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Whatever Rufus Wants: Rufus Wainwright
by Gregg Shapiro

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Rufus Wainwright never ceases to amaze. Following his highly praised self-titled debut album and the equally acclaimed follow-up Poses, the openly gay Wainwright is releasing his most ambitious and thrilling project, a two-part collection called Want One and Want Two. Want One, which came out in late September ( to be followed by Want Two in 2004 ) is Wainwright's most mature and breathtaking album, beginning with the choral 'Oh What A World,' in which he declares, 'Men reading fashion magazines/Oh what a world it seems we live in/Straight men, oh what a world we live in,' before being washed over by an orchestra. Love, New York City, his family, telephones, and the occasional musical celebrity sighting, are some of the topics Wainwright touches on in his distinctive way. If the brilliant 'Movies Of Myself' doesn't become a hit single than all hope may well be lost for popular culture.

Gregg Shapiro: On your new album, Want One ( DreamWorks ) , you worked with producer Marius deVries, who has produced albums by Bjork, Madonna, David Gray, Alison Moyet and others. How did you come to work with him?

Rufus Wainwright: I came to work with him through Lenny Waronker, my A&R guy ( at DreamWorks ) . Also through the fact that they were willing to hire him, even though he's very expensive ( laughs ) . Let me just say that he's worth his weight in gold and that I'm so happy that I did get a chance to work with him.

GS: From your perspective, in what ways would you say that this album differs from your previous two?

RW: I do consider it as a part of a canon—in terms of first, second, third ( album ) . I do think it's connected to the other albums. With this one, the main difference is that the first record took three years; the second record took a year and a half. This record ( Want One ) and the other record ( Want Two ) took six months ( laughs ) . I cut 30 tracks in six months. Essentially what's different about this record is that I just let it make itself. I wasn't as concerned with the xylophone parts. I was more concerned about it being a work that was more organic and that was fun to make ( laughs ) .

GS: When do you anticipate Want Two to be released?

RW: I anticipate it in six months. It's already made—and I have to preface this by saying that this has never been done before. An album that is Part One and Part Two released a la Lord Of The Rings. There is similar artwork on both records. I hope to liken it to a Thomas Hardy novel or War And Peace ( laughs ) . When they used to release [ books ] to magazines.

GS: Both your sister Martha and your mother Kate perform on Want, and there are other musical family members such as Teddy Thompson and his mother Linda, and Jenni Muldaur, daughter of Maria and Geoff. Do you feel a strong connection to people in musical families?

RW: Yeah. I think the music business is so difficult to survive in and my family and Linda Thompson and the Muldaurs are perhaps more attuned to that up and down roller-coaster ride as opposed to other families that I've known ( laughs ) . We certainly stick together. The Thompsons, the Muldaurs, the McGarrigles and the Wainwrights have all had ups and downs in their careers and have all had to rely on their ability to survive. We're sticking together.

GS: On the subject of family, you mention your parents in a couple of songs—'Oh What A World' ( 'Oh what a world my parents gave me' ) and 'Want' ( 'I just want to be my Dad/With a slight sprinkling of my mother' ) —on Want One. Is it nice to be able to have freedom to refer to them in songs?

RW: Yeah. It, again, is a tradition. My mother has written about me and my father has written about me.

I'm just avenging ( laughs ) .

GS: So, is this the revenge of 'Rufus Is A Tit Man'?

RW: The revenge of the character who was created. Like I'm jumping out of a cartoon or something.

GS: New York City is referred to in a few songs including 'I Don't Know What It Is' ( '…heading for Poland or limbo or Lower Manhattan' ) , '11:11' ( 'Realized that everything really does/Happen in Manhattan' ) , and '14th Street.' How does New York fuel your work?

RW: I was here for Sept. 11. I actually started my tour, with Tori Amos, right after Sept. 11. I was out there for two months. That actually ended up being a therapeutic good thing. Tori was good music to listen to and perform with after that. But I really believe that I, along with many other people, were in sort of a year-long depression or shock—mostly shock—after that event. Then there was sort of a crash for me last summer that a lot of people in my circle went through, as well, that it took about a year for that incident to sink in. I really had to come back to New York and spend time in this city on another level. As opposed to the way that I did in Poses, which was partying a lot and treating New York as if it was 1927.

