Rufus Wainwright makes pop music that sounds like it is of, by, and for another era—as if his competition were not Jewel, Britney Spears, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but rather Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George and Ira Gershwin. With just a single album to his name, Wainwright has already wowed critics and earned a degree of popular success. Part of the public’s response may be purely physical. The singer/songwriter is tall and built on a thin frame, and his looks are of the matinee-idol variety. Though openly gay, Wainwright seems to enjoy a following that is at least as much female as it is male, perhaps more so. But if Wainwright’s comely visage, seen most widely in a December 1998 Gap commercial on which he crooned the standard “New Year’s Eve,” has helped attract fans, his songs—subtle, complex, and nearly all of them gender-neutral ditties about love—are what hold their attention.
Wainwright’s father is Loudon Wainwright III, the wry, WASPish singer/songwriter whose one top 40 hit came in 1973 with the song “Dead Skunk.” The elder Wainwright made his son the subject of 1975’s “Rufus is a Tit Man,” which described his irrational jealousy of his then-infant boy being breast-fed by his mother. Clearly, no topic was taboo in the Wainwright household, and in years since, Loudon has written a number of stingingly self-critical songs about his failings as a father and husband. He split with Rufus’ mother, Canadian songstress Kate McGarrigle (who writes and sings with her sister Anna), when Rufus was four.
“Growing up, I hardly saw my father at all,” Wainwright told Mim Udovitch in Rolling Stone magazine. “I saw him, like, twice a year for, like, a week each time. I hated him for years, and part of it was fueled by my mother, who had no qualms about telling me she hated him for years. But he really, really helped me, in his own way, and it was very important to have him around, even though it was much less. Now that I’m actually making it and doing quite well, I think it’s a little harder for him, because he’s still making records, and he’s still touring and doing his thing. I just think it’s hard, and there’s still a side of me that wants to conquer him in a certain way.”
Wainwright grew up living with his mother in Montreal, Canada. He began playing piano at age six. The atmosphere of the McGarrigle home was artsy and bohemian, with various musicians dropping by all the time. The parlor was often alive with singalongs of songs from the classic American songbook, as well as talent shows, performed by Rufus and his sister Martha, for their grandmother. Opera was often heard on the family stereo. Kate, meanwhile, closely watched over her children’s music lessons, making sure that if they were going to play the piano, they were going to play properly.
Born in 1974 and raised in Canada; son of singer/songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle (of the McGarrigle Sisters).
Signed with DreamWorks Records, 1996; contributed to The Myth of Fingerprints soundtrack, 1997; released debut album, Rufus Wainwright, 1998; joined with his family to record The McGarrigle Hour CD, 1998; contributed to the Big Daddy film soundtrack, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —DreamWorks Records, 100 Universal Plaza, Bungalow 477, Universal City, CA 91608. Website— Rufus Wainwright at DreamWorks Records: www.dreamworksrecords.com/rufus.
By his early teens, Rufus had joined the family act, which was billed as the McGarrigle Sisters and Family. They toured the United States, Europe, and Canada. When he was 14, Kate and Anna were writing music for a kids film, Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, and invited Rufus to contribute. He wrote his first song, “I’m a Runnin’,” and wound up performing it in the film. It earned him nominations for a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, and a Genie, the equivalent of an Oscar.
Beset with fears and frustrations about his sexuality, Wainwright immersed himself in the world of opera, identifying not so much with the heroic male leads, but rather the “damned ladies” who often met an inglorious and tragic fate. Believing that it might help his son escape a seemingly unhealthy interest in opera, Wain-wright’s father sent him to boarding school. Wainwright attended the prestigious Millbrook School in upstate New York, and in the school’s pastoral setting, he regained his emotional equilibrium. Wainwright also continued his artistic pursuits and participated in musicals, including Cabaret. “First I was the emcee in that, then I was Jesus in Godspell, then I was God in another play,” he told radio station KCRW’s Liza Richardson. “It was always like typecasting, either the devil or God.” Afterwards, he returned to Canada to study classical composition at McGill University in Montreal, but soon dropped out, discouraged by the emphasis of technical aspects of the music over artistic inspiration.
Wainwright then began pursuing pop songwriting seriously for the first time. His mother agreed to support him, so long as he was actually working on songs. During this period, he also began playing guitar, no longer threatened by the fact that that was also his father’s instrument of choice. In writing pop songs, he found his own voice, though he was certainly influenced in one way or another by his parents. “I think with my mom, I’m affected a lot by her chords and stuff, her sort of really dark sensibility and romanticism which she likes to portray,” he told Richardson. “Whereas my father, I think I picked up a little of his sort of wit, his stage persona.”
Learning his craft as a performer at the Montreal nightspot Sarajevo, Wainwright eventually attempted to record some of his songs, working with producer Pierre Marchand, a family friend who had also worked with his mother and aunt. The resulting tape impressed Loudon, who passed it on to his friend Van Dyke Parks. Parks, a record producer, songwriter, and recording artist in his own right, is best known for his work with Brian Wilson. Parks in turn passed the tape along to Lenny Waronker, the former Warner Brothers Records chief who had nurtured the careers of individualistic singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Ry Cooder, and Parks himself. Kate and Anna McGarrile were once part of his artist roster as well. “When I was about to listen to his tape, I remember clearly I was thinking, ’Gee, if he has the mom’s musicality and smarts, and the dad’s smarts and voice, that’d be nice,‘” Waronker told Udovitch. “Then I put it on and I said, ’Oh, my God, this is stunning.‘”
Waronker had just set up shop at DreamWorks, the music arm of the company headed by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Waronker paired Rufus with producer Jon Brion, who has worked with artists such as Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple. They spent an inordinately long time making the record, most of 1996 and 1997, and recorded a large number of songs—56, spread out over 62 rolls of tape. Costs for the sessions ran an incredible $700,000.
