Rufus Wainwright: 'I am somewhat imprisoned by my fabulous career'

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Hailing from folk royalty, Rufus Wainwright has happily toured the world almost all his life. But how is he managing to combine stardom with the commitments of fatherhood?

The last time I saw Rufus Wainwright, two months after the death of his mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, he was all over the place. Laughing dryly one minute, choked with tears the next, he talked about his mother compulsively and seemed unable to stop reliving her final hours, which he spent at her bedside with the rest of the family.

Two years on, it's a considerably more composed figure who sits before me. Looking sleek in slim-fitting jeans and a black-and-white blazer, the 38-year-old says the pain of losing his mother is still raw – "The bottom line is that I don't have her to call up any more and that's still heartbreaking" – but he's staying busy and trying to focus on the future.

Focusing on the future in his case means planning a wedding to his long-term boyfriend, the theatre producer Jörn Weisbrodt – they are due to tie the knot in New York in August – and attending to his young daughter, conceived with his childhood friend, Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard. In February, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen celebrated her first birthday in Los Angeles, with the whole extended family – Wainwrights, Cohens and "deputy dad" Weisbrodt – in attendance. Had an earthquake swallowed up that particular party, a large swathe of the record industry would have gone down with them.

Wainwright and Cohen had talked about having a baby together for years, but they were waiting for the right time. "And this was definitely it. I was about to experience the most devastating loss I'd ever known, and on Lorca's end, the family had just rehabilitated themselves after Leonard had lost everything. [Cohen claimed his former business manager had stolen £9.5m of his earnings.] Happily, I was able to ask my mother what she thought of the whole concept and she was extremely positive. In fact, she ordered me to do it."

Wainwright also sought the opinion of Lorca's aunt Esther, Leonard's older sister. "She told me: 'Rufus, there are plenty of women in this world who would cut off their right arm to have a child with you. Don't you forget that.'"

Along with being a statement of their commitment, Wainwright and Weisbrodt's impending marriage is, he says, "to solidify this structure around Viva. It's so this family unit that we've created is official and legal. Jörn will support me in whatever I want to do at the end of the day, but he's very suited to the whole family thing. When Viva was very tiny, he would hold her while she slept for two hours at a time. As well as being one of the most intelligent, conscientious and unusual thinkers I know, his baseline is that he's a home-maker. He has that domestic gene. After a long trip away, he'll go straight to the bathroom and clean the toilet."

Due to geographical challenges – Wainwright and Weisbrodt are based in New York, while Lorca and Viva move between Paris and Los Angeles – Rufus currently sees his daughter around once a month. "Which is wonderful," he says. "But the separation can be hard and it means I really have to think ahead." Where once he thrived on touring the world, there are now moments when he feels "somewhat imprisoned by my fabulous career. But Lorca and I both made this decision early on, to focus on what the child needs and not what we need as individuals. That means Daddy's got to go out and make a living."

Making a living, of course, means making music, which Wainwright has been doing studiously ever since his daughter's arrival. After an extended period conquering new musical territories, most notably with his debut opera Prima Donna – at the premiere of which he appeared dressed as Verdi, complete with frock-coat and beard – he has returned to his folk-pop roots with a new album, Out of the Game.

Both joyful and tender, the LP channels the sounds of 1970s California with an easy-going yet typically introspective atmosphere through which he tries to reconcile his former promiscuous self with his new incarnation as a settled family man. "It's certainly the first album of my career where I've felt I can relax," he reflects. "Musically, it's where I can rely on the experiences I've had and not try to reinvent the wheel. That's a fantastic feeling. I don't think anything else I've done has had that quality." He grins as he adds: "Even if it has been equally impressive."

The album was produced by Mark Ronson, whom Wainwright first met several years ago at a party through their mutual friend Sean Lennon. "I had hoped to work with him at some point," recalls Wainwright. "Then, when I first set eyes on him, it sealed the deal. You know, the unabashed, totally hot, below-the-belt sexual electricity that comes out of him. So I was very excited on that level as well, of course, as the prospect of his wisdom, experience and talent. Thank God he's straight, or there would have been fireworks."

Out of the Game also finds Wainwright addressing his daughter in the song "Montauk", in which he imagines her as an adult coming to visit him and Weisbrodt in their Long Island summer house as they shuffle around the garden, pruning roses. As anyone who has followed the assorted dramas of the Wainwright clan will know, addressing family members through song is an enduring trait, an often harrowing confessional to which the whole world is invited.

Having famously written a song for his baby son called "Rufus is a Tit Man", his father, the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, would later write "Hitting You", about the first time he struck Rufus's sister Martha, also a successful singer, as a child. When Loudon and Kate were divorcing, it was Kate who articulated her feelings in song, penning the acidic "Go Leave". Rufus would later scorn his father with "Dinner at Eight" ("Daddy, don't be surprised/ If I wanna see the tears in your eyes"), though, in a typical display of one-upmanship, Martha went one better with her ode to Dad, "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole".

Wainwright notes that his father "has, for better or worse, no filter whatsoever for what he does. And I admire that, because never have I known a more tormented artist than him. And I mean that respectfully, because he's just so affected by his artistic radar. We've had our feuds, on my part with 'Dinner at Eight', but I tend to be a little more romantic in my songs. He lives out every word of his."

Even so, looking back, Wainwright concedes that listening to his mother and father thrashing out their differences throughout his childhood, both via song and face to face, was "no picnic". Did you ever ask them to stop? "Yeah, I did, but it was kind of pointless. They were so wrapped up in their own war of the sexes that I don't think Martha or I were even heard. But that was their thing. It's interesting because my father has been lovely to me in this whole process [of having Viva]. But there's still this area that he can't go to any more; we did all these tribute shows to my mother, and he can't go to them or be a part of them. There was a lot of damage between the two of them. But you know," he adds dryly, "they got some incredible material out of it."

