Rufus Wainwright on folk, fatherhood and fame

BY Simon Button

2nd Aug 2023 Celebrities

Rufus Wainwright on folk, fatherhood and fame
With a folk covers album and upcoming 50th birthday, Canadian-American singer Rufus Wainwright is drawing influence from the past
As he marks 25 years since the release of his debut album, Rufus Wainwright muses: “I’ve learned to take advantage of my failings. I tend to be pretty…well, not lackadaisical but I’m very instinctual. I don’t spend all my time studying and practising. I let my heart take me where it wants to go and I always like to maintain a certain level of ignorance.” 
He used to think that might be a bad thing. “But over the years I’ve realised it’s kind of an asset. I’ve maintained a sense of discovery whenever I’m doing anything new or interesting. It’s always very dangerous and exciting for me, as opposed to something I’ve fully mastered.” 
"Wainwright is an iconoclast who defies categorisation"
The man whose albums includes 2020’s Unfollow the Rules has always marched to the beat of his own drum. Whether it’s mining diverse musical styles, composing operas or recreating Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall concert album live on stage, he’s an iconoclast who defies categorisation. 
When we speak he’s at home in Laurel Canyon, casual in a loose-fitting shirt, sporting a grey beard (he turns 50 this month) but a full head of dark hair. He’s looking forward to performing at the Cambridge Folk Festival in what he promises will be “a fun show” with his new folk band which includes his sister Lucie Wainwright Roach and his musician friend Petra Haden. 
Rufus Wainwright. Image: Penn Turin
Rufus Wainwright. Image: Penn Turin
Is there anything he especially enjoys about performing outdoors? “I was going to say that it depends on the weather,” Rufus grins, “but I have quite a few fantastic memories of performing in England for outdoor crowds when the weather has been pretty crap and people get into it anyway. 
“Especially in the northern hemisphere of Europe, there’s a kind of acceptance that you’re just going to have to contend with the elements. If it’s a beautiful evening then you’re in luck but if not you’re going to have a great time anyway.” 

Growing up on the festival circuit

The son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle partly grew up on the festival circuit. “Oh God, I’ve been to so many festivals,” he says in that unmistakable laidback drawl of his. “I came to the Cambridge Festival as a kid with my parents and I thought the world was one big festival for a while. If only.” 
Rufus will have celebrated his milestone birthday by the time he takes to the stage in Cambridge. “It’s a big one for sure and funnily enough I’ll be turning 50 in Dublin when I play the National Concert Hall there [on July 22nd].”  
Rufus Wainwright and his mother Kate McGarrigle
Wainwright and his mother Kate McGarrigle. Image: Wenn Rights Ltd
With Irish roots on his mother’s side and fond memories of visits to the country when he was young, he adds: “I think that’s kismet, considering my provenance and the fact I’m releasing a folk album. Ireland is a pretty good place to lift off from into the next decade. It was never planned that way, like ‘Now I’m 50 I’m going to harken back to my childhood and mine that territory’ but it’s funny that it’s happening now. It’s a bit spooky.” 
The album in question is a studio set called Folkocracy, which sees him collaborating with the likes of John Legend, Chaka Khan, Sheryl Crow and Susanna Hoffs on reimaginings of folk classics. “It’s me reaching back to my childhood,” Wainwright explains, “and trying to recapture some of that poetry and that philosophy, where people would just make music in the same room and sing songs that were passed down over the generations. It’s about bringing some humanity back to the music-making process because it has gotten quite mechanical.” 
"Artistically I dodged a few bullets. It was always about the music, not the career"
Music as a career was always on the cards for Rufus, who was born in New York and (after his parents divorced when he was three years old) spent his formative years in Montreal. “I was groomed and trained and supported by my mother from the get-go, so there was never any question about that,” he says of following in his parents’ creative footsteps. 
They were successful and respected. “But they were by no means big stars and they didn’t make big money. Even though my life might not have been as glamorous as it was for some of my other friends, like Sean Lennon or Adam Cohen, I think artistically I dodged a few bullets. It was always about the music, not the career. It was all about the songs and I was able to focus on that rather than the trappings of celebrity. I’ve tasted a bit of that since but I was always taught to make it about the art itself.” 

Navigating fame and fatherhood

As a teenager he and his sister Martha toured with their mother Kate and aunt Anna. He identified as gay from around the age of 13 or 14 but his parents didn’t want to discuss it. “They were the adults so maybe they should have been a little more mature about it,” he feels now. “But to be fair it was a very intense period of time. I was having affairs with men at a time when AIDS was devastating the gay male world. I think they were scared and I was too, so we just kind of rolled along.” 
He moved back to New York in 1996 and tried to make a name for himself on the club circuit to no avail. Undeterred, he landed a contract with DreamWorks Records and recorded his self-titled debut album in Los Angeles, releasing it in 1998 to critical acclaim. He moved back to New York and lived at the legendary Chelsea Hotel. “That was a lot of fun. I wore black and stuff. It was great.” 
"I thought it was necessary to sound the alarm about [crystal meth] because it’s such an Achilles heel"
There was drink and drugs as he worked on his second album Poses and, as he later admitted, he got addicted to crystal meth. “It was important for me to speak out about that,” he says now. “With other substances like alcohol I consider that part of the journey and I wouldn’t change it because I learned a lot of things and had a lot of fun. But once crystal meth came into the picture it was so awful and dangerous. I thought it was necessary to sound the alarm about that particular drug because especially for gay men it’s such an Achilles heel.” 
Wainwright and Lorna Luft (Judy Garland's daughter) performing a revival of Garland's Carnegie Hall concert at the London Palladium
Wainwright and Lorna Luft (Judy Garland's daughter) performing a revival of Garland's Carnegie Hall concert at the London Palladium. Image: Sopa Images Limited
He has a devoted fanbase who flocked to Carnegie Hall across two nights in 2006 to witness him recreating Garland’s concert album in its entirety—a feat he repeated in London, Paris and LA. There are rumours that Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli tried to stop the concerts from happening, which Rufus doesn’t comment on beyond saying: “We got off on the wrong foot and she didn’t approve.” 
He thinks Garland would have approved, though. “Or maybe not,” he laughs. And if he could go back in time and ask Garland anything, what would it be? “I’d just want to listen to her talk about everything. I would basically just shut up.” 
Married to German art administrator Jörn Weisbrodt, Rufus is co-parenting daughter Viva with Lorca (daughter of Leonard) Cohen and finds family life just as fulfilling as work. “It happened around the time my mother passed away [in 2010] so it was this sort of transfer of genetic affection,” he smiles. “I feel blessed and incredibly honoured to be given the responsibility to take care of another human being. It’s incredibly profound.” 
Rufus Wainwright's new album Folkocracy is out now 
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