GS: A little less decadence.

RW: Yeah, it had to be a little less decadent because this city had become a lot less decadent. As well as healing my own exhausted self, New York was doing the same thing. I fell into step with that.

GS: Do you consider yourself a New York resident now?

RW: Yes, I do.

GS: And do you have favorite nightlife spots in New York?

RW: I'm not going out as much as I did before ( laughs ) . But I have some restaurants that I like and some bars that I like to frequent. I'm more into sitting at home and watching C-Span.

GS: Phones are also instrumental to two songs: 'Vicious World' ( 'Thought that maybe we'd fall in love over the phone' ) and 'Vibrate' ( 'My phone's on vibrate for you' ) . Are you a phone person or do you prefer face-to-face contact?

RW: I spend a lot of time on the phone doing interviews. I'm sort of a reluctant phone person. I actually kind of hate the phone. I think that I'm a much more face-to-face person.

GS: The love songs on Want One range from the buoyant 'Movies Of Myself' to the brokenhearted 'Go Or Go Ahead,' 'Harvester of Hearts' and 'Dinner At Eight.' Are you currently buoyant or brokenhearted when it comes to love?

RW: I realized that in a lot of those love affairs that I was searching for and getting brokenhearted over, I was actually searching for myself. At present, I think I met myself somewhere and I'm getting to know myself a little better. I certainly have sweeping moments of romantic longing, but I realized that the rules of attraction are that the better you know yourself and the more you love yourself, the more chances you have of that happening ( laughs ) . I don't know if that's true or not, but I'm going with that.

GS: That sounds like a good plan. Beginning with your first album, you have a gift for name checking in your songs, whether it's characters from operas or contemporary pop culture references, like in 'California' from Poses, or the straight men reading fashion magazines in 'Oh What A World' and the list including John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, John Lithgow and Jane Curtin in 'Want,' on Want One. Do you enjoy making those kinds of references?

RW: Yeah, I guess I'm a bit of a name dropper.

GS: But you do it in a good way.

RW: I think that, certainly in the last one you mentioned, 'John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, John Lithgow and Jane Curtin,' I had to bookend those first two names that sort of poked fun at my trying to be John Lennon or thinking that I'm anywhere near as good as John Lennon or Leonard Cohen. I think it's really inescapable in our society. Our society is ruled by celebrity and those names, or certain names, should be put in the dictionary to categorize what people base their lives on. Like Pamela Anderson—that should be an adjective. We're such a cult of that right now that you've got to use it because people react.

GS: Each of your albums has had a wonderful, straightforward pop song near the beginning—'April Fools' from your debut, 'California' from Poses, and on Want One, there is the amazing 'Movies Of Myself.' What can you tell me about the genesis of those songs?

RW: I think they are all songs that I was reluctant to enjoy ( laughs ) , at first. Because sometimes I feel like my pop sensibilities are slightly dated. I always liked pop songs that make you feel good and I'm always afraid to do that. I think it relates a lot to when I was a young child and I would sing in my living room and I had this older cousin who was a punk rocker and he would laugh hysterically while I sang, because he thought I was really uncool.

GS: Punks tend to be kind of cynical.

RW: Yes. I think those songs harken back to that era. I'm always afraid to put those songs on ( an album ) just because they are unabashedly uplifting.

GS: I, for one, am really glad that you do.

RW: Usually in the last moment I do and people are usually happy to hear them.

GS: As in the past, you remain a presence on soundtracks, most recently Stormy Weather: The Songs Of Harold Arlen and I Am Sam. What does having your voice heard in a movie and being a part of a movie soundtrack mean to you ?

RW: I'm actually going to be in the new ( Martin ) Scorcese movie The Aviator, which is with Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett. I sing a song, a Gershwin song, in that.

GS: Are you playing a nightclub entertainer?

RW: Yeah. I'm a Bing Crosby character at the Coconut Grove. Also Martha ( Wainwright ) is in it, too. She's like a '40s singer. What it means to me is that I'm surrounding Hollywood and pretty soon—look out Leo!

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