Rufus Wainwright interview: ‘I would really like to have a pop hit’

He has a new husband, a new daughter, a new opera in the works and a new album out. Now all he wants is a No 1

“I really regret not having been more athletic”, states Rufus Wainwright. As far as regrets go, it’s not, say, leaving the love of your life or turning down the one opportunity to fulfil your dream career. And, in his red hoodie, the 40-year-old certainly looks pretty athletic.

The subject of regrets and reflection is prompted by the retrospective album that Wainwright is about to release. An impressive collection, it spans his 20-year career, including yearning numbers “I Don’t Know What It Is” and “Go or Go Ahead” and his new bouncy single, “Me and Liza”, that is currently enjoying playlist status on Radio 2.

“For all the time spent writing songs,” he continues over a pot of English breakfast tea at St Martins Lane Hotel, London, “I sometimes wish I’d spent at least a quarter of that playing sports or climbing mountains, developing more of a physique. Being a gay man and hitting 40, I’ve woken up immediately to the fact of, ‘oh my God, I’m no longer this fresh-faced blushing rose’.” He laughs, loudly and dryly. “And now I gotta get steroids.”

But then the musician hailed as the greatest living singer-songwriter by Elton John might not have released – to date – seven studio albums of critically acclaimed chamber-pop, or performed in such prestigious venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall, or written an opera, or performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or, more recently, expanded his oeuvre to collaborate with Robbie Williams, performing the song they jointly wrote at the London Palladium in December.

Based in Montauk, New York, Wainwright finds himself in the UK a couple of times a year to play shows and for his classical work (in 2012 he worked alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra, setting Shakespearean sonnets to music). The UK is where his opera Prima Donna premiered, at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, before it reached London and, finally, Brooklyn. More recently, his London visits have revolved around concerts alongside his sister Martha, in tribute to their mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, with whom they grew up in Montreal and who died four years ago after battling cancer.

A tremendous amount has happened since Wainwright’s mother’s death. He married his partner, Jorn Weisbrodt, in 2012; turned 40 in July; and back in 2011, became a father to Viva, now three years old, with his childhood friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard. That’s a lot of milestones. “After my mother passed away, we were so incredibly morose, and after that process was finished I couldn’t imagine going through anything so dramatic and so heartbreaking; but then, you know, right after that happens you start to develop feelings for your child and your significant other. Life is just ready to hand you the next big piece of pie to try and finish. It’s a beautiful process. It’s getting more and more full in my life. And I love it, but it’s also... getting older.”

Major life events tend to throw one into self-reflection, and with the top three hurtling into his life in as many years – plus a significant birthday – it’s no surprise that the musician is in philosophical mode. And with all areas of his life now in place, there is the sense that there couldn’t be a more apt time for a greatest hits album.

“Best of,” he corrects, with a smile. “Because I haven’t actually ever had a hit, really. On a Robbie Williams level. But I do feel that I’ve written songs over the years that have lasted. It’s nice to look back at, and nice to remember and nice to know that we survived. Or that I survived.” He’s laughing dryly again, a flicker of sobriety behind the light-hearted comment. Back when he was in his first flush of fame and success early in his career, an addiction to crystal meth left him temporarily blind and in rehab.

It’s not just for personal reasons that now is a good time to release a retrospective album. There are practical ones, too. So many musicians have a tale to tell of being taken advantage of by the industry, of being signed up to punishing, creativity-draining contracts. When Wainwright was just 23, still without the proper representation of a lawyer or a manager, he was called to Hollywood, where he became the first musician to be signed by DreamWorks. “In retrospect I was totally taken advantage of by the industry and tied into this insane contract of seven albums,” he recalls wearily, before quickly dismissing it as an inevitable evil that befalls all musicians. “It’s always a tricky symbiotic relationship between the industry and the artist.”

Now, with all contractual obligations out of the way, the path is clear for Wainwright to release whatever he chooses. After reflecting on his back catalogue, he has discovered that pursuing a “Robbie Williams level” hit is among his goals. Unsurprising for a musician whose main influence is opera. He is not your conventional pop star: his uncategorisable songs are too theatrical to be “pop”, their intricate key-changing twists and turns more typically found in classical music. “[Opera is] probably where I get the weird chord structures, because I tend to look at songs as arias rather than songs – and I like that dramatic centre,” he explains. “I’ve always been a very peculiar artist; nobody can quite figure out where to put me.”

