Rufus Wainwright: ‘I’ve enjoyed experiencing everything. Get married. Have kids. Do drugs. Not in that order’
Interview: Wainwright’s desire to live stopped him from going the way of Kurt Cobain or Elliott Smith, and he has since found stability as a family man and opera composer
Rufus Wainwright: ‘A lot of young male singer-songwriters were dying. I don’t know how I managed to dodge that bullet.’ Photograph: Brent N Clarke/FilmMagic
Every morning as a child, Rufus Wainwright would wake to the sound of his mother, Kate McGarrigle, playing the Goldberg Variations on the piano. “[They] were written by Bach to send someone to sleep, but I was woken up by them,” he says.
Wainwright, a pop songwriter and opera composer, had an unconventional musical childhood. He’s part of a musical dynasty, the son of McGarrigle (of the folk duo McGarrigle Sisters) and Loudon Wainwright III, and the brother of singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright. His childhood in Quebec was surrounded by music: opera, folk, Irish folk, blues and French pop.
“The main driving force was my grandmother,” he says. “[She] was quite talented but was one of 12 children and had to take care of her brothers and sisters – a very Irish story – so she could never really attain her goals artistically. She transferred a lot of that to her children and she became this Queen Victoria character. We had to entertain her every weekend with songs and dances.”
His family seemed confused about where their musical lives ended and their emotional lives began. This manifested itself most bitterly after Loudon and Kate divorced. “My parents wrote songs about each other constantly, some of them loving and some of them really quite horrifying,” he says. “So there was this strange kind of ongoing communication between my parents in song. Then we became a part of it because they wrote songs about us, and then Martha and I started to return the favour, and it became this kind of parallel existence of our lives in song.”
Was that healthy? “As an artist you couldn’t hope for anything better,” he says. “As a mental-health expert, I think it’s questionable.”
He learned the hard way that writing songs about his problems was not the same as fixing them, he says, particularly during a period of self-destructive drug use in his 20s. “I was writing a lot about my experiences – like in Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk or Go or Go Ahead,” he says. “I did realise at a certain point [that] no matter how many songs I write about my problems, that’s not going to solve them. And if I don’t actually do something concrete and meaningful I will be killed.”
Things were very serious, he says. “There were a lot of bodies around: Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley. We were under threat. A lot of young male singer-songwriters were dying . . . I don’t know how I managed to dodge that bullet or dodge that machine gun. Music was expressing [my problems], but it certainly wasn’t solving my problems. I had to do that in my life, actually.”
He’s now a picture of sober stability: an opera composer with a husband (German arts administrator Jörn Weisbrodt, whom he married in 2012) and a daughter, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen (her mother is Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard Cohen).
“I’m someone who, for whatever reason, has always enjoyed experiencing everything,” he says. “Get married. Have kids. Do drugs. Obviously not in that order. But I’ve just always had this hunger for life.”
He recalls something his mother said when it first became clear that he had problems. “She said, ‘I’m not worried about Rufus because I know Rufus doesn’t want to die. He wants to live.’ I’ve always had that desire to live and experience everything. I’ve never been much of a nihilist.”
His daughter was born soon after his mother died of cancer in 2010. “This relates more to my lapsed Irish Catholic side than my Protestant corner . . . but in the Catholic realm, death and birth are linked,” he says. “Death is a kind of rebirth and it’s an ever-present influence and inspiration, and when a child is born it’s almost like a child is getting ready to die right away . . . I probably had to lean a lot on that tradition when my mother died.”
His mother was very keen on him having a child, he says. “She was very intent on it happening. She was ill and she knew about the idea and told me flat out that I had no choice but to do it. I wanted to do it. It was meant to happen.”
He views the managed way in which he, the gay scion of a musical dynasty, had a child with the daughter of another melodic bloodline, as quite a traditional phenomenon. “I do believe it’s an old-fashioned concept,” he says. “We’re both families from Montreal, both families in the same business. It’s been great in that way. But at the end of the day – and this is the most important thing to remember – all children who are born are the ones who are deciding. [I believe] they choose their parents and they are leading the way.”
Did having a child change him? “I think the most incredible thing about having a child, and this is very good for an artist, is that there’s nothing you can do that will dominate this other being,” he says. “They will always have power over you emotionally.”
Is he a spiritual person? “You use anything you can get in this world to keep going. I don’t subscribe to one dogma. I’m a scrapbook spiritualist. How about that?”
His first foray into the opera world, Prima Donna, was inspired by interviews Maria Callas did in Paris in the 1970s. “I just instantly knew that that was the opera that had to be written: a day in the life of a diva. That was something that doesn’t really exist in the opera world: an opera about opera.”
An adaptation of his opera, Prima Donna: A Symphonic Visual Concert, featuring a film by Francesco Vezzoli, has been touring, and a second opera, Hadrian, is to premiere in 2018.
Is it very different from operating in the pop world? “You need good music and an intriguing melody, but other than that it’s totally the opposite,” he says. “There’s no room for error. It’s extremely hierarchical, gruelling in an academic way, and a lot of the time it’s pretty annoying and also thrilling. I get excited to go back to the pop world, when I’ve done opera, because [with pop] you can make mistakes and it’s about freedom, but I don’t know if the heights you reach are quite as stratospheric as with opera.”
How does singing fit into the wider fabric of his life? “Singing for me is a separate animal. It’s another being that inhabits a part of my body, and I enjoy it, I love it and I’m very blessed to be able to do it, but it has its own appetite and its own health issues. It’s kind of like having a constant room-mate. Sometimes we get along and it’s fantastic, and other times it won’t shut up.”
He still plays music with his family. They’re performing more family concerts around Christmas time. It’s an important way of remembering his mother, he says. “Even last night I had dreams about my mother. She’s constantly arriving and commenting on our world, and [singing with the family] is a lovely way to appease that. She was, both in life and now in death, always present. So nothing’s really changed.”
Music accompanies every aspect of his life. When Kate was dying, the family gathered around her bed and sang for her. “It was a very 19th-century vision,” he says. “[There were] many people around her bed, and there were candles and singing. It was like a painting in a lot of ways. I didn’t enjoy it, obviously, but I hope she did.”
- Rufus Wainwright plays as part of Sligo Live at the Knocknarea Arena in Sligo IT on October 23rd, and earlier that afternoon he takes part in a live interview at the Model