Bowl, Wainwright is much less of a commercial hit. In the huge middle of the United States, songs such as “The Gay Messiah” and “Going To A Town” – a lament for a ruined, intolerant America, which he has pointedly dedicated to Mitt Romney at recent live shows – are perhaps a little much to take.

Ask him now to reveal his worst ever business decision and he casts his mind back to those early days in LA: “Asking my record company what lawyer they thought I should get. That was pretty bad! I just didn’t know.”

After his parents’ acrimonious divorce when he was three, times were hard. They were made harder by the changing musical climate. Folk music was out and disco was in, meaning both his parents’ skillsets were less economically viable.

“It was very treacherous for a long time,” he recalls of the domestic circumstances that descended upon him and his sister, singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright. “Especially with my mother – she hated touring. So she didn’t get that extra income, because she was taking care of the kids. I don’t think we were starving ever. But when I asked her how we survived that period, my mother would always say: ‘smoke and mirrors, Rufus!’

“And I have to say,” he continues, unfolding his legs and stretching out on his dressing-room sofa, “even though at that point it was quite difficult, I thank my lucky stars that it was that way, because it did give me an instinctive sense of the reality of being an artist. Which is that you’re not gonna be rich – and that’s the way it actually should be! You’re not going into this business to make money.”

Wainwright with his mother Kate McGarrigle

Still, for his all self-confessed complete lack of fiscal savvy, “I have managed to eke out a good and substantial existence,” he declares. “I’m not shovelling gold bricks or anything, but I do very, very well. And so I’m proud of myself for that – because I really don’t have any business acumen whatsoever. If I’d maybe paid more attention to it, I’d be a whole lot richer. But I really focus on the music and the performances. And, you know,” he chuckles, eyes lingering on the half-muffin, “my waistline, ha ha ha!”

In September Wainwright plays a night at Sydney Opera House, “a great, iconic venue” that appeals, of course, to his lifelong love of operatic music. He’s already planning a second opera. He can’t say much about it, save that it’s “a historical piece. Think Roman Empire … ” But of course.

Next year he hits 40. As the years advance, does he envisage focusing more on that musical world?

“Well, once you dip your toe into the opera pool, you gotta take a swim! You can’t be a Schwächling as they say [in Germany]. A weakling. You’ve got to jump into that cold water. So I’m looking forward to that.

“But we’ll see how this next one goes. It will be a real barometer. If it’s worse than the first one, I say let’s focus on Judy! Or a musical actually – I should write a musical,” he muses. “That is probably one of the final areas that I should pay attention to, because it does kind of involve everything. It’s got theatre, it’s got young pretty people … And it’s got money!”

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