By Gregg Shapiro
To fully appreciate the talents of Rufus Wainwright, one should experience him in both audio and video formats. With the release of his eagerly anticipated new CD and DVD set, “Want Two” (Dreamworks/Geffen), everyone will now have that opportunity. The DVD, filmed at a Wainwright concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco, is sure to delight his devoted following and potentially increase his fan-base. The songs on the “Want Two” CD, some of which were recorded at the same time as those on 2003’s “Want One,” are sensational, effortlessly expanding on the gay singer/songwriter’s ever increasing legend. I chatted with Rufus as he was about to embark on a European tour.
Between The Lines: I saw you perform in Chicago recently and you were alone on stage. Do you have a preference for solo shows or full band shows?
Rufus Wainwright: “Want One” itself, the album, kind of requires more of a band feel to really, truly represent it. I think for “Want One,” a band’s better. But “Want Two,” actually, a lot of that I can do solo.
BTL: When you performed “April Fools,” your referred to it as “one of my great non-hits.”
BTL: Does that mean that you are not satisfied with the way you are being received? And how do you think that can be changed?
RW: Well, I don’t know. A lot of that is tongue-in-cheek. At this point in my career I don’t store much emotion in that realm. But certainly after my first record came out and “Poses” was out, I got really disillusioned with pop culture and what they really wanted. Then, after a while I just decided to be a snob (laughs). And it seems to have worked out well for me. I was at a party the other night in Manhattan and I was hanging out with Mia Farrow and Glenn Close, and they are like these huge fans. I think the fact that I have held onto my integrity for a while has served me better at this point. I think that a hit at this point would be more of just a tickler.
BTL: You made a comment about the Presidential debates – the third one was taking place during your Chicago show. Have you performed at or been invited to perform at any political fundraisers?
RW: I did some work for Moveon.org. I also did a concert for the ACLU which was in conjunction with countering the Republican National Convention in Manhattan. I did a show while that was going on with Boy George and Karen Finley. That was fun.
BTL: Are you concerned about this election?
RW: I believe that this is probably the most harrowing election that this country has experienced, well, since the last one; which was the worst to date. I think these last two elections have really gotten out of hand. If you look at how close it was and how much power special interest groups have and the fight between the religious right and, basically, educated people. It’s very, very intense.
BTL: Now, onto cheerier things. The Manhattan Transfer covers two of your songs, “Vibrate” and “Greek Song,” on its new album. Have you heard the covers?
RW: I haven’t heard them yet. I haven’t heard a lot of my covers. I’ve made a point of not listening to them for awhile (laughs).
BTL: How do you feel about having other people cover your songs?
RW: It’s actually just started happening. For a long time, nobody did. But I think they’ve seeped in enough and my musical style has become its own genre. I don’t say that out of arrogance. It just happens to be … alien (laughs) … that people know what they’re referring to when they cover my songs.
BTL: On “Want Two,” you have your first “Parental advisory” sticker. Why is that?
RW: There’s the f-word in the song “The One You Love” … and I also mention being baptized in cum (“Gay Messiah”), which might be a little bit difficult.
BTL: What was the genesis, so to speak, of the song “Gay Messiah”?
RW: I’m not afraid to admit to my penchant for pornography, at times. I’ve certainly seen some. Some of my favorite stuff that I’ve seen, miles better than what’s around now, is porn from the seventies and late-sixties. When they used real film and the guys looked really innocent. You can tell that AIDS hadn’t happened yet. … They were still sort of defining their society. I’ve always been a fan of that and I had this vision of one of those porn stars, who presumably would have probably died of AIDS, re-emerging and bring back some of that bygone era.
BTL: One of the new songs from “Want Two” is called “Hometown Waltz,” which you described as being performed by a “rag-tag gypsy band” consisting of your mother (Kate) and your aunt (Anna), your sisters (Martha and Lily). What can you tell me about the song?
RW: Well, the song is about and my love/hate relationship with the place. … What we did for the song was, my mother played banjo and my aunt played accordion, but Martha plays fiddle, which she doesn’t play all that often, and my sister Lily plays the recorder, which she’s not terribly adept at. So, it just ends up sounding kind of amateurish, but that’s something you can’t buy for a million dollars (laughs).
BTL: You referred to the late Jeff Buckley, and talked about the “futility of jealousy.” You said that the song “Memphis Skyline” (based on Orpheus and Eurydice) is about him. Can you tell me more about it?
RW: In my mind, at the moment, considering the production and the version that is being released, I do kind of consider it to be, oh, a little bit of a masterpiece. I’ve always really loved Jeff Buckley’s work. I can’t say that I was a fanatical fan, but I loved his voice and the way he covered certain songs. We had a lot of friends in common. Not long after he died, I did have this sort of supernatural experience, where I listened to his cover of (Leonard Cohen’s) “Hallelujah,” after covering it myself. I could feel his presence when I listened to the song. That’s when the idea came to me to write a song about a living songwriter writing about one that was dead, and trying to communicate with him through music.
BTL: When we spoke last year, prior to the release of “Want One,” we talked a little bit about your role in the movie, “The Aviator.” What are you most looking forward to about that?
RW: I’m looking forward to going to the premiere. I think it’s going to be an amazing experience in terms of it being a premiere in Hollywood for a movie about Hollywood by one of the greatest directors in Hollywood (laughs).
BTL: Are you hoping that this will lead to more movie roles?
RW: I’m hoping, yeah. We’ll see. I guess I am a little scared of what my initial reaction will be; if I’ll be embarrassed or something, because I do have some modesty there, somewhere.
BTL: That’s good to know.
RW: (Laughs) Essentially, I really want to write an opera (laughs), and that puts everything into perspective.