Exclusive: Interview with Rufus Wainwright
Singing a "realist prayer" on Want Two
Singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright is not afraid to speak his mind. In a time of increasing conservative sentiments in American society, Wainwright' newest CD/DVD "Want Two" (out on November 16) tackles some controversial issues head on, including the much-debated struggle for gay rights.
But "Want Two" is by no means a political record. Wainwright's fourth album features the singer's signature melancholic storytelling and operatic melodies that portray the world according to Wainwright.
The record reflects his fascination with classical music ("Little Sister") and spirituality ("Agnus Dei"), his struggle to understand the world we live in ("Waiting For A Dream") and an emotional ode to the late musician Jeff Buckley ("Memphis Skyline").
He also invited friends and family to take part on the recording, which makes "Want One" one his most personal efforts to date. Emerging artist Antony makes a cameo on "Old Whore's Diet" and his mother and sister perform on "Hometown Waltz."
If you are not familiar with Rufus Wainwright, check out a special Geffen media player with songs and videos from his new album.
Arjan: Congratulations with the release of your new album. Your songwriting turns out to be particularly relevant with regards to the current state of the world.
Rufus: Yeah, it is a pretty apocalyptic time. And I have to say there are not many artists out there that are willing to speak about it. All these pop stars still think it is 1999.
You're also one of the few artists that is publicly standing up for gay rights, most notably on the protest song "Gay Messiah."
Yeah, I think that is very important. Actually that song started out as a joke. Just a song to have some fun with. But when Bush started to talk about a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and Mel Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ" came out, it took a heavy turn. Now, the song is more a reality call and damnation. It is a realist prayer you can say.
There is a lot of gays in the United States that are considering moving. The Canadian embassy has been flooded with visa requests.
Yeah, thank god I still have an apartment in Montreal. I'd be more than happy to sponsor a cute boy to help out [laughs]
Do you think gays here should stay and fight or is it really just better to leave?
That's a good question. If you think about it, I feel that it is part of a bigger issue. It all has to do with modern-day American imperialism. I think it is more valiant for people to stay and to try to change the government. What I'm trying to say is that it might not be possible to run away from the problem, because American influence is everywhere and these anti-gay sentiments might spread around the world.
I found it interesting that on the song "Agnus Dei" you combine Catholic liturgy with a Middle Eastern vibe. Why did you combine these two very different cultural elements?
That sort of happened. I didn't plan it like that. I just like to say that I don't belong to any church or religion, but I do feel I'm one of God's children. I'm a spiritual human being and I find some of the religious ideals and elements very meaningful. It is the mystical elements that I find very interesting. In fact, I try to take a page out of the book of the religious right.
How was it to include Middle Eastern elements?
I'm very inspired by Middle Eastern music. Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum is one of my all-time favorite singers and it was great to include that flavor. I guess if I have to explain it I can say that I like the naturalistic feel of Middle Eastern music with the [explicit] lyrics of Western music.
You are portrayed as the Lady of Shallot on the cover of "Want Two." Why did you choose that metaphor?
I look great don't I? [both laugh]. Initially, I wanted to be some sort of sleeping beauty. A friend of mine explained the entire Lady of the Shallot story and I found it very appropriate. There are some similarities with sleeping beauty actually. Both are awoken by a prince. But Lady of Shallot is raped by Prince Lancelot and then sings herself to death.
So it is the melancholy of the story that appealed to you?
Yes, it reflects the feel of the album well. For example the song "Memphis Skyline" is about Jeff Buckley who drowned himself. He was also like a Lady of The Shallot.
The song "Old Whore's Diet" is one of the most striking songs on the record.
Thanks, I wrote it as an ode to decadence.
The song features singer Antony [who was recently covered on arjanwrites.com] and you also sing lead vocals on the song "What Can I Do" on his upcoming album. How did that collaboration come about?
Antony is a very good friend of fine and quite frankly I think he is the greatest singer in history. He's a member of the New York underground art scene and totally dedicated to that. He knows all the artists and musicians that are part of that. I'm very happy to give him the attention he deserves.
Previously you've said that you are pissed off with the state of contemporary gay culture. Do you think there are enough gay role models out there that represent the many aspects of our culture?
Absolutely not. Gay culture has a very lax attitude about partying quite frankly. I know that is an essential part of gay life and I've lived that life. But there is more than parties, going to the gym and sex. Yeah, sure it is liberating and it is fun, but in the end it is damaging to people and the community as a whole. I think there is simply not enough alternatives to enjoy gay culture and that's a shame because there is so much gay art to enjoy.
Well, you offer an alternative.
It is interesting you mention that. I think so too, but it has been an uphill battle. Magazines like Rolling Stone covered me before gay magazines did. It is changing now because I'm becoming more famous, but it has been hard to find recognition for my music in the gay community.
What is in your CD player right now?
You like to listen to your own music after it is done? Some artist prefer not to.
Oh but I do. I'm actually listening to it now, because I want to come up with some ideas for a video. I'd love to do a video for this album. I want to make it like a spaghetti western. I think I look really good right now.
The hair is flawless.
[both laugh] We have to get it on film before beauty fades.
coolness! i love love love him.
Posted by: char at Nov 15, 2004 5:56:48 PM
Great interview. I've been a big fan of Rufus since his first album. His brand of eccentric piano pop ought to be ruling the US pop charts IMHO!
Posted by: Chris Krakora at Nov 16, 2004 2:29:17 PM
I have to say way to go rufus!=0) There is not alot of gay americans standing up for their rights but you are with your music.We definitely need more adapist like you to set examples for others to come out of the darkness and into the light so all rights can stand up for what they belive in.I'am a huge fan of rufus and still am to this day and will kep supporting everything he does in life
Posted by: Aisha at Nov 17, 2004 7:26:46 AM
Somehwere along the line, Rufus's albums became more eagerly anticipated by me than Tom Waits. And that's saying a lot.
Beautiful. And I love the new albums. At times it reminds me of Dezoriental.
Posted by: Chris Baldwin at Nov 20, 2004 9:58:42 AM
He is a talented musician with some interesting ideas. I can't help thinking there's more to that idea about American culture influencing the world with regards to attitudes towards GLBT's. I am in Canada (probably the country most influenced by the U.S.) and I was just starting to think that being gay here wasn't so hard. Hope that doesn't change because of events south of the border!
Posted by: Aaron at Nov 23, 2004 12:20:31 AM
I was in NY twice in 2004, the latter visit to celebrate my childhood friend's 40th birthday. He gave me a mix CD of songs, and one of them was "A Foolish Love", which I'd never heard. But I couldn't get over it. I loved it immediately. It reminded me of a show tune for some reason. More importantly, it was the most original and blissful experience these ears have had in a while. Since then I have purchased Want One and Two, and I have no idea what I was in for. Just amazing. I am an enormous fan. And as someone who has struggled with drug abuse in the past, I commend this artist for speaking so candidly about it. It bears mentioning, and he has the courage to do that. Looking forward to much greater things from him.
Posted by: Lilly at Jan 2, 2005 11:46:34 AM
aww...he's such a cutie. All his albums are great..way to go! his lyrics are different yet fantastic. his music sure makes my day!
Posted by: ashleigh at Jun 29, 2005 4:48:35 PM
Yeah, but he shouldn't have to worry about not getting big in the gay community, the music there usually sucks ass anyway. I'm gay and listen to Wainwright, so don't think you at least have a couple of us backing you up 83
Posted by: Buddha at Aug 10, 2007 2:16:40 AM