Some would call that money well spent. With its lush melodies, songs of romantic yearning, and intricate string arrangements, provided by Parks, the songs on Wainwright’s self-titled debut range from the gorgeous, neo-operatic “Foolish Love,” to “Beauty Mark,” a song Rufus had written about the mole above his mother’s lip, to “Damned Ladies,” about his beloved yet doomed ladies of opera. “Desdemona, do not go to sleep/Brown-eyed Tosca, don’t believe the creep,” the erudite lyric reads. There is also “Millbrook,” a wink and a nod to his boarding school compatriots, and the eerie “Matinee Idol,” inspired, supposedly by the death of actor River Phoenix. “April Fools” pretty well sums up his worldview as it pertains to romance: “You will believe in love/And all that it’s supposed to be,” begins the chorus with an unusually upbeat attitude. “But only until the fish start to smell/And you’re struck down by a hammer.” The album garnered its share of rave reviews. “If the songs on Rufus Wainwright remind you of old pop standards, it’s because they’re so damn classy,” wrote Neva Choni in Rolling Stone. Soon after, Wainwright took the magazine’s honor for Best New Artist.
Even as his own star began to rise, Wainwright joined the family act once again. The McGarrigle Hour, released in 1998 on Hannibal Records, is as close as the world will get to hearing one of those old parlor jam sessions where Rufus used to perform. In addition to Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the album features performances by their sister Jane, Anna’s husband Dane Lanken and their offspring Lily and Sylvan, Loudon Wainwright, and both Rufus and Martha. One of the songs on the album is “What’ll I Do,” an Irving Berlin song that Rufus sang at his maternal grandmother’s funeral which still has emotional resonance for the family.
For all that, he is still concentrating on making his own mark in the world, achieving a greater amount of respect and fame than his parents. “This has to happen,” Rufus told Tucker. Given his talent and determination, it just might.
“Le Roi D’Ys,” “Banks of the Wabash,” The Myth of Fingerprints Original Soundtrack, Velvel, 1997.
Rufus Wainwright, DreamWorks, 1998.
The McGarrigle Hour, Hannibal, 1998.
(With Shoofly) “You Don’t Know,” Dirty White Town, Cool, 1999.
“Instant Pleasure,” Big Daddy Original Soundtrack, American Recordings, 1999.
Daily News, December 17, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, December 25, 1998.
New York Times, April 19, 1998.
Rolling Stone, June 11, 1998; June 10, 1999.
“Rufus Wainwright,” Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Wainwright,+Rufus (June 29, 2000).
“Morning Becomes Eclectic,” KCRW radio interview, February 20, 1998.
Additional information provided by DreamWorks publicity materials.
Best-selling album since 1990: Poses (2001)
Hit songs since 1990: "April Fools," "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk"
Being the progeny of famous songwriting parents is not easy, but singer and pianist Rufus Wainwright managed to carve his own niche in the pop music landscape toward the latter half of the 1990s. With a winsome quality, a flair for melodrama, and an affinity for the rhymes and musical styles of older artists, such as Cole Porter and other Broadway standard–writing greats, Wainwright is a throwback to another era. His songs are timeless, dramatic, and often find their protagonist, who is never male or female (Wainwright is openly gay), heartbroken and/or teetering on the edge of self-destruction.
Wainwright is the offspring of politically minded folk troubadour Loudon Wainwright III, and Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle. His father split up with McGarrigle (who writes and sings with her sister Anna) when Rufus was four. Rufus grew up with his mom in Montreal, and started playing piano at age six. By the time he was a preteen, he joined the family act, billed as the McGarrigle Sisters and Family, and toured Europe and the United States.
Wainwright attended a boarding school in upstate New York and then McGill University in Montreal for a while, but ultimately dropped out to start writing and pursuing a music career more seriously. His background helped him get his foot in the door—his mom passed along a tape of his to family friend, producer Pierre Marchand. It wound up in the hands of Lenny Waronker, who signed him to DreamWorks Records in 1996 and paired him with producer Jon Brion. The end result, after recording over fifty songs, is his self-titled debut. Rufus Wainwright (1998) is full of sweeping string arrangements and dashed hopes. The album's single, "April Fools," seems to typify Wainwright's cynical romanticism: "You will believe in love / and all that it's supposed to be / But just until the fish start to smell / And you're struck down by a hammer."
Shortly after his eponymous debut, the accolades came pouring in. Rolling Stone named him Best New Artist, and Rufus Wainwright earned Top 10 album of the year honors from the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker, and the Los Angeles Times.
Wainwright toured extensively, appeared in magazines and a holiday Gap commercial, and released his sophomore effort, Poses, in 2001. An ambitious follow-up, Poses is cinematic in scope—each song's subject could have been a different character in a musical or film. Wainwright describes it as "a play with a cast of intriguing characters, and my voice is the star of the play." Writing in Newsweek, Lorraine Ali said, "Poses gracefully and painfully documents the world of the romantic megalomaniac . . . . If old-style Broadway musicals—think Cole Porter meets the biting irony of Oscar Wilde—ever made a resurgence in popular culture, Rufus Wainwright would be the perfect fit to pen the music." Her keen assessment succinctly summarizes Wainwright's abilities and proclivities as an unusual male singer of the late 1990s.
Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks, 1998); Poses (DreamWorks, 2001).