By Jeff Walsh
Rufus Wainwright walks into the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco the afternoon before his sold out show. He finishes up a cell phone call, sizes up the room, and immediately approaches me. “I don’t know you, so you must be here to interview me,” he says, and we immediately go find a place downstairs as his crew continues tuning his piano and setting up the stage.
We grab a dressing room which still has a sign on it marking it for “El Vez,” the lesbian Elvis who performed a Cinco De Mayo show the previous night. Wainwright has that just-out-of-bed look that looks half real and half perfected. He is a rock star, and he knows. Onstage that night, he will wear tight black pants with a red shirt and rock star shades. He immediately (and jokingly) assures the crowd that, if they are patient, they will eventually get to “see my beautiful eyes.” Wainwright is hitting the road creating buzz for Poses, his new album which is the follow-up to his amazing self-titled debut. The album has been drawing rave reviews, and charts an evolutionary, if not revolutionary, path from his first album.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Poses, as Wainwright (who always says a lot of off-the-cuff remarks in interviews) previously referred to his first album as a critically acclaimed album that not a lot of people bought. I figured he was going to crank up the pop this time around and try to alter his vision to be more commercial. He didn’t. Poses picks up where the first album left off, with a more laid back, mature approach evident throughout. The songs feel very lived in, and some like the first single “California,” and “Greek Song” have long been staples of his live shows. Wainwright doesn’t deny dogging his album sales, but attributes it to his previous management team, who were very focused on sales numbers, who he has since gotten rid of.
“I think a lot of those remarks were probably before I realized how much of an effect the first album did have,” he says. “It was also due partly to my previous management. Their goal was just to sell a lot of records, and they were very upset all the time as far as how it was selling, and I fell into that trap. But when I started this record, I wanted it to be a little more contemporary, and appeal to a wider audience than just music freaks. I’ll say a lot of things, but once you get down to the studio, whatever comes out is whatever comes out.”
What came out is stunning. From “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” which begins with a spare keyboard and vocal and builds into a fun, jaunty romp with strong, fun lyrics through to a breathtaking cover his dad’s (Loudon Wainwright III) “One Man Guy,” Poses seems very sure of itself and with good reason.
Wainwright doesn’t just sing about cigarettes, he quickly lights up during our interview. He says that (of course) he should quit, but he’s not concerned about it affecting his voice.
“I think honestly the human voice has a masochistic quality to it. The more you abuse it, sometimes… you can abuse it to the point where you can’t sing anymore, but it’s a strong muscle and, like any muscle, it needs to work out,” he says. “I’m very dubious of people who are constantly worried about their voice who won’t talk. I think you have to take care of your voice and rest, but I love listening to singers who you know have lived, and they’re not trying to do that Vegas schlock thing. And part of that was my voice used to be kind of annoying and so pretty, so I had to do something about that.”
In concert, Wainwright plays Poses in its entirety, sprinkling in obscure tracks he tells fans they can find on Napster and chestnuts from his debut. He even allows himself a “Led Zeppelin moment” during “Evil Angel,” opening up his red shirt all the way down to his belt, showing off his hair-sprinkled torso, alternatively working it and mocking himself at the same time. This is a new component of his show, building on his previous yin-yang stage presence of intensity during the songs and bubbly, catty remarks in-between. Wainwright is very aware of the dual nature of his live shows.
“It gets on people’s nerves,” he says, with an infectious laugh. “Some people like it and some people hate it. I do think there should be periods where I just shut up, but I shouldn’t lose that part.”
Wainwright is excited about being on the road again and having new material to showcase. He will get some of his largest audiences ever this summer as one of the headliners of Wotapalava, a sort-of gay Lollapalooza also featuring Soft Cell, Magnetic Fields, and Pet Shop Boys. (http://www.wotapalava.com/ for more information)
“I’ve certainly been under wraps long enough, so I certainly want to show my stuff again. I’m excited about it,” he says. “I’m also happy with Poses in that my first record was songs that I had written after 17 years and this one I really wrote recently.”
Wainwright even cops to there being groupies at his shows now, although most of them are female.
“They find it challenging and more senseless, I guess,” he says. “I’m kind of a Rufus groupie, too, though.”
Although Poses seemed to be delayed and rescheduled a few times, Wainwright says “it was just basically that we really wanted to get it right, in terms of having nothing spared and… I think with my type of music it has to be presented perfectly and it has to be solid. And that just took a long time.”
Thematically, Wainwright says Poses was inspired by the people he surrounded himself with as he was writing it.
“I had sort of fallen into this society of working artists, who were making their living doing it, and there were very rich ones and very poor ones,” he says, “and the essence of the record was from those observational goings-on, and the world of showbiz and fashion.”
“California” takes potshots at the culture of Los Angeles, with Wainwright opting to stay in bed watching Rhoda and Bea Arthur instead of dealing with the city’s attitude.
“That’s the type of song I only write like every five years,” he says. “It’s kind of the April Fools, California canon of outright pop attempt, so I had to put that on the record.”
As for covering his dad’s song, which gets amazing treatment on the album, Wainwright said it started after he started performing it live.
“We’d done it a few times onstage and it always brought the house down,” he says. “I think it was an opportunity for me to show off Martha (his sister) and Teddy (Thompson), who I like to sing with a lot and they’re in the band. In the show, we actually trade off verses. And I think it’s a classic song and should have been more well-known then it was.”
As for whether any songs off Poses will become well-known, Wainwright doesn’t seem too concerned. With “California” serving as the first single for North America, and “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” serving that role elsewhere, he seemed confident enough in the material even if radio doesn’t agree.
“Hopefully there’ll be a hit single, but I don’t think that going to be necessary to sell this record,” he says.
Wainwright also has some notoriety for his clubbing and performances like those at Queercorps, the monthly gay punk show at CBGB’s in New York City.
“Yes, I go out a lot and do my terrible things,” he laughs. “I do miss the days where celebrities would go out and have fun and weren’t afraid to be seen. Yeah, I get recognized. I walk in somewhere and the more heads that turn, the better. I’m right on the cusp of it being like ‘I hate that,’ but I’m an attention monster.”
In a similar vein, he says winning Rolling Stone’s Best New Artist in 1998 was flattering, but “I just want the cover. I should be on more covers.”
Wainwright is also featured on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, and will also show up doing backup vocals on the new Elton John album.
“It’s a great song about Matthew Shepard,” he says. “He just wanted me to sing backup on the chorus.”
Wainwright says that despite performing on the album, he still never met John. He recorded his vocals separately.
“I just talked to him on the phone. He’s a fan of mine apparently,” Wainwright says. “He used to have a crush on my dad, so I guess he’s zoning in.”
Wainwright laughs again, adding that “a lot of people have crushes on me, and I have crushes on a lot of people, too.”
Wainwright says he is already working on a few songs in his head, but might change directions for his next record.
“I have a lot of songs that I work on subconsciously in my head. When I finally sit down, they’re finished,” he says. “I want to make a Southern record next. I want to live in the South…”
You can probably stay with Daddy Elton in Atlanta, I offer…
“Umm, no,” Wainwright says, dismissing the notion with a ironic smile, “I want to live in Charleston.”