Getting A Read On Rufus Wainwright (1999)

“I would love to be a big movie star, but you know, I want to get this music thing done first. I want to become a great musical force, then become a movie star, and then become, you know, Mother Teresa …”

That mix of ambition and slightly over-the-top humor goes a long way to sum up Rufus Wainwright: a pleasant guy who knows what he wants. And basically, what he wants is commercial and artistic success. Is that so much to ask?

Touring Paradox

“Gershwin was completely successful on both ends,’ Wainwright points out. “He had no qualms about making money, and no qualms about writing great songs, and that I always admired. … My favorite Gershwin song? I would have to say, is “The Man I Love”. I sing that often.”

At shows?

“No, just in my bed,” he sighs with a laugh.

When your father (Loudon Wainwright III) writes an ode to the infant you called “Rufus Is A Tit Man” and then you grow up gay, you better have a firm grasp on irony. Wainwright delivers in spades. Life on the road provides more.

“It’s an amazing thing,” he notices, “because I’ve never been as exhausted as I am on the road recently, and it’s really been a drag in a certain way. But I’ve never looked better!”

It’s a phenomenon that doesn’t apply to Keith Richards, but Wainwright has a theory.

“It’s weird. You’re exhausted, you’re tired, but you look great. It’s good for you, bad for you, but it’s what you’re meant to be doing, and that in the end is great.”

Idle Life & Its Surprisingly Wide Social Circles

The touring is in response to the success of his eponymous debut, released last year and a staple on critics’ 1998 Top Ten lists. This gets written all the time, but the record really doesn’t sound like anything else out there. The unique content is in part the result of his background. His mother (folk singer Kate McGarrigle) allowed him to look at life without the inconveniences of conventional employment.

“I wrote about the idle life of the wealthy white people!” he says, half-joking. “I wasn’t very wealthy or anything, but I did have a fairly idle life, because my mother preferred it if I stay home and practice my piano, and treated that as my job. It might sound kind of evil, but I have a lot of friends who did work, and I’d go out and hang out with them, and sort of suck their experience out of them, and go home and write about it.”

It was very surreal to me at the time. The pageantry of it all — the Sunday morning parade to services, the endless lacrosse matches, the little rich kids hanging out on the green listening to Bob Marley.

“Millbrook” is a song that represents a look at another side of life, his brief stay at a tiny, pastoral boarding school in the middle of nowhere. But if that sounds nostalgic, don’t think that Wainwright yearns for those days.

“It was very surreal to me at the time. The pageantry of it all — the Sunday morning parade to services, the endless lacrosse matches, the little rich kids hanging out on the green listening to Bob Marley. I probably miss more the times when I was hanging out with all my friends on welfare, and we were, you know, doing PCP and listening to Sonic Youth, and making out and stuff.”

A New Year’s To Forget

Wainwright’s love of music other than pop also contributes to the sound of his songs. And as with so many things, timing is everything.

“One has to remember that I did grow up in the ’80s, and it was a pretty weird, opera-esque kind of pop happening, like the Thompson Twins.

“And that I related to, but I never really went for the rock and roll side. I play the piano, and if you’re going to do rock and roll piano, it’s very limiting. You can either play boogie woogie, or jazz, or you can play like Elton John.”

That penchant for piano makes life on the road difficult, but there are lessons he’s learned from his performing parents, covering two very different aspects of the job.

“And from my mother [Kate McGarrigle], I really learned how to rip someone’s heart out with the song. She’s really good at that, especially sad Irish songs.”

“From my father, I learned mostly about stage banter, about the importance of at least addressing the audience,” he says, which rings true given that his father’s between-song chatter is better than most standup comedy.

“And from my mother, I really learned how to rip someone’s heart out with the song. She’s really good at that, especially sad Irish songs.”

If you haven’t heard his CD yet, you still may know his work, courtesy of a recent Gap ad featuring Wainwright crooning, “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?”

“I picked the song because it was either that or ‘Jingle Bell Rock’. They gave me a choice of songs, but they had to be nondenominational, and that was the best one.”

Which naturally leads to the question: What did you do New Year’s Eve?

Wainwright groans.

“I had the worst New Year’s Eve. I was in Berlin. I flew to Berlin because I’d been thinking, ‘Hey, I can go to Europe whenever I want to.’ And I went to Europe, I didn’t know anybody there, and wound up spending my entire New Year’s Eve hiding in my hotel room from drunken German teenagers who threw firecrackers at people.”

Projects, Dream Collaborators, and a Commandment

A look at recent projects reveals a man doing his own thing. The last song he worked on, for instance, is not exactly your typical Top 40 fare.

“It’s about two gay cowboys in Wyoming, for this possible Gus Van Sant movie or something. It’s not sexually specific, though — it could be about two cows, or cowboys. Basically, it’s about forbidden love in the West.”

It’s hard to tell where his ambitions will take him, other than, of course, eventual movie stardom and sainthood. He’d like to play the harp.

“Another wonderfully idle instrument that you need a home for. I’d love to sit around all day and play the harp, a big harp. That’d look cool on stage.”

He dabbles with art (e.g., his CD booklet), and given the chance to collaborate with someone, he’s choose a fellow Montreal celebrity: Leonard Cohen.

Don’t expect Wainwright to follow that songwriting legend’s path to a Buddhist monastery. But then again, when asked for his take so far on the meaning of life, Wainwright puts a fundamental if slightly cryptic truth on the table.

“Basically, don’t ever fuck with your parents. They’ll get you back,” he says with what sounds like a chuckle and a wince combined.

So it comes down to one of the Commandments? Respect your elders?

“Exactly. And I’m telling that to my little sister, too.”

(This was originally published in the Record Exchange’s publication, The Music Monitor. Thanks to now-Record Store Day Empress Carrie Colliton for her blessing in sharing it here.)

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