Rufus Wainwright’s good vibrations
The singer-songwriter has a galaxy of high-profile fans and a dizzying range of achievements under his belt – but has never troubled the top of the charts. Does that matter to him – and, if not, what does he focus on instead?
Always destined for stardom: Rufus Wainwright. Photograph: Barry J Holmes
The music business is full of talented people. There are musicians, there are songwriters, there are singers. But then there are the Rufus Wainwrights, the kind of annoyingly gifted all-rounders who crop up perhaps once or twice in a generation.
At 40, the New York-born, Montreal-raised singer-songwriter has tucked a dizzyingly diverse range of achievements under his belt, including seven quality studio albums and a successful re-enactment of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall comeback. He also devised a well-received classical opera, has written a second, and has had another commissioned.
It is not for nothing that Elton John has called him the “greatest living songwriter”, that Michael Stipe claims he “stands next to Nina Simone”, and that everyone from David Byrne to Yoko Ono, and from Lou Reed to Neil Tennant, has sung his praises. He is also droll, chatty and articulate. What’s not to like?
Yet it is also telling that Vibrate , Wainwright’s first proper compilation, is a Best Of rather than a Greatest Hits. Although he is hugely respected by critics and by his peers, his songs have never really troubled the upper echelons of the charts. His last studio album, the fine Out of the Game , from 2012, was produced by Mark Ronson and seemed like a purposeful stab at the mainstream. Yet, although it reached the top 10 in the UK, he is still far from a household name.
“I think you really have to put it into perspective,” he says in his laidback drawl. “Whenever an artist releases an album, due to the whole nature of that process, you have to be completely amped-up in terms of what’s going to happen. ‘Yeah, we’re going to have eight number-one hits. We’re gonna play stadiums. We’re gonna make billions of dollars.’ That’s the energy it takes to go out there and travel the planet and sing for people every night. It’s very far from the reality in most cases, and there is a bit of an upset when it doesn’t happen. But now, looking back at the process, Out of the Game is probably my favourite-sounding album that I’ve ever made. The quality of the recording is my favourite, and that’s very important.”
Over the years Wainwright’s songs have dabbled in both the personal and the political, with the likes of the tongue-in-cheek Gay Messiah and Going to a Town addressing his sexuality within the context of society. He is capable of writing lighter fare, such as Vibrate , Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk and a new track, Me and Liza , a cheeky riposte to Liza Minelli’s public decrial of his Judy Garland show. A blossoming writing partnership with Guy Chambers also led to his cowriting duet with Robbie Williams on the title track of the latter’s recent album, Swings Both Ways .
It would have been nice to dominate the mainstream, he says. Yet “I’m still fairly young, so who knows what’ll happen? But I don’t think it’s worth the cost I would have had to pay in terms of maintaining the integrity that I fought so hard for over the years. That being said, yeah, I get a little bit annoyed sometimes,” he says, chuckling. “But I also have a lovely private life and a certain degree of anonymity – not a tonne – but that’s a sacrifice that I haven’t had to make, which is also pretty good.”
Destined for stardom
In many ways Wainwright was always destined for stardom, or at least some level of fame. The children of the folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and the late, great Kate McGarrigle, he and his sister, Martha, have carved impressive pop-rock niches. He has largely maintained an element of the baroque/classical piano that made his name with his eponymous debut, from 1998, on albums such as Poses and the magnificent couplet of Want One and Want Two in the mid noughties. Looking back over the past 16 years for this compilation has proved an interesting exercise, he says.
“I think there’s a couple of different streams to acknowledge, one being my work as a songwriter, which I don’t think has gotten better or worse,” he says. “I think it’s always very much been a reflection of my life at the time. There are songs that I wrote years ago that I could never write today, and vice versa, and I’ve always been very faithful to the life that I was leading, so it’s interesting to see that transition.
“The other one, of course, is my work as a singer – and I do actually find that that’s improved, mainly after doing the Judy Garland shows, where I really had to focus on the quality of my voice, and my pronunciations and stuff. I love my early recordings, and I love a lot of the sensibilities of them – you know, that kind of bursting-at-the-seams young-person stuff – but I think I’ve matured as a singer quite well in the last few records.”
The past few years have proved transitional. The year after the death of his mother, from cancer, in early 2010, Wainwright became a father to the now three-year-old Viva, whom he raises with his husband, the German art curator Jörn Weisbrodt, and her mother, Lorca Cohen, the daughter of Leonard Cohen.
His second opera, about the Roman emperor Hadrian, will debut in 2018, and a Broadway musical that he has hinted at over the past few years is still a distinct possibility in the interim.
“Fatherhood’s amazing, amazing, incredible,” he says. “Speaking of writing operas and so forth, one of the other reasons that I’m excited to take on that project is that I have to spend more time in one place, and I can’t afford to tour as much as I used to, with writing an opera and having to bring up a child and sustain a marriage. So there’s a practical reason for all of that stuff, as well.
“But I find that I work best when I’m doing several things at once, so I wouldn’t be surprised if other things come out in the meantime. If you just focus on one thing, I find you get kind of burnt out.”
You get the impression that life is never dull when you’re Rufus Wainwright, but having wrestled his demons over the years – including an addiction to crystal meth in his 20s, and a fraught relationship with his father, now apparently healed – there must be some regrets: things he wishes he’d done differently, other things he wishes he hadn’t done at all.
“You know, the one thing I regret is that I wish I’d taken dance lessons,” he says, pausing to mull over the question. “Although I have a very pretty bum, I wish it was totally perfect.”
Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright is on Universal. Rufus Wainwright plays Vicar Street, Dublin, on Tuesday