I had my 30th birthday on set (of The Aviator). I was so exhausted after filming that I fell asleep in my trailer. My mother had prepared this big cake for me and they were ready to present on this lavish set but I wasn’t there to accept it. So Leonardo DiCaprio took over and ate my cake. He had my cake and ate it.
THE Wainwrights are a musical bunch but you’d be hard pushed to draw any comparisons with the Partridge Family. And Rufus, the son, ain’t no David Cassidy. Even though he has the pretty face of a teen idol, his story includes gay rape and drug addiction. Musically he is usurping his witty songwriting father Loudon Wainwright III with widespread acclaim for his two albums Want One and Want Two, both rich with rousing operatic piano pop melodies.
And he’s attracting big name fans, like Elton John — who helped him into rehab after a couple of years on crystal meth. More of that later.
So how is “one of the only living songwriting geniuses” (so said the NME)?
“I know, don’t you feel blessed?” he drawls, not unlike Danny La Rue.
He’s in London and is quick to whine about the weather.
“It’s been pretty dismal with snow and rain.”
He brightens when I ask about his big love — opera. It wasn’t something that was played at home in Montreal where he grew up with his mum and sister Martha.
“It was all my own doing. I was about 13 and I went from having an aversion to it and thought it was ridiculous and for boring people, then one night I listened to Verdi’s Requiem and I had this sort of religious experience with the whole thing. The next day when I woke up I was like 100 years old.”
He discarded his Eurythmics, Moody Blues, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper and Prince records and hasn’t been the same since.
“I’m a real opera fanatic, that’s my problem,” he says when I ask for his favourite pop album. His favourite album is The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz.
“It encapsulates all my differing theories on life: age, youth, sex, damnation. It’s all in one piece. If I was forced to think of a pop album I would probably say... er... er... er... er... Christina Aguilera, no...” He doesn’t know. But he admits to a fondness for Abba.
“And I am a big John Lennon fan. I think he’s the ultimate combination of songwriting talent but with something to say. I know his son Sean quite well. I’ve had some insight into him which I found very touching.”
Pop round his gaff and you’ll find that the majority of his collection is opera.
“It’s an affliction. I think when you’re in the music business you kind of have to, I find, purify myself at the end of the day.”
Dirty pop music.
So why doesn’t he sing pure opera? Because he can’t, obviously. Few are blessed with the necessary windbags. So he’s doing “popera” or whatever it’s called, instead. Is he hoping to bring the pop people over in to his world?
“God, no. I don’t want anyone coming over,” he says, chuckling.
He then namedrops a few rock band names he’s getting into, like Arcade Fire and The Dears, although as they’re from Montreal, where he grew up, one assumes he’s only been listening to what’s in front of him.
“I also like Chicks On Speed.”
One of his favourite records features Judy Garland on speed. Or rather booze and pills.
“It’s called Judy Speaks. When she was bombed she would record herself. There are some great lines like ‘airplanes, I don’t wanna go that high not even the birds go that high’. They’re very rare and hard to find.”
Hang on, he likes Chicks on Speed? He doesn’t. Openly gay Rufus Wainwright doesn’t like chicks on or off speed. Elton John, Abba, Judy Garland... come on, the clues are all there. Coming from a showbiz family it wasn’t difficult outing himself to the folks and it was never an issue.
Loudon III you may know. He made a reasonable impact in the UK for his witty folk/pop songs, while his mum is Kate McGarrigle of the internationally renowned folk duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle. The family lived in Florida, where Rufus was born, until dad left for Europe with a performance artist when Rufus was just three. Mum then moved Rufus and sister Martha to Canada.
“He did maintain a steady contact with us. We’d see him in the holidays, he’d write us letters, he was no way an absent father.”
When he was in his teens Rufus would visit his dad in London. It was during one visit that he was raped in Hyde Park. He was just 14 and it was his first sexual experience — although he admits he’d approached the man in a bar.
Following the traumatic incident he feared he had AIDS.
“I was terrified, AIDS was at its zenith.”
Oddly, his parents weren’t much help getting him through it.
“My mother and father could not even handle me being gay so we never talked about it, really.”
They were able to help with his career, though. It was dad who handed his first album demo to musician and Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks, who then championed him to record label DreamWorks.
“Up to then I’d handed my CD out to some record company homosexualists who wanted to kind of wine and dine me and then God knows what. I think my father was a little scared so he passed it on to his friend Van Dyke to help me.”
It led to the deal which has so far produced three albums. So how did he thank him? By winding him up. On a shoot for Rolling Stone magazine he said his dad should thank him for getting him on the cover.
“I think I was hedging for a reaction, for sure.”
He adds: “We get on fine now.”
Wainwright’s success has had its negatives, particularly the addiction to crystal meth which sent him temporarily blind a couple of years ago. To help him kick the habit he called Elton John who booked him into a US clinic for a month, after which he was clean.
“I thought: gay, songwriter, drug addict. That kind of narrowed the field. I knew Elton, I’d sung with him before, so I called him up and he was incredible. He said, ‘Rufus I know exactly where you are: you have to get to a clinic.’”