5 min

Pan America

'A principality in my mind'

DUELING IDENTITIES. Singer Rufus Wainwright is a man-woman Montrealer in New York City confronting the extreme rightwing in the US and gay denial. Credit: Yelena Yemchuk

“Being on tour, it’s like having a dual personality,” says Rufus Wainwright. “You sort of turn into, you know, Wonder Woman.” Wainwright has been quite the superhero in the last few years. He has overcome his much publicized crystal meth addiction and Russian roulette sexual antics and still managed to be a prolific young artist – and make it to his 30th birthday.

Wainwright is back on tour to support his divine 2003 release Want One, playing two gigs in Toronto this weekend. His old record label Dreamworks is no more and his new label Interscope is holding off the release of Want Two (no release date has been set, yet). So Wainwright will be soaring in his invisible plane across North America and Europe to save the world and promote his overlooked masterpiece.

The album is a beautiful emotional experience. It’s reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s masterful and sombre work on the Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds. It can be heart wrenching. “A big part of the album was written before the fall,” says Wainwright, “when I was in remission, shall we say. There was a glimmer of hope and a regaining of innocence that occurred. If I had made the record three months earlier, which I almost did, then it would have been a very different record.”

Music critics hailed either Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” or Outkast’s “Hey Ya” as song of 2003. My pick would have been Wainwright’s haunting and compelling “Go Or Go Ahead.” “That song was definitely written in blood,” he says. “It was kind of the product of many debaucherous evenings. I was writing it in order to save my life. It was like a prayer more than a song,” he says with a laugh. “But essentially I think there are certain songs that you really have to go to the darkest place to get… and that’s one of them.”

“Dinner At Eight” is a song that examines the intense, complex relationship between Rufus and his father

Loudon Wainwright III. Does any of the tension have something to do with being the gay son? “I think any child can relate to that song,” says Rufus, “whether you’re a man, woman or a man-woman. My father always told me he knew I was gay from a very early age. He was freaked out about it, like any parent, where my mother was in constant denial up until I was 21.” Another laugh. “I definitely went through that experience and it definitely affected my songwriting.”

Loudon ran out on the family when Rufus was very young. “The most important thing about my father happened recently,” he says. “A lot of the troublesome, annoying, depressing, infuriating qualities I felt he had, [that] I bemoaned, I realized in the end, I kinda’ need them to survive. There was a reason why he was such a jerk sometimes. He was just trying to keep himself above water. That’s just the way life is.”

Rufus was born on Jul 22,1973 in Rhinebeck, New York. His father and mother, Kate McGarrigle, are both famed musicians. They divorced when he was a child and his mother raised him in Montreal. Born into a musical family, Wainwright began studying piano at the age of six. In his early teens he toured with his mother, aunt and sister, and was nominated for a Juno (as most promising young artist) and a Genie for his song “I’m-A-Runnin'” from the 1988 kid’s film Tommy Tricker And The Stamp Traveller. He attended Millbrook School in upstate New York and studied piano at McGill University in Montreal. He then got a record deal with Dreamworks and released his acclaimed self-titled debut in 1998 and his second album Poses in 2001.

The 1998 album The McGarrigle Hour featured family and friends singing and playing; it really gives you a sense of the family’s musical history and tradition. It must get annoying. Does he ever want to be the only singer/songwriter in the family? “All the time! It’s always a dramatic play whenever my sister Martha or my mother or father or I are interacting artistically. It’s very exasperating, very dramatic, but at the same time so fulfilling and passionate. So it’s really difficult but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m resigned to the fact that I love my material and I love the work I do on my own. I’ll continue to always be Rufus Wainwright against the world. There are things that happen when my sister, mother or my family start to sing together, it’s really otherworldly. I’ll always have tremendous respect for that phenomenon.”

Besides his family, Wainwright is inspired by many artists. “Leonard Cohen, my friend Beth Orton, Nina Simone. Elton John has been really helpful to me and really inspiring.” Elton, Melissa Etheridge and kd lang are all brave artists that dared to come out and still have great successful careers. Because of them, Wainwright, could be an openly gay artist right from the get-go. But he is troubled by the state of gay culture. “Well, it’s a real issue for me right now because I chose to step into the ring, as they say, with my admission to crystal meth use and heavy drug use, which I definitely feel is a problem that’s in denial in gay culture. Crystal meth is ravaging a lot of men’s lives. The gay press aren’t talking about it [nor] rising HIV rates and the onslaught of depression. [Instead] there’s this idea of wanting to be presentable to Oprah or something.

“There’s a reason why [gay men] are doing it, because the extreme rightwing in the United States is so ready to pounce on gay culture and denounce us for being degenerates. [In the past] when gay culture was attacked we headed for the hills of high art to sort of protect ourselves. People like Oscar Wilde, Jean Cocteau…. We just aren’t doing that right now. The intellectual level has been lowered. It’s a generation of window-dressers once again. So I feel that’s one of my jobs.”

Wainwright calls New York City home. At this point in his life he feels that he’s an American. “Well, the top of my list is Montrealer. That doesn’t even denote being Canadian or a Quebecer. It’s kind of like a principality in my mind, sort of the core of me that I take with me.

“There’s such a battle going on in this country,” he says. “I feel very American in terms of trying to protect all that is great about America. It boils down to simple things like the Constitution or the idea of free speech or separation of church and state – all of which is very much under attack and very much up for questioning. One could argue that historically, a lot of America’s kind of libertarian views were a double standard. But now it’s gotten to such a point… we’re going to need another revolution or something.”

In addition to his own tour, Wainwright’s job over the next while includes opening for “swinger” Sting for his European tour. Wainwright will also be making a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s biopic on Howard Hughes. “I play a Bing Crosby-type character. I’m the floorshow. I’m singing a Gershwin song, ‘I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise.'”

Recently, Wainwright was invited to the opening of the new opera house in Washington, DC. A huge opera fan, he got to hang out with Placido Domingo and Renée Fleming. “They were both very nice,” he dishes. “Renée and I talked for a long time about opera. At one point I became this gushy fan and I’m talking, talking. Then she looked at me and said, ‘Okay, we bonded!’ It was funny.”

Things are looking good for Wainwright as he emerges triumphant and wiser from his few dark years. “Well I have a sensible Canadian mother,” he says, laughing, “who kept me on track.”


$23.50. 5:30pm doors;

Rufus goes on at 8pm.

Fri, Apr 16 &17.

Phoenix Concert Theatre.

410 Sherbourne St.

(416) 870-8000.