And so he is turning his thoughts towards working with Robbie Williams some more. Wainwright was at the Palladium show, and is, he exclaims delightedly, a “big fan”. Not only that, but he throws out the name Adele as the next artist he’d like to work with, following his collaborations with such heavyweight names as Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Pet Shop Boys and David Byrne. “I’d love to write a song with Adele. Having released the Best Of, I feel confident I’ve proved what I can do and what I’m all about. And now in terms of poppy stuff – I don’t want to say I can do something crap – but I can mess about a little bit more than I used to. I would like to have a pop hit.” He thought his last album, Out of the Game, would spark that, but despite production by hit-maker Mark Ronson, “It didn’t at all. But whatever. It’s the ubiquitous carrot on a stick.”

He reckons his lack of a hit song could also be down to his choice of subject matter. “The ability to write a hit song is still something I attempt to do. Even looking at the Best Of, I am trying to write melodies that are catchy and people will remember, but they’re always backed up by this intellectual – some would argue dilettantism or greatness,” he says with surprising immodesty. “It’s a struggle between the popular and the... sacred. I’ll sit down and say, ‘I wanna write a hit song’ and then I’ll start writing about American politics or something and then at the end I’m like, ‘Well it sounds kinda like a hit song, but I’m attacking the government’.”

When Wainwright isn’t attending to his family, or immersed in classical music or opera, chances are he will be writing or seeking inspiration for songs. “I write all the time. I’ve really boiled it down to: eat, drink, poo, write a song. There’s no difference, really. My make-up is that my song comes – and I then block [everything] out and finish it, and it’s done. It’s this physical sense of relief, maybe even like a drugged-up feeling. So I guess I’m addicted.”

He aims to write every morning, and says his best ideas come when he’s out on the ocean, near his home in Montauk, or walking, people-watching as he paces the city’s streets, or going out at night, “seeing what the kids are up to”.

I notice the white rubber wristband he’s wearing. It is, he says, a symbol to remember and support the sick daughter of a friend of his; he and his husband have worn one since their wedding day. “I wear it in solidarity,” he explains. “She’s doing really well.”

Is he superstitious? “I’m not superstitious, but I definitely believe in celestial forces. I do think there’s someone up there looking after me at least, and everyone in my circle. I just live such a charmed life. And I guess it could all turn on a dime. You don’t want to invoke these forces, but I feel confident that maybe this is also the thing with the greatest hits; I’ve had a great life.”

He’s not Catholic, he says, but he does go to church sometimes to light candles in front of the Virgin Mary. He prefers to see himself as a spiritualist. “I don’t meditate per se, but I do pray, and I do believe in reincarnation.” Really? “Oh yeah,” he says with conviction. “After my mother passed away, I see her in my daughter’s eyes all the time. I don’t think my daughter’s my mother,” he clarifies. “But of course reincarnation exists. It’s just genetics, you know, genetic information being passed on.”

His daughter has already inspired three songs, including the lullabic “Montauk” on his most recent album. As for whether he hopes that Viva will tap into her rich musical heritage, he says, “There’s a side of me that’s secretly hoping she gets a real job. But we’ll see.”

Does he sing to her? “I do. A lot. She seems to enjoy it. Sometimes she tells me to shut up, though, which is good.”

It’s his family on whom he first tests out his songs, and it’s never been any other way. Until 2010, his mother was his critic of choice; now it’s his husband. “They’re both Aquarians and my daughter’s an Aquarian. I love Aquarians. They’re very good with creative understanding. Then probably the real test is Martha. Martha is the one who I have to make sure the song is up to par because she’s a Taurus. And I think Martha is one of my greatest fans, but also she has a very critical mind, which I appreciate. My husband’s German, so he can be brutally honest as well. He’s very supportive. But I’m required to write a song about him for every album. He’s like, ‘where’s my song?’” His recent albums, he confirms, have delivered the required songs.

“I’m not out of the game yet, even though my last album was called that,” he says, with a glint in his eye. Of course not. There’s the next opera he’s working on, commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company, based on the life of Emperor Hadrian, some music he’s writing for Hollywood movies which he can’t share just yet, and his hopes to write with Adele. That hit song could be right round the corner. But just now he’s switching back to opera – he has to dash next door to the London Coliseum to watch The Magic Flute. Rufus Wainwright will always be a complex musical entity. And we wouldn’t want him any other way.

‘Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright’  is released on 3 March on Universal; Rufus Wainwright plays Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 5 March and Theatre Royal, London on 6 April

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