By Jeff Walsh
On his debut, self-titled album, Rufus Wainwright's piano-laden songs of love and loss are brilliantly executed. When I first heard it, it didn't fit into any typical genre. It had a timeless quality to it, as any good music should. The words and music were on their own poetic and beautiful, and only improved when intertwined.
I had become aware of Wainwright in a backward fashion. I first read a few mini-interviews with him in the national gay press when his album was released. So, I did know his sexuality going into my first listen of the album. But, I didn't listen for the "gay parts", as I am sometimes wont to do. Yes, he talks about boys when pronouns are specified, but it is very much in the background, with the phrasings and melodies being far more interesting to me. I honestly still can't tell you where he mentions boys, as I've never bothered to dissect the songs. In concert, he recently mentioned one of the songs was about River Phoenix, but without him mentioning it I'm not sure I would ever have gleaned the inspiration.
I can't even tell you what his CD itself looks like, because as soon as I received it in the mail I immediately put it in the stereo, and it has never found its way back out, over a month later.
Wainwright, 25, is the son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, who were also musicians, although I imagine not well known to Oasis' demographic. This month, he will be opening for Lisa Loeb before going to Japan and Europe.
In a phone interview with Oasis prior to his San Francisco show where he shared the bill with Sean Lennon, Wainwright was nothing like I expected. He was laughing the whole time, said "whatever" more times than a typical Ricki Lake audience and was very upbeat through what was one in a series of press interviews that afternoon.
Onstage, he juggles both personae, usually keeping his eyes closed as he concentrates on singing and playing either piano or guitar. Between songs, his eyes light up, and a beautiful white smile opens across his face. Onstage and in interviews, he doesn't seem to have a filter. He said that is also the reason he is openly about his sexuality.
"That wasn't really my decision. It was nature's decision, really. I'm not totally effeminate, but I've never been able to lie about my sexuality," he said. "I just can't. My face turns red and I feel all sweaty and stuff. I couldn't imagine it. When I started out, I couldn't imagine not being honest with people. It's unfortunate, because sometimes there are things I would like to keep secret, but I'm a terrible liar. People can tell if you're being ungenuine."
He is aware that some people would prefer him to just avoid the question, both in the music industry and the audience. But he wants to be true to himself, whatever consequence that adds to the equation.
"I think even an audience... for me coming out right now, there will be people who don't like me because of it, and that's fine. And there will be people who don't care and they'll embrace me," he said. "People will feel much less insulted and that I've pulled the wool over their eyes than if everybody thought I was straight and I came out of the closet all of the sudden. You can do that as well. It's easy. The whole thing with Boy George was kind of amazing, because people didn't really think he was gay. Until you say it, people just think you're a star or something. And I didn't want to take that pitfall or go off that cliff.
"I'd much rather be on a lower level of fame than be a superstar and having it all taken away from you," he said.
Wainwright has been aware of his sexuality for over a decade now, when he came out to himself at age 14 and started going out to gay clubs in Montreal at the same time.
"Montreal's a pretty loose town, where I grew up. There's a gay scene there that's ghettoized and seedy, and I kind of like that, actually. I went into that scene when I was 14, although I didn't really come out. I'm sure if I would have come out, my mother would have locked me in my room at night," he said. "I came out at like 18. I think it's very important to come out to your parents at a proper time. If you don't tell them, they'll always be hopeful, but you've got to prepare them for it. You have to be smart enough to tell them, and convince them it's fine, because it's freaky for them as well."
His parents ultimately took the news well, Wainwright said.
"My father was fine with it. My mother was a bit tougher, she was a little upset. Now, they're fine. Well, I think they're all fine, but I personally believe that being gay... and I love being gay and wouldn't want to be any way, but there will always be an element of it not being fine in society," he said. "I want everyone to have equal rights and for everything to be perfect, but I'm more of the school that .. 'whatever, you're on your own kid and you have to stick together.' You're always gong to have problems, though. Especially with straight guys, they're the worst."
Wainwright is currently single, which he said would probably be the case for a while, considering he's in a different city every night. But, he said that when he does fall for a guy, he falls pretty hard.
"And usually when I leave, I leave pretty quickly as well. So, I wouldn't say so much I'm a romantic ... I'm more an emotional wreck, especially when it comes to love," he said. "Let's call it romantic, though. That sounds nicer."
Being a romantic made his choice obvious when he write his lyrics.
"All the songs are about boys, and there are some that mention it. But it's not at all political," he said. "I want straight people to be able to listen to it and have the same emotions, so it's not really about sexuality, it's about love."
Wainwright also said he wasn't concerned that his music couldn't be easily put in a box or labeled.
