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RUFUS INTERVIEW - OCTOBER, 2002

By Mark Gatiss

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MARK GATISS INTERVIEWS RUFUS WAINWRIGHT

The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss fell in love with superlative Canadian songsmith Rufus Wainwright's lyrical musings after reading about him in these very pages. It seemed only right that we should hook the pair up to talk fame, fans and faggotry...

"Are you usually up at this time? I'm sorry. There was some… drinking here last night". Rufus Wainwright laughs his rat-a-tat laugh and ushers me across the charming devastation of his hotel room. It's taken me an hour to get across a horribly muggy London and I suspect I'm looking like a broiled pig. Rufus has just rolled out of bed and, in cotton kaftan and shades he looks, well, fabulous. Rufus is a rock star. 100% authentic - with maybe 2% knocked off because, unlike most, he's hugely talented and uncompromisingly gay. Those nice people at Attitude thought they'd bring together two gay cults - at least I think that's what they said - little realising that I would swap whatever modicum of fame 'The League of Gentlemen' has brought me just to share a few hours at a coffee-stained table with this man.

The son of legendary folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Rufus is not your average gay icon. Opera bust his brain at a tender age and he began to evolve a unique style of song-writing, all delivered in a throaty whisky-and-cigs-burr which eventually found its way onto his sensational 1998 debut album. Like many others, I was instantly converted by its soaring melodies and achingly beautiful torch-songs. Now, after an agonising wait, there's a new album 'Poses'. It's a little more poppy, a little less baroque and absolutely exquisite. But Rufus' label, DreamWorks, still doesn't seem to know quite what to do with him, especially as he seems to have no ambition to trouble Hear Say at the top of the charts…

RW: I'm basically taking my mother's approach, I guess. Which is, like, one record every five years. It was a long time between them but I needed to, you know, fuck around...

MG: With the songs?

RW: Yeah! With the songs and… other things…

MG: We've just finished a big tour but we constantly have people saying, "When's the new series? You can't keep us waiting like this!" as if we've been sitting around scratching our balls for a year. Do you get frustrated with that sort of thing?

RW: One particular person said this is the sign of someone who's on a big label and should've made three albums in this time - flushed it all out. I don't think many people realise albums can take ten years to make. It's a drag but… you know… no-one really understands anybody. It's not even worth doing what we do. I'm quitting! Really, I'm extremely lucky because my executive producer Lenny Waronker - he worked with the Beach Boys and Ricky Lee Jones - he really lets me take as much time as I want. I often feel very guilty. Other musicians are under pressure to get on the charts and I never have to worry about that. At the moment! They're getting a little antsy now.

MG: But there's a danger you could tinker forever.

RW: Sure. I mean, we spent about a month trying to find this huge mansion in LA to put the studio in and ended up settling on this place that belonged to Puff Daddy. This atrocious, big condo. We spent so much energy and time worrying about where our mansion should be that it became all about real estate! It cost like $17000 a month and all that time we could've been in a basement and probably finished it. Also, I'm 27. I'm pretty young still but at this rate I'll be 32 when my next record comes out. And being a 'rock star' gets harder when you get older. It gets more precarious.

'Poses' loosely concerns the gradual disillusion and destruction of a young gay man in New York. Partly written at the legendary Chelsea Hotel it seems infused with a slightly more world-weary mood. Breakfast arrives and Rufus lights the first of the morning's cigarettes. Wreathed in smoke, he gazes out over Kensington; a picture of wonderful West Coast ennui. It occurs to me that you could cut your wrists on his cheekbones.

MG: In 'Shadows' you sing "I could be a great star/ Still I'm far from happy".

RW: That's more of a mantra than anything. The more famous you get and the more you have jump through those hurdles the more lonely you feel. And the more isolated you become. You know people say that they steal your soul when you have your picture taken? There's a grain of truth in that. And people take liberties. They come and muss your hair, touch your nose. But when you're not recognised…

MG: It's the worst!

RW: It's the worst! You're like "what's going on here?" This is a real emergency! You're kind of fucked both ways. In terms of romance and stuff, I've never been able to have a boyfriend because I've been working so hard on this. I mean everything to everybody except what really counts. There's always that gaping boyfriend thing that never happens. It's terrible. What am I doing here? 

MG: One of my favourite songs is 'Heartburn', on the McGarrigle album…

RW: You are a fan!

MG: I'll touch your nose in a moment. "Gotta learn the difference between I loved you and the symptoms of Ebola". It could've been written for me! Certainly how I used to be. In love with being in love. Are you still like that?

RW: I've grown decidedly colder! And calculating. I've been really trying to fall in love. Seeing someone across the room or at the bar. I've heard it's been done. But I can arrive like a tornado in someone's life. Oh, we try to fall in love but then he says 'I have to get back to my job' and I'm like, 'I've got this big show at Carnegie Hall tonight. Come with me. You don't have to go to work tomorrow!' It's kind of mean of me. I feel like I'm using them if I'm not really In love with them. I still do it all the time! I'm not going to stop it. But I've sort of sectioned off a side of myself that's not going to think about all that. I'll know it when it happens. It's just up to the Gods who they send me. I'm going to Greece tonight. To the Oracle at Delphi.

