Rufus Wainwright: Living the high life

Two years ago, he was a cult singer heading for oblivion on a cocktail of drugs. Today, everyone from kd lang to his famous family is hailing him a musical genuis. And, says Rufus Wainwright, they're right. He tells Craig McLean how arrogance and Elton John saved his life
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When he went blind, Rufus Wainwright knew he was doing too many drugs. He had been an enthusiastic recreational dabbler for some years: being a musician and a gay man he felt it incumbent on him to dive in there and sniff, swallow and consume.

When he went blind, Rufus Wainwright knew he was doing too many drugs. He had been an enthusiastic recreational dabbler for some years: being a musician and a gay man he felt it incumbent on him to dive in there and sniff, swallow and consume.

But this time he went too far. "I'd done a combination of crystal meth and Ecstasy and special K [ketamine] and cocaine, and God knows what. I was full of the pharmacy," he says with a flourish, affecting an ultra-camp lisp as if a fake voice means it wasn't him doing it.

Wainwright, 30, is perched primly on the edge of a black leather sofa, fingering his sunglasses and a paper cup of Starbucks coffee. He looks bleary and possibly hungover, but he assures me that this is not the case. He's been working hard in the recording studio, he says, although he does let slip - as is his delicious name-dropping wont - that he was in the company of Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant last night, and the conversation turned to George Michael's much-publicised sexual behaviour.

We are sitting in a lounge area at his publicist's office in St John's Wood, London, on a grey spring lunchtime. But Wainwright - painterly songwriter, wordsmith extraordinaire, flamboyant anecdotalist, fantastical vocalist and a musician who considers himself more pre-Raphaelite than rock - is transporting us back to his adopted hometown of New York during the dark days of 2002.

"I thought I'd come down," he continues, describing his climactic bender, "and I was very, very assertive about my new position." Cue emphatic nod of head, the slap of hand on thigh, the pursing of lips.

"My new position being that I was no longer going to do drugs, that I was going to stop the war in Iraq, that I was going to go and live with my father." Wainwright hadn't slept for five days. His focus was evangelical and remarkable. Not only because this was many months before the actual war in Iraq started (out of the mouths of babes and addicts), but because he has long had a fraught relationship with his dad, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. After he and Rufus's mum - folk singer Kate McGarrigle - divorced when Rufus was three, American-born Rufus and his sister Martha moved to Canada while his dad stayed in New York.

Anyway. He was clearly still high. "And essentially that night I really crashed. And I saw dead bodies in the corner and then... went blind."

For an hour, Wainwright couldn't see or speak. But a corner of his brain was rational enough to form the thought: "I'm gonna lose my mind." Luckily, he had a friend with him, "someone who was sane". Slowly, his senses, and some sense, returned. In between uncontrollable weeping, he wondered what to do with his life.

He knew he had been luckier than most musicians: his dad had given one of Rufus's demos to Van Dyke Parks - the celebrated strings arranger for the Beach Boys who would go on to work on Wainwright's debut album - who in turn passed it to music-biz veteran Lenny Waronker, then one of the principal executives at major label DreamWorks. Duly signed, Wainwright had released two albums of sublime orchestral pop, Rufus Wainwright (1998) and Poses (2001).

But while his following was devoted, it was small. He had endured three soul-sapping years in pursuit of success living in Los Angeles. He lived for the thrill of late nights and judged his worth against the volume of the applause. He had ambitions beyond his circumstances - would he ever realise his dream of writing an opera? He was sexually promiscuous but had never slept with someone he loved. He was staring down the barrel of his thirties with that double-edged accolade, "the cult artist", hanging over him. And he was an out-of-control party animal. What next?

"So I called Elton John. He told me to go to rehab."

Why Elton John?

"Cause I knew that he'd had some similar difficulties, and I knew that he'd helped people before. And also he'd known my father, they were friends, so I had this sense that I had to call him. And he helped me tremendously. At that point when I entered the doors of rehab, I realised that there would forever be a side of myself that would be private - finally. Cause before that I would use anything to turn someone's head in interviews. Which worked for a while but actually kinda hurt me ultimately. My reputation," he sighs. "But you know, in the end, it's a kinda wonderful story."

It is that. From the wreckage of his life, post-rehab, Rufus Wainwright crafted his third album, Want One, one of the most beautiful, affecting and otherworldly albums released in many years. He says, entirely believably, that he had a "vaguely religious" experience while in his exhausted state. "There was a little voice telling me: 'Get your own house in order and you will make a great record.' It stuck in my head and resonated."

A few of Want One's 14 flawless songs began life before he cleaned up his act. The opening, waltzingly elegant "Oh What A World" has a pained and hopeful Wainwright asking "Wouldn't it be a lovely headline/ 'Life is Beautiful'/On the New York Times."

He says he wrote the song "in a very surreal state of mind. I wasn't necessarily in an altered state, but I'm pretty sure I was exhausted." He was on the Eurostar from Paris to London when inspiration struck. "I saw this fabulously handsome man. I often will have a song strike at that moment, as a kind of... almost... uh... prayer, hah hah hah." Wainwright's ready laugh ricochets round the room, a machine-gun cackle that is part Larry the Lamb, part Lily Savage.

Seeing someone he fancies, he says, is a good catalyst. "The song itself doesn't necessarily have to do with that person, but somehow the sight of extreme beauty pushes the on-button. It's amazing the power of that."