"Isn't that a good thing these days? I personally think it's really the only way to survive right now in the industry," he said. "I've known so many bands who are touted as next big thing because they sound like the last big thing, and it's kind of the kiss of death, as far as having a long-term career. That's my main objective."
His musical influences are also varied, ranging from opera and classic music to old jazz music like Duke Ellington.
"One of the things I love is beautiful piano playing and fun singing on top of it, and I love when those things collide. I wanted to create that synthesis when the background is just important as the foreground," he said. "So, I just worked my ass off. I don't want to sound, "My music is like this..." or whatever, but that's what I'm trying to do anyway."
And he's performing as a solo artist since he was 17. Before that, he would sometimes appear onstage with his mother. But he's very proud of his debut album, for which he wrote over 50 songs before whittling that number down to the ones that made the album.
"Anything I have accomplished and the record being good or any of that, I definitely deserve it, because I put a lot of work into it," he said.
Wainwright has also been included in a lot of press stories looking at the children of famous musicians. Sean Lennon is usually the main focus of such articles, and the kids of Pete Townsend and others have also been featured, but Wainwright said that he doesn't really fit in that category.
"For me, it's really comical because of all of the performers, I'm at the bottom of the fame totem pole. I'm pretending my father was huge," he said. "It's been amusing. I'm touring with Sean ... and there is a certain camaraderie that happens, and they're friends of mine, some of them."
Wainwright said being the son of a performer carries on a tradition that extends throughout history.
"There's a certain legacy which you inherit. In a weird way, the thing about the 'son of' thing is I'm not surprised at all. I don't think it should be looked upon like some weird phenomenon," he said. "That's the way it's always happened. Up until the 60s, when everybody could write their own songs, music was a family tradition and often times if your father was an organ player, you were an organ player. So, that's... why am I talking about this? What was the question?"
Touring with the famous son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono has had an interesting effect on the crowds that attend the shows, though, he said.
"A lot more people at these things are interested in the fact that Sean is John Lennon's son. And it's very weird, because they're into the morbid thing. They don't care about music, and it must be terrible for Sean to deal with," he said. "There are people who practically want him to sign the obituary. It makes you think maybe fame isn't all it's cracked up to be."
Lennon joined Wainwright onstage at Slim's in San Francisco, and did backup on "April Fools." Wainwright returned the favor during Lennon's set providing backup for Lennon's "Into The Sun." The performance was the last double bill they would share, which led Lennon to joke that Wainwright was leaving him for a woman (referring to Lisa Loeb).
As you might expect, Wainwright is also a show queen, although his dream role was a bit of a shock.
"I wanted to be Annie as a kid. My mother told me I could, too, which was kind of weird. She said, 'Oh yeah, there are boys who play Annie who dress up.'" he said. "I guess she thought there were, but that was as far as it went. I love standards like Irving Berlin, Gershwin and Cole Porter. I hate new musicals, though... like Rent. I hope Rent gets evicted. You love Rent, right?"
I admit to Wainwright that I do love Rent, although I also see where he's coming from as far as melodies. Given a choice between Lerner and Loewe and Jonathan Larson, I would have to pick "My Fair Lady." I point out that Rent does have a lot of emotional power, though, and just blew me away each time I've seen it staged.
"In all honesty, I haven't seen it. I have the record and I've seen the ads," he said. "Just the music makes my skin turn, but whatever."
So I ask Wainwright if he's up to the task, and he says he thinks he could write a "pretty decent musical." He also owns up to liking songs from A Chorus Line, Jesus Christ Superstar, and (the first act of) Into the Woods.
I mention Cabaret, which also draws negative comments from Wainwright.
"I think we need a good fascist government to have good cabaret. No liberals allowed," he said, indicating he at least knows the play, even if he dislikes it.
After the show, Wainwright walks out of the club, looking a little lost. He approaches me, as I'm standing next to his tour bus, which is still decked out with balloons from Wainwright's birthday the day before. He and a female friend need directions, and I send them on their way. I tell him I'll be sure to see him again when Loeb comes to town, and he gives my shoulder a squeeze and he walks into the cold San Francisco night wearing the same football T-shirt (Don't ask, I don't know why, either...) in which he performed and carrying his Rolling Rock beer bottle with him.
From the phone interview to seeing his show to talking with him live, he's the same person, even if different sides of him come out in each situation. He believes his focus on what he wants to do and how he wants to present himself is why the album has been well reviewed (except for one review, he says) and why people have responded so well to his debut album.
"I don't want to fashion myself as any crusader, but I think people appreciated that when the record came out, I knew what I was doing and knew what I wanted," he said. "I knew I was gay, there wasn't any word about that. I know what I want to convey and I just want to write a really good song and have an interesting background to it, and it's very simple and I think that's why people enjoyed it."