Music

Rufus Wainwright: "My dad was tremendously jealous of me"

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright talks teenage delusions, his drug addiction - and why he should have listened to his grandmother

When I was 16 I was completely incorrigible, fanatically driven. So horrifyingly insecure that I acted secure. And I was quite beautiful actually, I was a looker. If I could go back to that boy now I’d just congratulate him on surviving. The odds were pretty stacked against me, considering my delusional state about how the world worked. But maybe that delusion saved me a lot of trouble. I believed in something that didn’t exist. I had this feeling I was going to be a unique creation that everyone would love. I would have the answer to everything. I would conquer the industry. No one would care that I was gay. The truth turned out to be the opposite on pretty much every point. But I just kept plugging away.

I might reprimand my younger self a little bit for… I was 100 per cent dedicated to my career and my art, my conquering of show business. Maybe that was necessary to get there but I think along the way I could have stopped more to smell the roses. To just enjoy the now. But I was always setting goals. Ah well, you know, youth is wasted on the young.

My simple, racist, Southern little grandmother was actually the most helpful. There you go.

I officially said ‘I am out’ to my parents when I was 18. But I knew it from the age of 13, and they knew too. I was sneaking out of the house, wearing weird clothes, getting strange phone calls. It was a turbulent period. My parents could have handled it much better. Looking back, I’m a bit more forgiving now. It was the late ’80s, Aids was everywhere, massacring everyone. But neither of my parents apologised. My mother died a few years ago. I don’t think my father will ever apologise. But hey, your parents are your parents, they’re not supposed to make you feel better.

My grandmother, God rest her soul, she was from Georgia in the South, and somewhat… racist, and not the smartest tool in the shed. But she was very loving and she said she knew I was gay but she loved me and it didn’t matter. So my simple, racist, Southern little grandmother was actually the most helpful. There you go.

Not to sound too old-school gay but I’d advise my younger self to get to the gym right away. I didn’t really hit the gym until I was about 35. It’s been great but if I’d started at 20 it would have been a lot easier. But that wasn’t part of my persona back then. I was a romantic dandy, smoking cigarettes. And I’m not sure I would go back and change that. But it would have saved me a lot of money now.

I think I’d still really like the teenage Rufus. He had a spark. What I love most about that 16-year-old was that he was always game. He would try anything. Whether it was a play or singing a song or wearing a weird outfit or dyeing my hair purple. I would try anything. And that’s the kind of kid I like now. Even if they’re naughty and subversive, at least they’re engaged in what life has to offer.

I’d tell my younger self to listen to my grandmother. At one point she put me on her knee and said, Rufus, you’re a special child, you’ll have a lot of opportunities. You are very privileged. She said, some people are going to hate you for that. So you have to be ready to deal with that. People will want to take you down.

It would have been nice not to have [his period of drug addiction in the early 2000s] happen. But your journey is your journey. In retrospect I think there was too much drinking in the house when we were small children. My mother was a wonderful woman but the drinking was ever present.

If I really wanted to impress the 16-year-old me, I’d tell him I’m writing my second opera now. I became an opera fanatic when I was 13, and that music was my religion, my saviour, my resting place, everything to me. And a shared love brought me so close to my mother. So to be writing my second opera now, with the first one quite successful and the new one eagerly anticipated – that little guy couldn’t have had a better outcome.

Rufus Wainwright with Jörn Weisbrodt in 2010. Photo: David Shankbone

My younger self would be completely freaked out by the idea of being married [to German artistic director Jörn Weisbrodt] and having children [daughter Viva Katherine, with Jörn and Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard]. He would not be into that. I didn’t want to have a boyfriend. I wanted to be a total loner. But life does change. One thing I always wanted was the next, bigger, better adventure. When you’re a teenager, it’s drugs and alcohol, and rock ’n’ roll, hanging out with your crazy friends. After that it’s establishing a career. Then when that’s done, it’s like, what’s bigger than this? Maybe it’s having a real relationship. Then it’s kids. We’re at an interesting juncture now – maybe the next big one is death. But to my 16-year-old self – my husband, my beautiful daughter, they would mean nothing to him. I’d have to reassure him with the opera thing.

Of all the relationships in my life, the one with my dad [Loudon Wainwright III] has changed the most. It was very difficult for a long time. But we seem to have found a plateau where we love and respect each other, though we still have to be somewhat mindful of our wounds. I think he was always proud of me but that was coupled with a tremendous jealousy. His career was over by the time mine really took off. He had to step aside, which to this day he refuses to do. He wasn’t very good at masking his resentment. To be fair, my mother wasn’t particularly kind to him when we were growing up. She didn’t speak highly of him. That’s the worst thing any parent can do to the other. But I forgive her wholly because he was the love of her life and her heart was broken.

I’ve spent three quarters of my time living in the public eye and it’s tough when you hit 40. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve taken care of yourself, there’s a constant scrutiny. I have terrible moments of insecurity. But I feel like I made the right choices in terms of my music – opera kind of supersedes all that and fulfils me completely on every level. So all I have to do is grow a beard and I’ll be fine. I’m doing the Carnegie Hall Judy Garland show again at the end of this year. It’s 10 years since I did that show. My mother was alive. I was finally in a real relationship. That was possibly the happiest time of my life; my first Judy Garland period. So fingers crossed, now here comes the second.

Rufus Wainwright’s new album Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets is out on April 22

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