INTERVIEW- Rueful Rufus: Wainwright savors life's battles

In May, Rufus Wainwright released his fifth studio album, Release the Stars, which debuted at #23 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, his highest position to date.

After folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle brought their son Rufus into the world in 1973, it didn't take long to determine their first child would take up the family business.

"It was painfully obvious to everyone from the age of about two," Rufus recalls. "I was banging on the piano, banging on pots, putting on top hats. I think everyone knew right away."

What wasn't evident from that early banging was the rare brand of pop music Wainwright would later coax from the keys. Integrating such diverse influences as Franz Schubert, Edith Piaf, and Leonard Cohen, the 34-year-old singer and songwriter has made a name for himself composing a brand of rock that's as much Verdi as Velvet Underground. 

Now nearly a decade removed from his debut album, Wainwright is not only blazing trails with his music, but also is one of the first male musicians to rise to fame while living an openly gay life. Indeed, he makes no secret of his sexuality, occasionally mining the topic for lyric fodder, as in songs like "Gay Messiah" and "Between My Legs." 

However, Wainwright's lush arrangements and catchy melodies have made fans out of people on both sides of the sexual thoroughfare who are sure to turn out for his August 15 concert at the Charlottesville Pavilion. He recently spoke with the Hook from backstage at a tour stop in San Francisco.

The Hook: You're one of the only musicians who's also the offspring of a famous musician– in your case two– who's managed to carve out a career with music judged on its own terms. Why do you think it's so difficult for sons and daughters in your situation to do that, and to what do you attribute your success?

Rufus Wainwright: Well, there's no real comparisons between my situation and people like Julian and Sean Lennon because their father was mammoth in terms of fame. My mother and father were well respected and beloved in very certain ways, but were not at all megastars. So not having that element overshadow my career is helpful. The other thing that makes it unique is its seems like everyone in my family– my mother or father or [sister] Martha– all carve out our individual sounds. We don't imitate each other too much. I don't know how that happened. Thanks to God, I guess.

The Hook: I know you're good friends with Teddy Thompson [son of English folk rockers Richard and Linda Thompson]. Do you find you relate to sons and daughters of musicians differently than to musicians without famous parents?

Rufus Wainwright: It definitely seems to transpire that way. I know all of them except for Jakob Dylan, and I'd like to meet him. With our parents' generation of musicians, there was an explosion of money, power, and success, and what we have in common is that we all came out of that shell-shocked in a way that we can all relate to.

The Hook: With Martha following you into the music business, is there a friendly sibling rivalry?

Rufus Wainwright: We're very friendly, but, yes, there's a rivalry in the way that all musicians have a rivalry with each other. In order to be a live musician, you have to have an animalistic quality of guarding your territory and maintaining your flock.

The Hook: You emphasize being a "live" musician. Do you feel more at home onstage than you do in the studio?

Rufus Wainwright: In my era, it's an economic issue. I adore both recording and performing live, but because millions of records aren't being sold anymore, the live component is very important now. The music business has reverted to a vaudevillian era, where you're only as good as your last show. But I'm great with that. 

The Hook: So do you feel pressure to give people something new every night?

Rufus Wainwright: I do feel that pressure. It demands growth, and agility, and audacity, so I don't shy away from that. One thing I'm doing after this tour, which will be in about a year, is writing an opera. That's a whole other bag of beans because it will give me a chance to stop performing and focus on the writing.

The Hook: How'd you decide to write an opera?

Rufus Wainwright: I've been wanting to write an opera ever since I was 14, when I first heard Verdi's. After that I became an opera fanatic. All I could listen to was opera. I have more of an appreciation for pop because that's the world I live in, but my main passion is opera. So I just decided to write it, finally. It's called Prima Donna, and it's about a day in the life of an opera singer.

The Hook: Opera is just one of the pre-rock genres that has influenced your music. How do you integrate these unfamiliar styles and make them palatable to a pop audience?

Rufus Wainwright: A lot of that– show tunes, cabaret, opera– was all very much the pop music of its time, and I look at it almost as a weapon, because I know that it works. I would say a lot of people who write pop music uses operatic formulae without even knowing it. I'm just doing it directly. It's like I'm pulling open the curtain and revealing that the Wizard of Oz is actually this fat little opera guy.

The Hook: Since you're one of the first musicians who has won a fan base this big while being openly gay for his entire career, do you worry about how what you do is setting a precedent?

Rufus Wainwright: My main worry is to not change too much. I find that there are a lot of aspects to being gay that we've either fought for or have just been given by pure divinity that I don't want to lose. 

The Hook: Like what?

Rufus Wainwright: Like being pensive, having intellectual prowess, artistic intensity, roving sexual appetite– I don't want to lose any of that. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. The little gay baby. 

The Hook: How do you think you're in danger of losing those traits?

Rufus Wainwright: I find that, especially in America, because being gay is relatively tolerated, now we're totally part of society and now you have to act like everyone else and move to the suburbs, and have kids, and be responsible. My argument is that all this acceptance could all change on a dime, so you always have to be a little smarter. You can't expect the world to be handed to you, and it's tremendous folly to think that now that we have totally blonde hair and act like everyone else, we will always be given the same rights and privileges and everything will be rainbows and sunshine. Life will always be a battle. But maybe that's just me. I love life as a battle. 

Rufus Wainwright takes the stage at the Charlottesville Pavilion on Wednesday, August 15, along with opening acts A Fine Frenzy and Neko Case. Doors 6pm, show 7pm, $27.50-$45.50.