Wainwright's Californian dream

6:00am Saturday 22nd February 2014

Rufus Wainwright once thought he'd be the biggest pop star in the world. Things didn't quite work out that way, but making his Best Of album's been a chance to take stock - and he has a lot to be proud of, as Andy Welch can confirm.

Rufus Wainwright is in sunny California.

He spends much of his time there these days, "in Hollywood", as he says, adding a typical sense of glamour. His main base is New York, however, where he was born before being raised in Montreal, Canada.

Wherever he is, he's a long way from the start of his first solo tour in Washington, some 20 years ago. With a Best Of collection, Vibrate, ready for release, he's been thinking back to that first gig.

"The years have gone by in a flash," he says. "It was only yesterday I was leaving for that first tour; I remember very vividly driving through Washington in the springtime with the cherry blossom blooming. It was a new beginning and I had the sense that it was the start of a very long journey."

Vibrate, named after a song from his 2003 third album Want One, sees him at a crossroads in his career. He'll continue to tour as he has done with regularity since that defining day in Washington, but will carry on pursuing opportunities in areas he's only so far dipped his toe into, mainly opera and writing film scores (he premiered his debut opera Prima Donna at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, and has been commissioned to write one about Hadrian, the Roman emperor, by the Canadian Opera Company, due for 2018).

"Now I have a husband and daughter, I have to be somewhat available and present," he says, referring to spouse of almost two years, artist Jorn Weisbrodt, and daughter Viva, born to Wainwright (or Daddy #1) and Lorca Cohen, daughter of legendary crooner Leonard.

"Although I'll always tour - that's how I make my money - I can't go off for months on end. I wouldn't say I'm entering a new era, but I finally feel as if that drive through the nation's capital among the cherry trees has ended, here in sunny California."

Now seven studio albums, plus a handful of other releases into his career, Wainwright says choosing the songs for Vibrate was relatively easy. Largely because he farmed the job out to his dear friend and one half of the Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant, and his publicist ("an artist should never pick their Best Of").

He did insist on a couple of changes though - the addition of a couple of songs, Foolish Love and April Fools, from his 1998 self-titled debut. "I really fought for their inclusion," he says. "I know that record wasn't a big deal in the UK, but it was in the States."

Here in Britain, it was his second album, 2001's Poses, that made his name, with songs like Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk, Grey Gardens and the title track - all three included on the Best Of - marking him out as a startling talent.

The son of masterful singer-songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, it shouldn't have been a surprise that he's so musically gifted, as is his sister, Martha.

"Listening back to my albums reminds me of what I was going through at the time," says Wainwright now. "The first record was my adolescence, the second my blissful decadence and the third the payback for that.

"It can be painful listening back, but I tend to be hopeful and encouraging of my craft. It's hard to listen to songs about my parents, that gets melancholic. Such deep wounds, my mother's passing [McGarrigle died in 2010] or my early experiences with my father, which have now improved immensely, but I'm still that wounded little boy in some of those songs.

"That said, there are no songs of mine I would forbid from being on a Best Of," he says, "but I think if I had to choose three songs to play to someone to introduce them to my music, I'd go for Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk, Going To A Town and probably a Judy Garland song, just for the hell of it."

He brings up Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall, his first live album. It was his version of Judy Garland's famous concert at the venue, which she recorded in 1961.

"For someone to be able to take over a song like Over The Rainbow is no mean feat. It hasn't been quite appreciated how insane that is. It's associated with Judy Garland, and it's still her song, of course, but I have managed to make it into my own little piece too. I'm very proud of that," he says.

Wainwright is slightly prone to boasting, but he knows when he's doing it and laughs at himself.

He's incredibly charming, an odd mix of scathing self-deprecation and a complete lack of modesty, although if what he says he used to be like is anything to go by, he's calmed down a great deal on that front.

"I used to be terrible when I was starting out, or even after two or three records," he admits. "I'd be at parties and I'd corner people or even stop the party and force people to listen to my songs, or blare it from my car so everyone could hear. I think you need to be a little like that, you know, completely insufferable."

Wainwright has calmed down in a whole manner of ways.

During the writing of his second album, he became addicted to crystal meth. Things became so bad that by 2002, he temporarily lost his vision. It was only after the "most surreal week of my life", which involved, at various points, partying with George W Bush's daughter Barbara, then his mother and her friend Marianne Faithfull and an appearance in Absolutely Fabulous, that he decided to seek help.

Though, for all his obvious talent, personality and interesting background, true commercial success has so far eluded him. When he was starting out, he says he believed he was going to be the biggest star on the planet.

"I thought I'd be dominating the pop charts and behaving like a porn star," he says. "I had outrageous notions of what fame was back then, but certainly what I've ended up with isn't so bad."

That said, he's pleased he didn't sacrifice his artistic integrity in the name of a big hit record.

"I've stuck to my guns. As much as I wanted to sell out and be this pop sensation, I did actually maintain a certain degree of sophistication," he says. "It's nice to look back at the well-polished songs and realise that they were built properly. As a result, they'll last a little longer."

Extra time - Rufus Wainwright

:: Rufus Wainwright was born in Rhinebeck, New York, on July 22, 1973.

:: His parents divorced when he was three, after which he moved to Montreal, Canada, with his mother.

:: He began playing the piano aged six, and at 13 started touring with The McGarrigle Sisters And Family, a group consisting of his mother, aunt Anna and sister Martha.

:: At 17 he was nominated for a Juno Award, Canada's leading music prize.

:: His seventh studio album, Out Of The Game, released in 2012, was recorded with Mark Ronson. He recently collaborated with Robbie Williams on Williams' last album, Swing Both Ways.

:: Rufus Wainwright releases Vibrate: The Best Of on March 3. He plays a handful of shows throughout March and April. Dates below

Tour dates


4 - Dublin Vicar Street

5 - Edinburgh Usher Hall


6 - London Theatre Royal

27 - Coventry Warwick Arts Centre


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