Rufus Wainwright is a bit different from most of his pop star peers. While their ambitions seem to be more and greater fame, multimillion sales, lots of bling, commercial endorsements and maybe their own line of clothing, he has more serious goals. Rufus Wainwright wants to write an opera someday. Not a rock opera, mind you, but an opera.
"I'm pretty much putting myself out there by announcing it," he says. "And therefore I must be taken for my word that I'll do it." That means he'll follow through, right? "I'm setting myself up here for disaster probably, but I should at least take a crack at it."
Given the music on Want One, Wainwright's third album, it's not all that far-fetched for him to consider joining the likes of Mozart, Rossini and Bizet. His admiration for classic pop songsmiths such as Cole Porter and George Gershwin is evident in his tuneful, sophisticated melodies and witty, urbane lyrics, sung in the supple and boyish tenor of a true singer, rich with feeling and expressiveness. And his songs naturally lend themselves to the orchestrations of strings, horns and woodwinds, which enhance the passionate and picturesque emotional sketches he creates. The end result is one of the most impressively artful and charming albums of 2003, a minor masterpiece with music so beautifully dressed and adorned that one almost envisions a stage set and cast to go with it.
Not that Wainwright is ready to tackle such typical operatic themes as pacts with the devil, romantic deceptions or great wars. "I have some ideas," he confesses. He wants to start small, with a one-act. "I'm not ready to do my fall of the city of Troy or Greece or Rome. Or my Ring Cycle. It's more a one-earring cycle. Or a thin band of gold."
Wainwright's own life is rich with subject matter. He's the son of musicians: folk-pop humorist and commentator (and sometime actor) Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle of Canada's cherished bohemian folk act Kate & Anna McGarrigle. As a nursing infant he was immortalized by his father in the song "Rufus Is a Tit Man." Ironically, he turned out to be quite openly gay.
After his parents divorced, Wainwright was raised in the quasi-European environs of Montreal, teethed on Broadway musicals and piano lessons. When he was a teen, he toured with his mother, aunt and sister as the McGarrigle Sisters and Family. By age 14 he'd been nominated for a Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy) for Most Promising Young Artist. After studying music at McGill University for a bit, he began playing his songs on the Quebec coffeehouse circuit.
Wainwright's father passed a tape of his songs to famed Los Angeles arranger and composer Van Dyke Parks, who helped him win a contract with the newly formed Dreamworks Records. The young Wainwright calls it "a fairy tale -- a real Cinderella story." In a very short time, he went from "singing in coffeehouses for a few people -- [though] if it kept on going like that I think it would have worked out -- to living in the Chateau Marmont" and recording at L.A.'s best studio with the finest musicians on the Left Coast.
His 1998 self-titled debut album won him Best New Artist honors from Rolling Stone magazine. His follow-up, 2001's Poses, continued earning him high praise (and even added another ironic twist to his father's material when Rufus did a version of Loudon's "One Man Guy"). But both albums had been labored affairs -- each took the better part of two years, and the latter involved five different producers.
In the time that followed, Wainwright began abusing alcohol and drugs -- specifically crystal meth -- and spent a super-promiscuous year in what he has called "gay hell." Wainwright says the drug and sex bacchanal had little to do with show business. "It was a real moment where I had to forget about the stage and forget about songwriting in general and focus on my own person," he explains. "And realize that I am just a person and that I have needs and I'm not just a machine that writes songs."
After a stint in rehab, Wainwright jumped right back into making music, but the process had changed, and it made the recording of Want One an almost cathartic experience. "I hate to say it, but it was kind of a miracle," he explains. "I got this idea in the midst of my using, where if I just forget about music for a while and forget about the record, it will be a better album and kind of make itself. And I went away and did that and all of a sudden I made two albums in six months -- by far the briefest time I spent in the studio." (Want Two, another disc of the more adventurous and challenging material, will soon follow Want One.)
The very songs themselves turned out to be revelatory. It seems he wasn't writing the songs he thought he was writing. "It's interesting looking at some of those songs in hindsight, like 'I Don't Know What It Is' or 'Movies of Myself.' At the time I was writing about other subjects, like either some guy, or 'I Don't Know What It Is' was about being at a Strokes party and not really knowing what all the fuss was about. And then in hindsight, when I rerecorded the songs, I realized they were about something different. Kind of about wanting to save my life."
And along the way, Wainwright has gained some interesting insights on what he's been through. In reflecting on how he's learned to duck his muse, he relates a tale about famed soprano Beverly Sills, who after years of study was told by her teacher just before her public debut to forget everything that she had learned. "It's weird, because with drugs and alcohol you can do that for a while, but it's dangerous." To underscore the point, he reflects on "all the carnage in my age bracket of male singers and songwriters -- Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith, people I really admired."
Wainwright also says he's "very happy that I had these traumatic moments of toil on my first two albums, because I think you learn a lot from hard work." But the lesson he seems happiest to have learned is the one about letting go and letting his art come out.
Wainwright not only reasserted his talent with Want One but scored a singing role in The Aviator, the upcoming Martin Scorsese film about Howard Hughes (in which his sister Martha and father also appear). "Life is good these days," he says, and then lets out a gentle laugh, as if he doesn't yet totally trust the good feeling. He follows with a sobriety mantra: "Every day is its own day."
Yet beneath the personal peace a competitive fire still burns. After all, operatic ambitions notwithstanding, Rufus Wainwright remains a pop star. "I still want a radio hit and want to make millions of dollars and totally obliterate the competition. I haven't really lost that side," he confesses. "But I think I can do that quite softly."
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