MG: To ask advice?

RW: I just have to get that point in the movie where it's like 'Stop the train!'

MG: Do you get people throwing themselves at you?

RW: I do get a lot more but it's the oddest people, usually. A lot of girls. Straight guys. Some gay guys. But they're from that echelon of beautiful gay guys that are kind of like holograms. They can't read or write! With the straight guys I don't usually get anything out of it. It's as if they're being nasty to their girlfriends, do you know what I mean? They flirt with me and say 'Oh, I wish I was gay'. That or they get drunk and say 'Who the fuck do you think you are?' They don't know how to take me. They're not used to knowing that the performer's gay, so they either let it all out or become quite menacing. They just don't know how to fit into that spot. I'll teach them!

Rufus pushes his sunglasses onto his forehead and stubs his cigarette into a cup of cold beans.

RW: Classy, huh?

MG: Have you had any real trouble, then?

RW: Well my fans are, you know… pensive! I hit a big market of that right-after-puberty age. That difficult age for a girl. Where they're into being depressed and stuff. They're wonderful. They cry at concerts and it's beautiful. But it's not so good for my band members. It's not a stereotypical rock tour. I remember one time my bass player brought some girls on the bus. They were maybe fourteen years old. Not ugly but they just weren't… women. It was so funny. I was, like, shall we go to the malt shop now? But… trouble? No. Not really. I do think it's my job to be co-operative. Until they come at me with a knife I do consider going out and meeting fans and having some kind of relationship very important. And in the long run it'll help me do what I want to do. There was one girl who bothered me. I was doing this one show in Santa Fe with Bea Arthur, I think. I arrived and everyone was saying 'Susie's here. She made it it! She flew in from Seattle' And I'm like 'Susie? Who's Susie?' Needless to say this girl had talked her way into the backstage area. She was very demure. I talked to her a bit and then I said 'I've got to do the show now'. She said 'Ok I'll wait out here'. I did the show and she was there the whole time. It became obvious to me that she wasn't going to leave. She waited outside my hotel room in the desert all night - freezing. And there was this one look she gave me as I was leaving it was like something out of a movie.

MG: Contempt?

RW: Madness! She was just mad. It was frightening. I think it's good if you can pacify them straight away…

MG: Mm. With chloroform. Were you a morbid child? Curtains drawn during the day, preoccupation with graveyards…

RW: There was an element of that. We were sort of a morbid bunch. We had this big Victorian house. It was a nice area but ours was the dumpy house. But we just didn't really care what anyone around thought. I was pretty melancholy as a kid but also rambunctious. Kind of manic. Really, really happy and excited or… weeping.

MG: You were waiting for opera.

RW: Yeah, I was. And masturbating constantly!

MG: I remember seeing 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane' when I was about seven and thinking 'This is what I want my house to be like…' All the decay and the dust and everything shuttered up in the Californian sunshine. And then the misery of discovering it was the favourite film of every queer I met!

RW: Oh God, yeah. I really wanted to be one of the characters in Mary Poppins. The son or the daughter. Maybe more the daughter. But mostly I wanted to be European as a kid, I felt America was crass and terrible and I had a longing for that kind of life. It's one of those lovely things that… whatever Our Lord Jesus has granted us. That wonderful feeling of never being satisfied with where you are and always wanting something else. I sometimes think I'd be very happy to meet a French Canadian factory worker and live in the east end of Montreal where all the factory smoke blows and make coffee or something…

MG: Rebel princes, consorts, beautiful queens… You have a pre-occupation with royalty.

RW: I always have. If anything I'll admit that it's really only a silly, pedestrian obsession. It's nothing deep, for sure. When I was a kid, my parents had divorced and I was living in Montreal with my mom. I found this broach which belonged to my grandma and I used to put it in toilet paper and I'd scent it with perfume and go to school and say to people, 'Do you know my mother actually had an affair with Prince Charles and I'm their child? And this is the broach he gave her that proves I'm the heir to the throne'.

MG: I wanted my father to be an exiled Romanov Count.

RW: That beats mine. Sorry! Prince Charles wasn't the right choice was he? Anyway, whatever it is, it has something to do with divorce. My father isn't my real father, he's the Prince of Wales and he's coming to get me! Also, I went to Paris when I was about 13. We drove to Versailles and I had no inkling what it was. And when we pulled up in the tour bus I was like - ohmygod! - I'd never seen anything like it.

MG: Would you like to do a Marie Antoinette and dress up as a shepherdess?

RW: No. I wanna be undressed by a shepherd.

Rufus laughs his infectious laugh. He's charming, funny and thoughtful. Even at what is obviously a grossly early hour. I decline his offer of another cup of cold beans.

MG: I saw Peter O'Toole in Dublin recently. He's such a beautiful ruin. Are you aware of a certain dichotomy? A desire to be properly bohemian but not fuck yourself up?

