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Rufus Wainwright on Music, Gay History, and Informing the Next Generation

Rufus Wainwright

Photography by Benedict Evans. Styling by Michael Cook. Jacket by Givenchy.

The year that Rufus Wainwright’s self-titled debut album was released — 1998 — I was taking a Shakespeare class. On the first day, the professor began by asking, “Why do we record history?” Unsurprisingly, everyone said, “So we don’t repeat our mistakes.” Stiff of spine, he replied, “No, it’s because humans are stupid. We repeat our mistakes all the time. The function of history is to show us where we are.”

Now I’m at Maialino, an Italian restaurant in New York City, with Wainwright, talking about Shakespeare and history and the existential trap surrounding Madonna dressing as a clown. At 42, Wainwright is still slim and boyish; his only concession to age is that he’s let his trademark sideburns go gray. He’s a married father but still looks like that foppish, scarf-wearing poet boy of his early years — if you remember. A lot of people apparently don’t.

It is a few weeks after the brouhaha provoked by Sam Smith’s claiming he might be the first openly gay person to win an Oscar. Although he later apologized for his gaffe, Smith illuminated a dismaying tendency in our culture to ignore or dismiss earlier generations of pioneers. Some years ago, Wainwright went to battle over a similar erasure in which a profile of Adam Lambert heaped praise on the musician for being the first openly gay pop star. “A lot of friends of mine wrote me and said, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t think this is true,’ ” says Wainwright.        “ ‘You were mainstream.’ I was in Rolling Stone and on MTV, the whole thing. I was never ‘in’ from the get-go.”

Wainwright’s reps got in touch with the writer, but a correction was never published. “I sent an issue of Out from 1998 with me on the cover, and they never really responded,” says Wainwright. “Then, with this Sam Smith thing, I feel like it’s time for me to raise the red flag and say, ‘Hold on a minute.’ I’m not looking for a kind of title, necessarily, but I do think I have to be part of the narrative.”

In the era governed by Spotify and YouTube — in which 12-year-olds parse Pet Sounds as readily as their grandparents and broadcast themselves plunking out the bass lines of obscure Chic singles — there’s no formula for what will fall through the cracks of music history and why. Luckily, there’s also no chasm big enough to hold Wainwright, and with two big new projects, he’s no footnote.

But first, some history. The scion of a musical family — son of the folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle — Wainwright was signed to DreamWorks Records at age 25, as their first artist. “My gut reaction was, ‘I have to tell them I’m gay,’ ” recalls Wainwright. “So we had this power lunch, and the first thing I said was, ‘Before we start this deal, I want you to know I’m gay, and it’s not even on the table in terms of that shifting or how we present that.’ And they were like, ‘OK, got it.’ ”

That was no small commercial risk at the time. But for Wainwright, who came out and started having sex at age 13, when the popular perception was that gay equals AIDS, it wasn’t optional. “I think my main reason had a little bit to do with Rock Hudson,” he says, “where I just imagined this horrific kind of situation where if I did get AIDS, and I was dying, I would have to pretend I wasn’t — the weight of both having to deal with that disease and having to pretend to be someone I’m not. I just wouldn’t have been able to handle that.”

Wainwright’s debut album was released to hosannas from the press. With his achingly romantic lyrics, gorgeous piano lines, and penchant for Oscar Wilde, Wainwright was a descendant of the crypto-gay alternative pop stars of the recent past like Morrissey, but he was never crypto. Although his album didn’t burn up the charts, he attracted a devoted cult following, enough to sell out venues from the beginning; to many, he was a role model and a relief. Other acclaimed chamber pop albums followed: Poses in 2001, and Want One and Want Two over the next three years. 

Then, a bit of post-camp. With 2005’s Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, he recreated Judy Garland’s watershed live marathon run at the American songbook, a jewel in the gay cultural canon, a record that’s considered a classic of live performance, and an almost mythical symbol of resilience. In 1961, it spent 73 weeks on the Billboard charts, 13 at number 1. Wainwright performed the album live with a 36-piece orchestra. “It was a reaction to 9/11,” he says. “The only thing that made me feel positive about living in the U.S. was that record. It was the one thing I could turn on and bliss out on the fact that America was great.” A decade later, with “Make America Great Again” on some unfortunate lips, he’ll be doing a repeat performance of the album for two nights this June at Carnegie Hall.

Two years after his original Judy show, Wainwright wrote an opera, Prima Donna, entirely in French. It was not a completely reverential effort. At the U.K. premiere, he showed up dressed like Verdi, in stovepipe hat and beard. “Prima Donna was a real countermove to the opera establishment,” says Wainwright. “It’s not at all afraid of what opera is for most people, which is a kind of lavish spectacle of silliness. Which is why I love it.”

