After establishing himself as a master of sophisticated pop-rock hooks, soaring vocals, exquisite harmonies, and intelligent, sometimes confessional and out-and-out queer lyrics, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright (rufuswainwright.com) confounded expectations by delving into opera a decade back. His 2009 original opera, Primma Donna, set in 1970 Paris and featuring a forgotten, aging soprano who prepares to reprise the role that first elevated her to fame, premiered in Manchester, England. It was later revised and released as a 2015 recording and film. 2016 saw Wainwright share an even more eclectic project of adapted Shakespeare sonnets with guests including Helena Bonham Carter, William Shatner, and Wainwright’s fellow musician sibling, Martha Wainwright.
Yet despite 2020 being an extremely abnormal year by all accounts, the Hollywood-based Wainwright has finally looped back to the richly mounted pop tunes that first put him on the map with Unfollow The Rules. It’s a breath of comforting, familiar, fresh air.
The son of prolific folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III (they divorced when he was three), Wainwright spent much of his childhood being raised by his mother in her native Montreal and was out of the closet by his teen years.
Discography standouts include his self-titled 1998 debut album, 2001’s Poses, 2003’s Want One and 2004 companion album Want Two, 2007’s Release The Stars (executive produced by Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant), and 2012’s Out of the Game.
Always frank about his personal life (from being raped at 14 years old by a man he picked up in London, to years of sexual and drug-filled decadence which he described to the New York Times as a descent into “gay hell”), these days he’s most apt to discuss politics and his family, including husband of eight years, Jörn Weisbrodt, and 9- year-old daughter Viva (whom Wainwright conceived via artificial insemination with Leonard Cohen’s daugther, Lorca).
In a virtual visit to Passport’s VIP Lounge, Wainwright touched on travel, his new album “Unfollow The Rules,” his pandemic beard, and what a Rufus Wainwright B&B would be like.
It’s good to finally have you back in the pop music realm, Rufus!
I appreciate your patience and hope I have delivered something that appeases your thirst!
Was there a bit of Freddie Mercury and Queen influence on your new Album?
Well, there’s definitely a sort of abandon shall we say, in terms of the various emotions I’m putting out whether “Hatred” or “Early Morning Madness.” I’m not at all subtle and my vocals have prowess on this record. Thanks to producer Mitchell Froom, his production really supports that and isn’t competing with my voice, and that makes it even more dramatic, there’s a clarity to it.
How “queer” is this album on a scale of 1-10?
I would give it an eight. Above average. If you were going typically queer, I would relate maybe two or three numbers. Some of the songs are decidedly un-queer, because they refer to wholesome American musical styles whether country or Joni Mitchell. A good variety. “This One’s For The Ladies (That Lunge!)” is pretty queer.
Were there any extra tracks left off the album that might turn up later on?
Yeah. I’m always singing and in the studio recording, so there’s a huge amount of product that will be released over the next couple of years. I’m doing a thing with [audiobook platform] Audible, and I was able to do these fantastic live shows right before the pandemic at a little venue in L.A. of me singing my favorite songs from Bacharach to Verdi, and original material.
You, your father, and sister all performed musical numbers in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator. Whose life story would you most love to see portrayed in a movie?
Cary Grant. I think a lot about Hollywood because I’m here, and I’m fascinated still by a lot of old stars. If there was a real dark, truthful interpretation of both Grant’s homosexual tendencies (he lived with a man for many years) and his acid trips later in life there could be a pretty racy story in there. Sadly I don’t think I could play him, though. I’m good looking, but not that good looking.
Who would you like to play you if your life story was brought to screen?
I’ve been watching The Politician on Netflix and the lead of that, Ben Platt, I don’t know if he could play me, but it’s funny how in the series he becomes a singer-songwriter for a brief time. And it’s like he becomes a loser when he’s a singer songwriter in New York, and I’m like, ‘he becomes Rufus Wainwright after all his ambitions are dashed and he’s failed in everything!’ (laughs). But as far as playing me, for a long time I thought Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He may be a little too old now to play the young Rufus, but he could be interesting and he can sing. There was a time we saw similarities between us. And i’m very good friends with Darren Criss and he’s a fantastic actor.
Would you like to see a Broadway musical built around your songs?
That’s actually something we’re investigating now. It makes sense to dream up a bunch of new projects to be produced in a couple of years and have them ready to go [when the pandemic is over], and a Broadway production with my songs is in order.