RW: Oh yeah. If I could end up as fucked up as Peter O'Toole that would be great and I wish I could. Unfortunately, I'm really vain. I spend hours in front of the mirror. People must think I'm a cocaine addict because I'm always going to the bathroom! But I'm really just going to look at myself for reassurance. Secondly I can't do what I need to do if I'm fucked up. My songs sound terrible. I've done them drunk. Also my mother won't let me! She really won't. She gets more fucked up than I do but any time she assumes it's all going wrong then the tears come. She looks out for me. I knew one of Chet Baker's girlfriends from the Fifties and I'd say how terrible it was that he ended as he did. She'd say you know what I would have given to end up as a fucked up as him? With him? He really did it. But now I'm on this respirator and I can't even do heroin anymore. But, for me, I don't think it's in my make-up really.

MG: Would you like to settle down?

RW: I guess so. It would be great.

MG: I've discovered that the nicest thing about getting older - I'm 19 now - (there is a cruel laugh) - is that you can actually start treating yourself to all the things you ever wanted. I'm planning to build a laboratory in my house because I always wanted one.

RW: You know John Waters? He has this room in the top of his house that he's turned into a fake bomb-making factory. There's a map of a stadium with a little 'x' on it and all these tubes. And he's got paintings by John Wayne Gacy on the wall. He's one of the greatest for keeping young and being a child all the time. What I always wanted was to own was a really ugly building outside and when you walk in it's a huge opera house - all ornate and beautiful. A secret theatre; something that you can't tell what it is from the outside. I'd also like to own part of the subway.

MG: Oh me too. Like Lex Luthor.

RW: Oh yeah!

MG: I sometimes wish it were 1895 again. I used to dress determinedly old fashionedly in my youth. You try and be 'fin de siecle' in Leeds. I got no sex! The game just wasn't worth the candle. I came down to London and changed completely. But now I'm drifting back. Do you think of yourself as a dandy?

RW: It's a kind of dangerous line to walk. I have certain jackets and vests that I love and I wear when I'm in that sort of mode. But I've also discovered that a great T shirt can often be the sexiest, most comfortable thing. Maybe this is from living in the West coast where a lot of clothes seem to end up through some kind of inertia. Fancy clothes are really good for entrances but not for lounging about. I would want to get, like, dresses from that era. The big huge scoop skirt. I want one of those 'Death in Venice' dresses with the crepe and the pearls. I think men should be allowed to dress more like women.

MG: That would be quite an entrance. I'm having my portrait painted at the moment. The artist is very impressed with my dedication but she doesn't realise that it's all vanity. I can think of nothing better than being immortalised! Then I'll lock it in the attic and hope for the best. Have you ever thought about sitting for a portrait?

RW: That's what I want to do for my next record cover. I want to get some great painter to paint me. Like a John Singer Sargent. There's that famous Sargent picture of the guy with a very tight black coat and the cane with the jade top. So skinny. I'd love that.

MG: Or Sargent's picture of the scandalous French gynaecologist Dr Pozzi - 'the red dressing gown' picture?

RW: Yeah! In a lot of ways, 'Poses' was started by that. I was in England when I started writing it. I bought this red leather jacket from Joseph's and then went to the Sargent exhibition at the Tate. "The yellow walls are lined with portraits…" It was started by that. And then later, as the song goes, I was drunk and wearing flip-flops on 5th avenue. The contrast! I paint too. Mostly portraits of myself! This angle, that angle. Me in different periods… love colours. Kandinsky. Russian Constructivism. I think I would really have been more a designer than a painter.

MG: Have you thought of doing a standards album?

RW: Oh yeah. I've done a lot of standards. You can get me singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' off the internet. If there's anyone who's a real major influence on me it's Cole Porter. Lifestyle. Witticisms. Sometimes, even in a sad way he's who I relate to. He's my idol. But everyone's singing jazz these days. There's tons of stuff to do... and here we are chatting!

MG: Apart from doomed monarchs, Greek boys loom large in your songs. Do you have a thing for them?

RW: I'm trying to develop one. I hate to say it but I've had a real thing for English boys. I came to London for New Year's hoping that something would happen. I like Irish guys but I was disappointed by the Spanish. Too short. Russians are gorgeous but they have no teeth. I'm an egalitarian! I'll sleep with anything!

You know that feeling that your favourite band has become too popular. I dare say that if Rufus's 'Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk' does manage to wipe the smiles off the fat faces of some dismally untalented wannabes I'll be saying 'I was there first!' - but somehow it doesn't matter. He deserves to be huge - even if it is five years till the next album. Without a shred of self-consciousness, Rufus dives out of his kaftan and into a hastily assembled outfit for the photo-shoot. Downstairs we fool around with strawberries and Rufus adopts a succession of joyfully pouting poses with the skill of a natural star. Maybe he's concerned that the camera is going to take a little bit more of his soul but, personally, I don't think he's got anything to worry about.

Transcribed by Tara



 

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