Amid anniversary celebrations marking his first two albums Canadian/American songwriter, singer and opera composer, Rufus Wainwright, will tour Australia soon. He stopped briefly to look back, and ahead.
(A version of this story is in the current Rhythms Magazine.)
Rufus Wainwright at 45 years old, especially in off-publicity days when he sports his bushy, grey beard, is distinguished and raffish rather than fresh-faced and rakish as he appeared on the covers of his first two albums of sometimes baroque, regularly flamboyant pop: the self-titled debut in 1998 and 2001’s career-sparking Poses.
He’s a father these days of course, a composer whose second full opera, Hadrian, premiered late in 2018, a settled, sober man. But as he marks the 20th anniversary of that debut (and wraps up the even better Poses in the on-stage celebrations), some things are unchanged. Such as the vagaries of risk/reward writing.
We speak the day after an exhilarating, demanding, “emotional” New York show which has left him “pretty wiped out”, but free of the ennui that sometimes gripped him in the early part of the century. I begin by asking him about a claim he made as Hadrian (based on the Roman emperor’s relationship with his lover Antinous) opened in Canada, that he felt he had one more opera in him.
It’s a typically declamatory Wainwright statement, but can he really set it aside? He’s got maybe another 40 years ahead of him, there’s got to be more than one opera in that time.
“Given how fast this first 40-ish years have gone, and it seems to be quickening up, I hope I have one more left,” he laughs. “As we all know I’m a multi-faceted creature and I love doing all sorts of different things, so I think with another opera, a few musicals, a couple of other records, we’re looking at the full picture here.”
After what he called an occasional “nightmare” experience both creating and then realising on stage his first opera, Prima Donna, how has it been second time around?
“It’s never easy in the sense that I think when you create an opera – actually, I know when you create an opera - especially an intense and artistically fulfilling experience, you get into a kind of cocoon of expression. As does everybody: the singers, the orchestra. That’s all you really need. The next thing you know it’s thrown into the world and they either accept you or don’t. This time around I was much more, how do I say this, more forward in terms of the knowledge that I’d done the best I can, that people love the piece, that it’s a great evening at the theatre, and it deserves a place at the table.
“Whether the place is being set for me [he chuckles] is another question. But that’s the position that most composers have found themselves in their careers.”
One of the reasons to ponder his experience with two operas now is that attention, success and fame, along with sometimes harsh criticism, is something you can never prepare for. But in 1998, with the release of his debut, and maybe even more so with Poses, success and fame was something he dearly wanted – you might say he even demanded it - and he was frustrated there wasn’t more of it.
More recently though, he has seemed not just okay but maybe even glad it didn’t come to him then.
“I definitely dodged a bullet or two, by not getting the recognition I craved for at that time in my life,” he says. “I was a pretty volatile being, with drinking and carousing and just feeding my ego at all times. I was ready to devour whatever meal was given to me.
“In retrospect I think it was much better than I had to temper everything: my expectations and my bank account.”
What did he want of fame? What did he expect it to be like?
“I think a lot of it had to do with it being the outset of my career in the sense I had been brought up in the music world where my father, both my parents, had tasted the glory of recognition. And whereas they were more entrenched in the tradition of folk music and camaraderie with fellow musicians that they could lean back into, I was thrust forth into Hollywood and showered with gifts from the record company who made all these promises that I was going to be skyrocketed into the heavens the day after my record was released.
“It was much more seductive when I went through it. It was pretty full on right away but thankfully the songs were strong enough to stand all of that shenanigans.”
There are songs on those two albums that almost always appear in his sets to these days, their appeal strong for both fans and composer. And maybe for the same reason.
“I think what I find very moving and special, or sacred, about those two records is how blatantly sensitive they appear. And how this little wounded boy was just telling everybody his hurts and pain in a solid manner. It was very real you know.
“In retrospect - though I chose to do that: it’s just what was coming out - I think God that was pretty brave and open about stuff.”
The thing is of course, as we came to know pretty quickly, Wainwright knew, and still knows, no other way.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it any other way,” he concedes. “I’m amazed at other artists, such as Lady Gaga, who can construct these personas. I wish I could but I couldn’t be anything but myself, for better or for worse.”
Even if some might question the absence of a persona in the case of Wainwright, who can be arch and distancing when it suits him to separate from the expectations of a public figure, there is a thinner line between public and private self.
And with that comes a frankness which is both part of his appeal and occasionally a burden, whether it’s the years spent answering questions about his drug use (and the near death experience that finally ended his experimentations), his family (there being hardly anyone left who doesn’t know his parents were the folks singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and his sister the powerhouse singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright – all of whom write about the others in their songs), being gay, being Canadian/American, or explaining that yes, it’s true, he did tell Martha when they were teenagers that he was by far the prettiest.
One of the legacies of that openness is that he has expressed frustration with pop music as an outlet for creativity for much of his career. I note that in one of the first conversations we had, in 2001, he was already talking about his ultimate goal of being an operatic composer. Did he lose love or maybe respect for pop at some point? Has it come back?
“It’s not that I lost respect for pop,” he says. “First and foremost, this is probably above everything I do, except being a singer because being a singer is a different thing, I feel that I am a songwriter. And as a songwriter I would definitely say I am somewhat unimpressed and disillusioned with the way the pop world has framed that artform. It’s incredibly simplistic and unsophisticated and horizontal really in terms of what a song can do and what a song can be. In that respect I’ll stick to my guns.
“But I still believe in the power of song and along with the opera, and this tour, in the background I have been very studiously finishing up my next album, my next pop record. I’ve been working with Mitchell Froom in Los Angeles, who is fantastic and in my opinion one of the greatest producers I have come in contact with. I’m really excited about the new record, so don’t worry.”
Rufus Wainwright plays Festival Theatre, Adelaide, February 22; Melbourne Zoo, February 23; Melbourne Recital Centre, February 25; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, February 26; Canberra Theatre Centre, February 28.