Rufus Wainwright’s childhood must have been wall-to-wall music. Both his parents and most of his aunts and uncles were folk singers. But thanks to an obsession with opera that gripped him in his teen years, not to mention a determination that brought him to the brink of self-destruction, Wainwright has developed a sound and style – and reached a level of global success – that separates him from the rest of his musical clan.
His father is Loudon Wainwright III, who has been singing his own sardonic songs since the 1960s and has a new album, Lifetime Achievement, due out in August. Rufus’ mother was Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. She sang and played banjo as part of a duo with her sister, Anna. Kate McGarrigle wrote songs, too, of a very different style, often infused with old tradition and quiet sadness. As Rufus wrote in one lyric, “I just want to be my dad, with a slight sprinkling of my mother.” It’s fair to say that he’s achieved that goal, although there’s also much more to him.
In 1976, when he was three, his parents divorced, and his mother took Rufus and his infant sister Martha, who would also grow up to be an accomplished singer-songwriter, to her native Montreal. Wainwright soon started singing with the family. He has been writing songs since his early teens. That’s also when he realized he was gay, and his openness about that identity in his songwriting has always inspired his fans. Besides writing unabashed songs like “Gay Messiah,” he painstakingly recreated Judy Garland’s 1961 live recording at London’s Palladium in his 2006 show Rufus Does Judy, which he is currently reviving for the third time.
But Wainwright’s own songs are his true legacy, combining an operatic sense of melody, a symphonist’s ear for orchestration, and a poet laureate’s gift for expressing the intricacies of the human existence in words. He got his first chance to share those gifts widely in 1998 when Van Dyke Parks helped him get signed with DreamWorks Records, which put out his debut, Rufus Wainwright. The songs were irrefutably original, from “Damned Ladies,” cataloguing the unfortunate (and preventable) deaths of opera heroines, to the autobiographical boarding-school memoir of “Millbrook,” to “Matinee Idol” comparing the late, beautiful River Phoenix to Hollywood’s golden age.
Among the album’s most touching moments is “Beauty Mark,” a loving note from Wainwright to his mom, acknowledging both their similarities and their differences and thanking her for her unconditional love.
With the debut landing on critics’ best-of lists and winning awards, not to mention the word-of-mouth buzz among new fans, Wainwright’s career was launched in a big way. Now living in New York, he created a spectacular follow-up in Poses (2001), which helped to cement his popularity.
The title song deals with the preposterous glamor of a young, gay, just-hatched star, featuring the notorious line, “Now I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue.” The song “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” is another piece of self-analysis laced with biting sarcasm. An unusual touch of the fantastical flavors “The Consort,” conjuring up medieval castles with a choir of trumpets, grippingly produced by French-Canadian Pierre Marchand.
Wainwright’s meteoric rise took a bad turn as his addiction to crystal meth worsened. Not long after Poses, he found himself going blind. He reached out to a veteran celebrity with his own experiences with substance abuse who happened to be a huge admirer of the young Wainwright: Elton John convinced him to go to rehab.
He emerged clean, ready to work, and at a whole new level of poetic access to his emotions. What followed was a set of two CDs, released in 2003 and 2004, called Want. Wainwright seems to offer the listener his very soul. “Go or Go Ahead,” from Want One, is a terrifying, beautiful exploration of the process of addiction and recovery.
Want Two has its own treasures, including the aforementioned “Gay Messiah” and an insightful take on the life of an unfulfilled woman, called “The Art Teacher.” The latter is also an example of the pianistic challenges that Wainwright often sets for himself – he keeps an endless current of eighth notes going in both hands as he sings. “Memphis Skyline” is another standout from this album, a tribute to songwriter Jeff Buckley, who had recently died. One verse mentions Buckley’s recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song that Wainwright would soon make his own stirring version of for, of all things, the soundtrack to the animated movie Shrek!
The predominance of the Catholic faith in his native Montreal often seeps into Wainwright’s songs. One example is the opening track of Want Two, “Agnus Dei,” which uses the Latin words from the Mass while evoking Jewish or other Middle Eastern music. In fact, in 2020, after a massive explosion occurred in Beirut, Wainwright performed this song (remotely) in a charity fundraiser with the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila (I wrote about them for Copper in Issue 43 ). Here is the album version:
It took a few years to write and complete the next album, Release the Stars (2007), in part because Wainwright was preoccupied with a new relationship with the man who is now his husband. Many of the album’s songs reflect that love, often with a sense of puzzlement and doubt that a successful pairing could actually happen to him.
Release the Stars also shows a new political side to Wainwright. “Going to a Town” expresses anger, exhaustion, and disappointment at the direction he felt the US was heading under George W. Bush. “I’m so tired of you, America” is an often-repeated line. The richly-layered arrangements and lush production by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys intensify the effect.
When Wainwright’s mother died in 2010, he responded with the album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. His pain seems so raw that he can’t express it with his usual effectiveness. But by Out of the Game in 2012, he has crafted his grief into more controlled and understandable art. Although he intended this album to be scaled back, as a contrast to Release the Stars, he ended up hiring Mark Ronson to produce a sound at least as dense and impassioned.
The first few verses of “Montauk” imagine Wainwright’s daughter, a toddler at the time, coming back as a grownup to visit her aging dads. But the last verse is a reminder that the past watches over their home on Long Island: the spirit of Kate McGarrigle.
Wainwright’s most recent album is Unfollow the Rules, released in 2020 just after COVID hit. Unable to tour, he streamed a performance video of the entire album with his band (masked and at safe distances during those pre-vaccine months), shot in the ballroom of an old mansion in Laurel Canyon.
Once again, this is a tour-de-force of production, this time courtesy of Crowded House’s Mitchell Froom. Consider “Early Morning Madness,” which swoops from sonic desert to sonic cathedral and back again. And once again, Wainwright manages to capture common human experiences in a way that invites us to recognize ourselves in his words.
Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Oliver Mark.