Raising The Rufus
From Judy Garland To Sonic Youth, Rufus Wainwright's Life Has Been One Wild, Wandering Cabaret.
By Dave Irwin
JULY 27, 1998: ACCORDING TO RUFUS Wainwright, "A show is not only getting up there to sing songs; it's relating part of your life to people." For the young son of musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, that life has already included doomed love affairs, a rich-kid boarding school, beautiful addicts and a fin de siècle sense of decadence worthy of Oscar Wilde.
"I live a varied life," Wainwright admits. "I definitely always went for the jugular as far as life is concerned, and got a lot of song material out of it." Upon finishing a tour with Sean Lennon, he'll join Lisa Loeb for several weeks, including a July 28 concert at Tucson's Club Congress. (Of Lennon, he laughs, "He's treated me very well...He's not afraid of me.")
Wainwright's musical pedigree is impeccable. Although Loudon Wainwright III had only one hit, "Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road)," he's remained a quirky, perennial character on the New York folk music scene. Rufus inherited his dad's raspy, playful voice, as well as his ability to live large for the audience. "One thing that I aspire to is having as big a stage persona as he does," Wainwright says of his father. "I appreciate how he takes into account that there's an audience in the room."
His mother, Kate, who raised Rufus in Canada, was half of the McGarrigle Sisters, along with sibling Anna. Critically if not commercially acclaimed for their Breton-influenced songwriting and tight harmonies, the closest the McGarrigle Sisters got to the big brass ring was their song "Heartbeats Accelerating," which Linda Ronstadt covered.
"She gave me a lot of guidance to create my chops," Wainwright says of his mom. "She knew that I could sing when I was pretty young and she started to train me. She wasn't just my mother, she was also my coach."
As children, Rufus and his sister Martha toured with their mother and aunt as the McGarrigle Family. "Most of my training was learning how to sing harmony and learning a lot of Stephen Foster tunes and folks songs," he says.
Out of that genesis, the young Wainwright has emerged as a unique musician--a blend of classical, cabaret and pop, with influences ranging from Richard Wagner to Brian Wilson. "I feel as though I've come out of the woodwork in a way," he admits. "Even though my parents are well-known, it wasn't really expected. It's a curve ball. My main influences are opera and a lot of old jazz and Kurt Weill. I've always been a real classical junkie for that kind of music. I'm a big Cole Porter fan."
His self-titled debut CD mixes tales of tragic relationships with intricate, off-beat melodies. Produced by Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Jellyfish) with arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, it's done in a cheerful, salon-for-slackers style with bright Beatlesque overtones. "As far as subject matter, I always like to have that slightly hopeful ideal," Wainwright explains.
"The subject might be sad and terrible, but there's always that tinge, that little silver lining. I don't want it to be a total downer. I want it to be hopeful in some way, that juxtaposition of happy and sad." As far as creating his unusual style, he says, "Melody comes easiest and then I really love to create an intricate piano part. Words are the toughie ones. I have to sort of meditate for hours, bang my head against the wall...."
Wainwright's love songs have a universal quality that could apply to any hopeless romantic, regardless of gender or sexual preference. Although his songs are not openly gay, he is.
"I pretty much always knew," he says. "I came out to myself when I was 14. I came out to my family when I was 18. But I was always traipsing around. I wanted to be Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and I was always singing Judy Garland songs, so it was kind of obvious," he says, chuckling at his own stereotype. Having watched his parents color their lives with music, Wainwright is ambitious: "I'd love to do a jazz combo--brushes and stand-up bass," he says.
"Someday I'm going to have to tour with an orchestra, which will be exciting. I'd love to write a song for Annie Lennox. She's always been one of my favorite singers. I'd love to work with Sonic Youth--a lot of cute boys listen to their music....
"(But) my main objective is to someday write an opera," he declares. "Take a year off and rent a castle somewhere and dress up like some Chinese emperor with silks, satins, and be a total artiste. That would be fun. But I still want to have 20,000 pop hits, too. Yes, 20,000," he laughs.
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