Wanting one: Pop auteur Rufus Wainwright survives, making best album yet

By Mark Guarino

When people tell me that all the new music coming out now sounds repetitive and banal, I bring up Rufus Wainwright.

Born into a musical family (his parents are the songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle), Wainwright made his self-titled debut in 1998. Born with a rich, almost operatic voice, the orchestral and emotional grandeur of his songs summon comparisons to great American songwriters, from George Gershwin to Aaron Copeland to Harry Nilsson to Randy Newman. The key to what makes his songs leap through the speakers is that even with their heightened sense of drama, Wainwright’s songs never fail to be tuneful, witty and lyrically concise.

This fall, the 30-year-old revealed to the New York Times that he was on the brink of self-destruction this year to due to a number of drugs he turned to (methamphetamine, ecstasy, cocaine, alcohol) so he could gain confidence to seek anonymous sex encounters over the years. His promiscuity, he said, was the result of having been raped when he was 14 by a man in London.

“Want One” (Dreamworks), is the album that was written and recorded before and after Wainwright spent a month at Hazelden, a recovery center in Center City, Minn. The experience left Wainwright with a renewed lease on living. The songs swim with melody and offer frank lyrics about renewal and longing, translating to situations like waiting for your phone to vibrate, telling you a lover is calling to wishing you’d wake up to the headline “Life is Beautiful” on the Times front page. However rooted in reality, they are all fantastical sounding worlds, transporting you places not much contemporary music will go.

We talked recently about his new album. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: You’ve been public about the turmoil you’ve gone through over the past few years. Why did you wait until now?

A: I do believe, in terms of HIV infection and safe sex issues and also crystal meth use in the gay community … there’s a real crisis. And I went through that experience and came back unscathed, thank god. I was playing Russian roulette. I felt it was necessary to sound some kind of alarm and also, if anyone out there takes solace in my story and can relate to it, that makes all the difference.

Q: I’d seen you perform several times and you exhibit a lot of performance anxiety. Were the drugs and sex a way to escape that?

A: I never really performed high. I think what happened for me, essentially … I was very much about work and work and work and work and pretending everything was fabulous and smiling for the cameras. Then all the sudden I’d have a month off or be alone for a week in a strange city in a hotel room and (a shift would happen) and I felt I deserved a vacation. And I got into pushing the levels of what was sane … what kind of credence that would give me or license and how far I could push that. So I did that and it was fun on certain occasions. But you can’t win in that battle.

Q: It’s interesting that your music has such rich emotions but in your personal life, you were trying to escape that.

A: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that — I’m not judging whether other bands or other people party a lot — but I really did. (laughs) And it really came down to the point where what I needed was sort of the opposite. I had exhausted those avenues — love and stability and health, all those virtuous things became extremely exotic. I’m very lucky that I was able to make that shift.

Q: Did you find that writing about love eventually became a substitute for it?

A: I can depend on my songwriting and my musical ability as I can on a faithful lover. It’s always there for me and also just as soothing. I’m in love with my talent in a personal way. I also think it’s because my songs have been prophetic in the past. I think a lot of art can be prophetic.

Q: What got you out of it?

A: Essentially a lot of elements. One being I had the time and the ability to put my whole life on hold which I think it’s important for anyone at anytime. I think the ability to stop everything and become introspective for a whole month is good for anybody, for any situation. I was able to do that financially without jeopardizing my career. Also I do believe that the world was a very different place all the sudden after 9-11. Denial or blissful ignorance no longer really fit the time. Everything was slightly darker. And also, I hit 30 and that was big thing. There’s no mystery that a lot of artists around 27 or 28 either continue (to live) or self-destruct.

Q: “Want One” was supposed to be a double album but you’re releasing “Want Two” next year. Why was it split apart?

A: That just happened. We were recording right when the Iraq war started. It was very tragic in New York after 9-11 and I remember there was a real sense in the early days that maybe (the Bush administration) would be more compassionate and understanding and maybe they’d make some good out of this horrible tragedy. And a year later, things had really gone bad worse, once again putting New York in the line of fire for terrorism. It was just a very scary moment. And we went into the studio under the gun literally. We were going to protests everyday and going to the studio at night to record. So there was such a sense of urgency that I literally vomited material everywhere (laughs). The next thing we knew we had 30 songs recorded. First I wanted it to be a double record but the record company wasn’t into that. Also, due to nature of my production and the weightiness of the whole thing, (I thought) it would probably be good thing to let it surface in two courses.