The night Wainwright left rehab in late 2002, he was in a hotel-cum-halfway-house, readying to leave for supplementary psychiatric treatment in New Mexico. That evening he wrote "Want", the song that is, sort of, Want One's title track. It begins: "I don't want to make it rain/I just want to make it simple." It felt like the first night of the rest of his life, he says. He fulfilled his obligation to go to New Mexico, but left early: he knew he had a great record to make.

Now, having received rave reviews but only those pesky "cult-level sales" last year, Want One is being re-released. This is only in part due to Wainwright's willingness "to dabble in the world of fashion, to appear at Soho House at two in the morning, to live in LA for three years, to play this kind of game and just, you know, refuse to fade. Schmoozing is a necessary evil."

Aside from being an enormous talent and an assiduous aesthete (he loves pre-Raphaelite painters, Judy Garland and the films and music of the 1940s), Wainwright is also a celebrity scenester. He's been sort of famous since his infant days, when Loudon Wainwright III wrote a song about his breastfeeding son called "Rufus is a Tit-Man".

The net result is that Wainwright knows lots of famous artists. From his Canadian childhood he knows Leonard Cohen's daughter, Lorca, and Cohen himself. From New York he knows Julian Lennon. Neil Tennant passed Wainwright's album to his friend Barbara Charone, the UK publicist for, among others, Madonna and REM. According to Wainwright, it is Charone who "demanded" the re-promotion of Want One. This week, he is supporting Sting at the Royal Albert Hall, participating in An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs in Brighton (his version of Cohen's "Hallelujah" is on the Shrek soundtrack), and later this month is touring with his mum, aunt and sister. Wainwright, like his beloved starlets from music's pre-rock and pop years, with his performing genes coursing through him, is nothing if not a trouper.

"I think a successful career is about 10 per cent talent and 90 per cent drive and desire and the thirst for blood," he cackles."I have elements of that, but I do also believe that the fans that I have procured... * captured... Once I've tricked them into being my friend, they actually discover that there is something at the end of the rainbow. They are eventually won over by the material. That's sorta been my strategy. And, you know, at first a lot of people thought I was very arrogant."

Aren't you?

"Oh I am! But I'm only that way because I can deliver. I have to be arrogant and precious so that people notice me. It's not a time to be self-deprecating and modest about yourself."

But nor, Wainwright appreciates, with the music industry in crisis, is it time to be throwing toys out of the pram. He has almost completed another album, Want Two, a companion piece to Want One. He conceived it as a double album - from a marketing point of view, not a good idea - but says he is now content to have five songs from Want Two released as a taster EP this summer, with the full album to follow.

But there is some urgency. Whereas Want One covers his personal immolation and recovery, Want Two is more political. He's been galvanised and horrified by America's actions in the world, and is keen to have the songs out there before this autumn's election. He says, entirely earnestly, that he has no option but to protest outside this summer's Republican convention in New York and that he is "willing to die for this".

Are you ashamed to be American right now?

"No, because I don't think it's America that's doing this. It's the military-industrial complex, and it's distinctly un-American. But I do feel ashamed of our government, and sometimes of our people - yes," he decides.

Another new song, "The Gay Messiah", is already a central component of Wainwright's live set. It might not be apparent from lines such as "I won't be the one/Baptised in cum", but it was inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Religious wars are back in fashion, and the main problem is that I don't empathise with religious sentiment. Gay people are not represented in that literature. So even though it's silly, I feel like I can't enter the conversation. So I decided to write a song about how the next messiah would be a homosexual. The Bible needs a gay gospel."

Stagey, melodramatic, politicised and focused, Wainwright is feeling a lot better now, thanks. He has parts in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (playing a lounge singer) and a new Merchant- Ivory film Heights (playing a "faggy, arty" type opposite Glenn Close). Having not been horrified by his acting, he is "taking meetings" in Hollywood.

Now, if only he could find love.

"I'm still vaguely sluttish - still available. Still tasting," he hoots."But I'm playing for keeps these days. And, after the rough spot that I had, I am a lot more attractive. I lost a good 20lbs. My teeth were yellow. Complexion was a little off. It was kinda sexy for a couple of years - it worked, there's no denying it. But once you hit 30, man, there's a whole other rulebook."

American treasure: What they are saying about Rufus Wainwright

"He is, for me, the as-yet unheralded American treasure"
Elton John

"A complete inspiration and one of the most accomplished musicians of today"
Scissor Sisters

"Rufus stands next to Nina Simone"
Michael Stipe, REM

" Want One is inspired, an incredible display of songwriting. The balance between earthiness and dreaminess, wit and melancholy is astonishing" Tim Rice-Oxley, Keane

"His songs are obviously drawn
from his own experience, but he's mastered the art of making them emotionally universal" David Byrne

"I can't think of a better songwriter working today than Rufus Wainwright. His songs have so much beauty, wit and musical inventiveness" Neil Tennant

"Rufus is one of life's finest pleasures"
Nelly Furtado

"He's just what the doctor ordered"
kd lang

Rufus Wainwright supports Sting at the Royal Albert Hall (020 7589 8212) this week and performs at An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs at the Brighton Dome (01273 709 709) on Saturday and 23 May. On 24 May, he plays at the Royal Festival Hall (020 7960 4242). 'Want One' is out now