Rufus Wainwright: ‘Over the years I learned that drinking is not good’

Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘This Be the Verse’, (“They f**k you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do”) would have resonated with Rufus Wainwright. In 1975, when Rufus was two, his father, Loudon Wainwright III, wrote ‘Rufus is a Tit-Man’, a jealous song about breastfeeding that Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with.

Rufus’s mother was the folk singer Kate McGarrigle. When he was three, his parents broke up and his mother left New York with him and baby sister Martha to live in Montreal, Canada.

Speaking on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Rufus tells me his earliest childhood memory was when “my parents were divorcing. I wondered why the dining room table was going into a truck. I didn’t understand that”.

And when did he understand why the dining room table was going into a truck?

“Not for many, many, many, many years,” he says. “And only now I’m coming to terms with it.”

Sadly his mother “passed away years ago… [2010] but my dad and I work very hard to open lines of communication”.

But “there are some things that we’ll never be able to communicate,” he laughs.

Like what?

“Oh, it’s just that thing of expecting your parents to act differently to the way they really are. My dad is also still in the game. He loves to do shows and he loves to be the centre of attention. I just have to respect that that is his nature. Also he’s part of that generation, the Baby Boomers – they take up a lot of space, those people, which is why we love them.”

Born on July 22, 1973, in Rhinebeck, New York, Rufus Wainwright harboured an early ambition to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

He started playing the piano at six and a few short years later discovered opera with Verdi’s Requiem. “I started off a normal child and within two hours I became this opera queen,” he has said. “It was a religious conversion.”

After boarding school, he attended McGill University where he studied piano and art. He dropped out when met and fell in love with Danny, about whom he wrote on ‘Danny Boy’ on his self-titled first album in 1998.

His third album, the 14-track Want One, in 2003 alerted the world – on tracks such as ‘I Don’t Know What It Is’ and ‘Vicious World’ – that there was a flawed genius in their midst. He wasn’t stuck for admirers. “I can’t think of a better songwriter working today than Rufus Wainwright,” Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys once said.

​Elton John called him “the greatest songwriter on the planet”. John also saved his life, in 2003, by getting him to go to rehab, the Hazelden in Minnesota, where he detoxed and underwent therapy for addiction.

Prior to this intervention, Wainwright was headed to an early grave. He took so much crystal meth once that he went blind for an hour and could neither see nor speak. He cried endlessly: “Every 15 minutes I was Anna Karenina all over again,” he later recalled.

​Did the counsellors tell him his path was harming his life as much as his childhood did?

“Look, the main thing I’ve learned over the years is that drinking is not good,” he laughs.

Wasn’t he doing crystal meth as well?

“I know. I mean, look, I don’t like to dive too much into that whole part of my life. It’s private and I don’t want to promote myself as this example of all this stuff. Life goes through many, many paths. I will say on a fundamental level that drinking is not good for you. There is nothing redeeming about it. At the end of the day – and I don’t judge, my whole family still drinks and my husband drinks occasionally – after not drinking for many, many years, I’m like ‘Wow. You really don’t need that in your life.’ There are moments when it’s inspiring for like a funny and crazy time, but if you can get it out of you, that’s the better option.”

Did he learn in rehab why he drinks? “No, no, no. I mean, on one hand it’s on my father’s side – Anglo-Saxon, WASP-y American kind of high-toned alcoholic – and then on my mother’s side it’s more Irish Catholic, more working-class drinkers. I got it from both of them, culturally. It’s fun. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun. I don’t regret it in the least. But I think the main thing with life in general is to experience what you have to experience and then go on to something more profound… eventually,” he laughs.

He found that profoundness, he says, in composing operas. In 2009, he wrote Prima Donna, about an ageing opera star searching for her voice for one last performance. Wainwright arrived at the premiere at the Manchester International Festival dressed as Verdi while his then boyfriend, now husband, Jorn Weisbrodt was Puccini.

His second opera, 2018’s Hadrian, was inspired by the Roman emperor’s relationship with his young Greek lover Antinous.