His next project is another spectacle. Hadrian, set to premiere in 2018 at Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, is inspired by the story of the ancient Greek emperor and his twink boyfriend Antinous, whom Hadrian anoints a god. (Who hasn’t been there?) “The Roman Empire, men in skirts, four acts, ballet, and a chorus,” says Wainwright. “It’s a huge project.”

Why do it now? “I feel the call because the music industry has become so commercialized in terms of how it goes out to the public,” he says. “But when you see an opera, it completely erases the world. You’re cut off from everyday existence, and you have to focus on what’s happening on stage. I would bargain that’s something the youth are kind of yearning for” — he laughs — “though they don’t know it yet.”

Wainwright’s new album, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, sets the Bard’s poems to orchestration provided by Robert Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble. The project has roots in his childhood. “When my mother realized I was spending too much time in my room with the door closed, she said, ‘Rufus, Shakespeare wrote about what you’re doing,’ ” he says. “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame; Is lust in action; And action, lust perjured, whatever. She said it was about masturbating, so that kind of got my attention.”

During the album’s recording, Wainwright’s mother was dying while he was contemplating marriage and having a child. “All the big issues were meeting at my house,” he says. “I was immersed in the sonnets, and it was kismet. They dealt with all of the elements: life, death, birth, sex, hatred — the whole thing.”

Now, Wainwright has become a face of modern domesticity. In 2012, he married his longtime partner, Jörn Weisbordt. “Marriage is great,” he says. “It’s very fulfilling in the most subtle ways. It’s fantastic. It’s hard.” Five years ago, he had a child with a female friend. Mother and daughter live in L.A., but Wainwright sees them regularly. “It’s one of the great experiences that I’m smack in the middle of — having a young child,” he says. “We have to read her stories every night, and we’re getting into the most amazing Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen. That’s what I’m into.”

Being a somewhat compulsive sharer, Wainwright has been open about the period, circa 2002, in which he was addicted to crystal meth and spent time in rehab. But he doesn’t use the word “sober” to describe himself today. “It was really important at the time — and even now — that I let people know that I was a horrible drug addict and I went to rehab,” he says. “It was the best thing I ever did. Once I walked in those doors, though, the story’s done for me. I don’t really like to say I’m this or that. It’s about that initial move: ‘I’m going to try to just change my life and get my house in order.’ Whether it works or it doesn’t, that’s your conundrum.”

The function of history is to show us where we are.

“Backing up to the Sam Smith and Adam Lambert thing,” says Wainwright, “it concerns me that kids don’t know and fully appreciate gay history. Just a decade before, we had a sense of that, and I wonder why that is.”

Rufus Wainwright
Groomer: Melissa Dezarate for Exclusive Artists Management using Sisley Paris and Oribe Hair Care. Shirt by Prada. Pants by Hermés. shoes by Burberry Prorsum

His preoccupation is understandable: Gay history is why Wainwright is where he is. “I came out when I was really young, and AIDS was everywhere,” he says. “I needed desperately to cling to stories of the past in order to deal with the future. Oscar Wilde, Jean Cocteau, Tchaikovsky. I was ravenous for that information and that magnitude of power to combat the issue at hand, which was the apocalypse. AIDS was a catalyst to search for the big answers and questions. It made you dig deeper because you really didn’t know how long you were going to be around.

“There’s a different kind of malaise today,” Wainwright adds. “Though it’s not as horrific as what we went through, it’s maybe trickier to deal with. It doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as making you a stronger person.”

And yet. This seems to be a time when, with the advent of PrEP and the debate over what it means for safe sexual behavior, we’re really talking about the value of memory and how it applies to everyday life. “For young gay people, there is something in just immersing yourself in great historical culture, which is mostly gay,” he says. “Because there will come a time in your later years when you’ll be faced with the big issues, and those are going to be the works that they relate to — not that Madonna is dressed as a clown.”

She could take notes on iconoclasm from Wainwright. “What’s funny about my general trajectory is that I had this naive sense that you have to be completely different from anybody,” he says. “Of course, the reality is, therefore nobody understands who you are. They don’t know where to put your record in the record shop. People are confused, sometimes even nasty about it. Initially, it’s the wrong move, if you’re going to sell a product, brand yourself and be relatable to a mass audience.”

He continues: “I think in the long run, though, people who understand and embrace that, and aren’t beholden to a set of fixed ideas, they become very loyal and they stick with you. My audience has stuck with me. I think for the long term, it’s the best strategy. Short term, it’s the worst.” 

Rufus Wainwright’s new album, Take All my Loves, is available now. See dates for Rufus Does Judy here.

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