Q: The songs on this album are incredibly rich in emotion. Does it take a lot out of you to get that on tape?

A: Oh yeah, there are ounces of blood for every song — buckets of blood! It’s very difficult. When you constantly put yourself on that tightrope of emotion with songwriting, you are bound to fall. The writing’s very easy, the living is more difficult now.

Q: Is it about figuring out control?

A: Yeah, there’s a lot of control. I really do believe if you take on the position of being a public figure, there are certain sacrifices you have to make. You are an example to your fans and they do really love you with all of their heart and they do want you to be around. It’s fun and interesting to watch a rock star self-destruct, it’s interesting in a kind of a freak show sort of way. But for me, I don’t want to be that. I do think it’s irresponsible.

Q: Did your love of orchestration come gradually or did you start hearing it when you were first writing songs?

A: I was always into using the full force of the media in terms of art. Like, my favorite movie as a child was “That’s Entertainment,” which was an array of different musicals from the ‘40s. I always loved to think of art and showbiz as fantasy and to use every tool possible to make it more fantastic.

Q: The levels where some of these songs go are above and beyond what you’d expect.

A: A lot of that is Marius (deVries). He was the first producer I worked with ever who really trusted my sense of the extreme and wasn’t embarrassed by my flagrant love for grandeur. So a lot of it is due to him, he allowed me to do it and he did some really amazing patient work. Like sitting there and letting me do 350 backup vocals, making sure each one was in tune and was a good performance. He would sit there and press record and never once lagged in enthusiasm.

A: Making big studio albums seems to be a lost art these days.

Q: Some people say “it’s too much” and my answer is, it is important. With all of these mergers of record companies and the basic slaughter of record companies going on … it’s very important to make big records now. Otherwise, it’s just going to go down that there weren’t many made in the end. I can always go back and make a piano and voice record and that’ll be great. Whereas I always won’t have a chance to do this.

Q: Record companies aren’t thinking of complete albums anymore, but are concentrating on singles.

A: I think it’s an uphill battle but … I do think that the foundation I’m building is extremely solid. I don’t think if I’ll ever reach height of Britney Spears or Eminem or any of that. I do know I’ll be remembered in the annals of history. So that’s what really gets me going.

Q: As someone who is openly gay and also —

A: — openly musical? —

Q: Openly musical, exactly, do you think you’ve come to represent different things to different people? No one really is making albums like this.

A: I think I represent a lot of things, I don’t deny it. I do feel lonely at times, having other artists I can feel part of some sort of movement with — because I don’t. I’m very much like my father’s song, “One Man Guy” — out there. It’s not something I wanted to do, it’s not part of the agenda but it’s there and certainly holding onto a musical career in this economic and political and conservative climate, you cant take these little breaks lightly.

Q: Your voice sounds a lot fuller than your previous two. Did you concentrate on singing this time around.

A: This album I made totally sober. I do think the fact that I did it with absolutely nothing around, you can hear it in the vocals. There is a certain intensity. And that’s another myth I’d like to help dispel, that you have to be (expletive) up when singing. Some people are great at it and I remember thinking “oh my god, I need couple of drinks to enjoy my show,” but it really is the opposite. Your voice is a physical machine. And I do love certain performers who get really (expletive) up and sing, that is an alotted part of rock history and I don’t want to put it down. But there should be another alternative.

Q: You mom is on this record and you sing about your dad. You’ve been open in talking about the frictions in your family who are also respected artists and songwriters. Did that cause any friction?

A: Yeah, it did in the beginning and it still does. There are pitfalls to it, though I think I’m in different position than most people only because I really believe — and I think the press understands this as well which is why they bring them up so much — I do think both my parents are underappreciated, historically, in the history of music. My father made like 16 albums. It can be said he is one of the greatest living songwriters around.

Q: Was there a point where you realized that he wasn’t just your dad but an amazing songwriter?

A: No, I think that was always an element that permeated growing up, the environment. It was tough. My mom had to tour and had to stay motels having to haggle with the owner to get paid. And we didn’t have a lot of money. My father toured most of the year, I never saw him. He was always alone, he didn’t have a soundman. It was hand to mouth. He always had a great fanbase, always had lot of support but didn’t really get (the recognition). I think some of that ambition transferred to my sister and I to try to reach those heights.

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