Rumour has it that, in the weeks following his birth in 1973, Wainwright slept in a guitar case until his parents got around to purchasing a cot. Based in Montreal, theirs was a bohemian life in which artists and musicians were permanently passing through the house, though in which their mother was very strict. Rufus and Martha were allowed to draw on the ceiling of their bedrooms – "as long as it was creative, it was fine" – but they had to finish all the food on their plates and television was restricted. Despite being part of a family of unbelievers, they were forced to take the catechism in order that they would have a grounding in the rituals of religion. After Loudon left, his mother was a volatile presence. "If she was in a bad mood, she let everybody know. But there was always love, there was always compassion, there was attention paid and time spent. She did an amazing job, but it certainly wasn't by the book."

Despite McGarrigle's seemingly liberal outlook, she had trouble accepting her son's homosexuality, which still rankles. Wainwright came out when Aids was at its height and he feels his mother's negative reaction stemmed as much from fear as disapproval. "She wasn't abusive," he told me two years ago. "But she was never thrilled that I was gay."

Wainwright began playing piano at the age of six and toured with his mother, as part of the McGarrigle Sisters & Family, when he was 13. At home, during family Christmases, he would put on performances of Tosca with his cousins, always taking the lead role himself. In his early teens he wrote the song "I'm a-Runnin'", which he performed on a Canadian children's film and which, in 1990, earned him a nomination for a Juno Award. He began a music degree, but abandoned it on observing that he had more to gain from simply starting his career.

Having recorded a series of demos in the mid-1990s, he gave one to his father, who passed it on to the producer Van Dyke Parks. After listening to it, Parks agreed to produce Wainwright's first self-titled album. But it wasn't until his second album, Poses, written and composed during a six-month stay at New York's fabled Chelsea Hotel, that Wainwright found commercial and critical success. The attention, he admits, went straight to his head. He can't remember much about this period, due to his copious ingestion of the drug crystal meth, which at one point left him temporarily blind. Realising that he could end up either damaged or dead, he sought the advice of his friend Elton John, who referred him to a rehab clinic in Minnesota.

Wainwright continues to see a therapist "for maintenance more than anything". Is he concerned that he might revert to his old ways? "Well, I think I would be foolish not to acknowledge the danger of that happening and to say, 'Oh, I'm not like that any more.' Saying shit like that is a sure sign that I will [revert]. So I'm always aware of that cliff. That being said, I do seem to have more of a safety brake. I am a different person from that period. Back then I remember having no concept of boundaries at all. I was zooming straight towards death."

As for many pop stars with a history of drug abuse, the death of Amy Winehouse last year prompted some reflections on his own circumstances. "I don't think she had a moment when she was able to step back and visualise the path she was on. I was a little bit in the same situation. The only way I was able to get a sense of that happening was by retiring for a while. I'm not religious, but at the end of it I was having these strange William Blake visions of God saying things like: 'This is not your time. You need to stick around for a while.' Crazy as it sounds, I'm a believer in destiny and serendipity and I have had cosmic experiences all my life. Something told me I was meant for greater stuff. And look," he laughs, "I've had a baby! And I've written an opera!"

There's no doubt that work plus a stable relationship seem to have kept Wainwright on an even keel in recent years. Even at his lowest moments, his musical ambition has never dwindled and in the past decade he has barely stopped. Following his critically adored albums Want One and Want Two (released in 2003 and 2004 respectively), there was his recreation of Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall comeback show in 2007. And then, of course, there was Prima Donna, which, having been staged in Manchester and London, finally made its US debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music two months ago.

Though Wainwright is delighted to be back in the pop arena where he first made his name, he hasn't ruled out a return to opera. The weekend before we meet, he performed orchestrated versions of Shakespeare sonnets at London's Barbican, alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which was preceded by readings from the actress Siâ* Philips. I wonder whether there is a streak in him that enjoys baiting critics by crashing, in his beard and frock coat, into their rarefied world. He thinks for a moment. "Well, I am regarded as a usurper, as an imposter and dilettante, because I do technically come from the wrong side of the tracks in musical terms," he says. "Whereas I think the people who know my pop work admire my tenacity in all these different exploits. So it is exhilarating to win that arm-wrestle occasionally – and it is only occasionally. I've no doubt I will return to continue the sweaty fight."

Given this combative spirit, it's surprising to hear that Wainwright can still be wounded by the opinions of critics. "I know, it's strange," he agrees. "We got a great review in the paper today for the sonnets concert, but there was a lukewarm one – in fact, not lukewarm but pretty cold – in another paper the day before. And, you know, I feel 100 times better today. There is a lot of power in [a critic's] position, and some people really wield it. As an artist, you put so much into what you do and it can all be torn down in a nanosecond."

Such moments of professional insecurity are as rare for him as they are for all the Wainwrights whose musical careers are, as far as they and their acolytes are concerned, their birthright. "When it comes to sitting down and composing," he reflects, "there is no hesitation, no concern, no critics breathing fire down my neck. For me writing a song is the purest part of all. No one can mess with that."

'Out of the Game' is released on 23 April on Polydor. Rufus Wainwright, alongside his sister Martha, will be performing at the inaugural Sundance London film and music festival at the O2 on 29 April (sundance-london.com). Rufus also plays a solo concert at the Lyceum Theatre, London WC2, on 30 April

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