Intriguingly, later, Wainwright describes himself as “fairly worldly but somewhat of an innocent at the same time. I’ve always tried to retain a sense of wonder about the world – while at the same time knowing a lot about it. I balance those two elements. Boyish, but I am kind of an old boy”.

He then says what has helped him in the often cold music industry is his love of opera and classical music: “Even though some people might find it daunting, elusive or too sophisticated or something, I find it so impressive. There is always something to reach for. There is always something higher.

“There is always this kind of cathedral ceiling that I am admiring. It gives me a sense of reverence of what happened before and gives me a sense of hope. There’s a lot of tragedy and death in opera but in the end there’s a lot of redemption and transformation and ultimately forgiveness.

“Opera is where I garner the most spiritual energy from. I take care of my voice. I sing better now probably than I ever have and I say that not in an egotistical way. I didn’t sing very well for many years. When I started out there are some beautiful moments and some moments when I sound godawful. In early shows I am just gulping in big air pockets. Just the tonality. I was so young and excited. There’s something that was charming. I’m a much better singer now.”

And as a man?

“Deep down, I’m an optimist who takes every opportunity to use everything as a training ground for the next battle. It’s funny because on my father’s side there were quite a few generals in our family, in World War II and a lot in the Civil War on the Union side. We kind of delight in a little bit of confrontation, an exercise in manliness. It sounds awful but if you can do it in a constructive way it can be helpful.”

​Today he lives in Los Angeles with his husband of 11 years, Jorn, and their daughter Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen. Conceived by via sperm donation by Wainwright to Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard, she was born in February 2011. Being the father of a 12-year-old girl, he says, “is pretty full-on”. “We live in LA. Factor that in,” he laughs, “and it’s pretty horrific at times.”

Most times, however, it is fantastic. “I’m starting to see the return, shall we say, of me having putting in the time. My dad, bless his heart, chose to work when we were young.

“He had to do that. He and my mum had a very bad relationship. My dad went off and did his thing. I chose the opposite. I chose to be present and around. I’m not around all the time. But it is a lot more than I experienced as a kid. And it’s worth it. Your kid really does appreciate it.“

I mention that I read a recent interview with his now 76-year-old father Loudon where he talked about his sex addiction.

“Addiction in general is a bit of a nightmare. But it’s also from the same creative well where all the songs and all the music comes from. So it’s that dichotomy of going to the source and trying to figure out what’s poisonous and what’s going to go on the record,” he says.

Asked how he does that, he says: “I’ve been very fortunate in being able to compartmentalise my life in the sense at a certain point – at around my 30s – I was able to stop the train, you know? I went to rehab and I spent a few years focusing on my self as a human being and not as an artist. And before that period I really didn’t know the difference, because it had just been one way since I had been very young. It was one extreme.

“So at a certain point, before I hit 30 – my Saturn return, as they say – I just revaluated everything. I think you have to learn how to differentiate from what’s a creative inspiration and what’s a liability. I think also having a child really clarifies things, especially in this day and age. I don’t think it was the same when I was little.” In the 1970s, he argues, having a kid “was a real dilemma, because there had been so much upheaval. I think we are back in an era where you actually take care of your kids.”

Did he not feel his parents took care of him?

“Well, they did the best they could. But it was a really turbulent time. When I was a little kid everybody was getting divorced – whereas a generation earlier nobody got divorced. There was a whole reshuffle going on in the 1970s and families were very much in the crosshairs of that situation.”

Towards the end of our call (it was supposed to be a Zoom but he couldn’t get the audio to work and we just looked blankly at each other), the subject of Ireland comes up. He’s due here at the National Concert Hall in July where he’ll play songs from Folkocracy, his 12th studio album, with his sister Lucy Wainwright Roche, among others.

“What are my feelings about Ireland? I’m going to be celebrating my 50th birthday on the day I play Ireland. I love Ireland!”

​Rufus Wainwright plays the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on July 22.

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