Rufus Wainwright is in Toronto tonight to play a gig at the Canadian Songwriter's Hall of Fame, where his mother Anna is getting a nod for "Heart Like a Wheel."
It took me a long time to warm to Wainwright completely--I thought his debut album, though lovely, was much too overproduced; the second album was slight. I was also thwarted in my attempt to see him live on three occasions when the debut came out in 1998, and it wasn't until I finally saw him play a solo show on a snowy night in Mile End at the Theatre Outremont, right before Christmas 2003, that I fell completely in love with his voice, his songs and his dedication to performance.
His fifth album, Release the Stars, features some of his finest songs to date, though the low moments (including the song "Tulsa," rumoured to be about a one-night stand with a certain alt-rock radio star) are more than distracting, and likely kept the album out of many people's minds when the best-of-07 lists were being compiled.
This interview was conducted last spring, just before Release the Stars came out. He was also putting finishing touches on the DVD/CD documenting his re-creation of Judy Garland's Carnegie Hall concert, although our all-too-brief conversation (with a publicist ready to cut us off precisely at the ten-minute mark) left no time for that.
This Q&A was printed in its entirety in Magnet magazine last summer.
April 11, 2007
The last time I saw you play live, was at Theatre St. Denis in Montreal. The most memorable part of the evening was when you came out on a cross as the crucified Gay Messiah. Which, as campy as it was, was still daring in an election year when gay issues rallied the conservative votes in the States. Yet I didn’t read much about that element of your performance in the press. Were you mildly disappointed that it wasn’t more provocative?
Actually, I was completely vindicated. Initially there wasn’t a huge splash, but then of course Madonna appropriated my idea and had it in her set. Though I was crucified in a Halston gown, and she chose something from H&M—whatever that means. I was more mad about that, because nobody had pointed that out. But then in Vanity Fair not long after her tour, in the Then & Now section—even though they got the order wrong, because I did it first—they had her in the Then section and me in the Now. So in the annals of publicity and showbiz points, I won that one—in Vanity Fair, anyways. That’s all that matters to me.
Still, compared to Piss Christ or the Virgin Mary in elephant dung, this went completely unnoticed.
There was talk sometimes of people walking out and getting upset. But I didn’t do it that much in America. I did it mostly in Europe and in Canada.
It actually turned out that most of my big shows were in Europe and in Canada. I think I did it once in New York. I didn’t do it in Atlanta or anything; I just stayed away from the whole thing.
Sexual conservatism is obviously still huge in the U.S., but I thought a movie like Shortbus would also cause more of a fuss. And instead, I was reading mainstream magazine articles about guides to swinger clubs.
I would also say that Shortbus is not totally in the mainstream. I don’t think that movie made it past the Mississippi or over the Sierras. America right now is basically involved in licking its various wounds and not losing too much blood. Not to be too morbid. I think things have got so complicated and impacted that it’s everyone for himself.
The first single from this album features the chorus line, “I’m so tired of America.” What’s the early reaction to that been?
It’s been released to radio in England, because they do everything early over there, and it’s made it on to the playlists of the major stations there. So far in America, not one TV show has offered me a slot. Actually, Letterman said I could do something, but they suggested another song. I had this insane vision the other day where I was thinking about America in terms of Moby Dick, and how in that song I’m going out to hunt Moby Dick or something. But then in my horror, I realized that at the end of the book the entire ship goes down and everybody dies! You don’t want to upset the beast too much. But we’ll see.
You’re the second artist from Montreal this year to write a song about leaving America behind.
Who’s the other one?
There’s the Arcade Fire song “Windowsill,” with the line, “I don’t want to live in America no more.” It’s actually written by an American expatriate who’s married into Montreal.
I still live in America and I love America. This is the deal with that song: I never intended to write it. I was about to go to dinner and I had ten minutes to spare, and I sat down at the piano and the next thing you know it was there. It wasn’t this purposeful thing. Then I recorded it and it sounded great immediately. Even the record company thought it was an obvious single, because it grabs you right away melodically. We’re just kind of going with it. I do consider it as tapping into a wider subconscious feeling that really pervades the world right now. I’m just the messenger: don’t shoot me.
How much of your life have you spent in the States versus time spent in Canada?
I left Canada when I was 23, and I’m 33 now.
You went to a boarding school for a while in the States, though didn’t you?
Yeah. So I’ve been in the States a long time.
Have you ever felt particularly like a citizen of either, or have you always been between worlds?
I’ve been very much in between worlds. My mom’s family is very Canadian, and more specifically from Quebec and entrenched in that whole universe. My father’s from a very American family from way back. I take the best from both. Get all you can get while you can get it!
In the song “Between My Legs,” there’s part of one verse that suggests there’s a looming disaster, something apocalyptic in the background. But it’s merely the setting of the song, not the focus of the narrative.
That’s more of a fantasy… about reality! Where I take something that’s obviously going to happen, i.e. terrorist attack or environmental disaster, and turn it into a hook to seduce a young man and offer them safe haven. I’m hoping to try this out when the world ends, to have some sort of exit plan for a stripper I met once.
What kind of political writing, if any, do you enjoy yourself?
Songwriting? I’m of two minds on it. On the one hand I think it’s important to express the situation and so forth, but I had a talk recently with my boyfriend where he pointed out to me that we talk far too much about politics in North America. In Europe, it’s a fraction of the conversations that go on there. We’re so obsessed with debunking Bush in this country that we don’t spend time on any other subjects. That’s a little depressing, that it takes up so much mental space.
When Want One and Two came out, you spoke of those as being an apex of what you’d been trying to achieve since your first album. I’m curious then if this album is an extension of that or a new beginning.
Those albums were about me toiling in my inner sanctum and rebuilding myself and trying to face the world like man. It was very arduous and exorcist. Release the Stars, because I worked so hard on the other albums, was very effortless in terms of how big and fast it came. The only parallel I can draw is in terms of the Olympics, as an athlete who trains and trains for years and once they’re in the Stadium throwing their discus or jumping on their pole (laughs), I imagine they feel quite happy and it’s rather painless to be finally there. That’s how Release the Stars feels to me: painlessly jumping on a pole and releasing the discs.
You’ve worked with various trainers or producers before, and now you’re the boss, producing yourself. Although Neil Tennant [of the Pet Shop Boys] is listed as “executive producer”—doesn’t that just mean he paid for it?
No. It’s like an advisor. Like Karl Rove. You just ask them questions and they give you their opinions.
On the title track, you sing of Old Hollywood being over. And extending that to old media in general, I’m a bit amazed that you still have the support of a major label to make these lush, ornate albums that don’t sell millions of copies in a blockbuster world.
Even though I don’t sell millions of albums, I do have a high profile in the film work I’ve done and being able to fill a room. I’m surprised too, in a way, but on the other hand I work so hard on my albums and my stage show that I fucking deserve it (chuckles).