Rufus Wainwright: Renaissance man

Rufus Wainwright. Photo by Ben Houdijk
Provocateur, raconteur, and a bit pretentious? You bet. That’s Rufus Wainwright. Photo by Ben Houdijk

Wainwright has plenty of flair and attitude to stay just outside the mainstream

Provocateur, raconteur, and a bit pretentious? You bet. Every bit of it the real deal? For sure. That’s Rufus Wainwright. He is renaissance music man with all the flair and attitude that has kept him just outside the mainstream, but one of the gay community’s (and anyone with good taste’s) greatest treasures.

Many people don’t know that Rufus Wainwright was the first out gay artist to be signed by a major record label. In music, his loves are pop, Baroque, and opera (he’s written two). And his guilty pleasures may no longer include cigarettes­­—but chocolate milk, Leonard Cohen, Judy Garland, and as I found out when I caught up with him recently in Berlin by phone, Jersey Boys.

Wow, it’s been a big summer for us gays, right? Taylor Swift’s even singing about us! Don’t you just feel like gay is the new cool?

Rufus Wainwright: Ha! I feel that gay has always been cool. I mean, arguably for the millennia. You know, when I when I first came out to myself, I was pretty young. I was about 13. That was in the mid 1980s. It was a much more turbulent and kind of vicious world that I inhabited in terms of being gay, you know with AIDS. And it was still illegal in a lot of the western world or at least frowned upon. So I felt much more under pressure. That being said, I then was forced to discover just this amazing history of homosexuality throughout the ages, and harken back to other periods that were so far more treacherous than the one I was living in. That was the kind of exploration that had to occur to give some reason just to feel positive about what was going on in my life.

Rufus Wainwright at a recent concert. Photo by Ben Houdijk
Rufus Wainwright at a recent concert. Photo by Ben Houdijk

But nowadays it’s a real double-edged sword—and I use that term a lot. But this is one of the ways where it works really. It’s literally that on the one hand you have all of these new found rights, and AIDs is no longer ravaging the community, and we can adopt children and all this stuff. And then at the same time it’s being so commercialized and so kind of monetized, and really kind of fed into this corporate system. It’s a tricky situation. On the one hand we want to celebrate all of the advances, but also not just become fodder for the beast. I feel that my own legacy is to basically really encourage young gay people to look back at our history to try to really continue the tradition of excellence and usualness, and queer freedom, and not make it all about acceptance and about, you know, fitting in. Let’s not lose our edges, you know?

You have loved opera since you were a child, and you’ve written two of them so far. The first Prima Donna you’ve admitted was a bit of a learning experience, and now you’ve already premiered your second, Hadrian, last October, in Toronto, but you’re still working on it? What can you tell us about it?

Rufus Wainwright sitting in a chair
Rufus Wainwright photo by Matthew Welch

RW: It’s based on the life and the love affair of the great Emperor Hadrian, and his boyfriend Antoneous. They were like the Calvin Klein young model couple of their day. Sadly Antoneous was killed on the Nile. Hadrian made him into an Egyptian God and wound up going back to his palace and drinking himself to death, so it’s very loose.

I’m very rooted in a 19th Century sensibility, so one great thing about Hadrian is that it has the chance to create this old school grand opera with all the trimmings, duets, and ballets choruses and parades, but then to have the two main characters be out gays. So I’m very happy to give that back to opera.

And we will be getting it here in the U.S.?

RW: Yes, you will, and that’s all I can say for now!

So “Out of the Game” in 2012 was your last, can I say traditional new pop material?

RW: Yes.

Rufus Wainwright photo by Matthew Welch
Rufus Wainwright photo by Matthew Welch

Now, is that the reason for the name of the album—or will you come back to pop music?

RW: Yeah, it was a bit tongue in cheek in the sense that I was working with Mark Ronson. He was arguably the most popular producer I’ve ever worked with.

So for me to say out of the game is kind of joking, but in hindsight yes I did kind of go out of the game for a while with writing operas and stuff. But now with my new album I’m going to be back in the game.

When is that coming out?

RW: That’ll be out in about a year. I finished it, and I worked with the great producer Mitchell Froom. It’s a really great record, and I can’t wait to share it with everybody.

So we’re going to talk about the tour in a second. But before that I want to touch on married life! You’ve been with your husband Jorn now for 14 years.

RW: Yeah, It was just 14 this last month. We got together around my birthday which was July 22nd, and we’ve been married around six years (officially).

Are you like an old married couple who sits around watching Netflix like other couples, or do you just read the Times and create stuff?

RW: Ha! Well, we you know we do a combination of things. And we do bicker. We do have projects and stuff. And we do watch quite a bit of TV, especially since we have a daughter whose eight. So once we put her to bed, it’s like we just like to turn on the news, and you now have Trump who puts us to sleep. I find the horror kind of so exhausting that it actually makes us tired and ready for bed.

You’re an American citizen, right?

RW: Yes, I am. I was born in New York.

So what are your thoughts on 2020 and the election? You got anybody?

RW: Yeah, well I mean, you know I will go with anybody against Trump. On the Democratic field I will say though that I’m becoming ever more impressed by Elizabeth Warren. I’m definitely energized by her and her attitude, and her ability to really clarify the situation and make it about, you know, the issues. Buttigieg is very impressive as well. And Kamala Harris has a real star quality to her, she is like a character in an opera. If it’s Joe Biden—it’s Joe Biden.

Let’s talk about the tour. You started this tour in Japan. You played Ireland and you’ve been all over Denmark, Sweden, France, Berlin, Spain, Italy and now you are headed back to Jersey.

RW: Yeah, I’m very excited to be coming to Jersey.


The upcoming New Jersey tour stops are:

  • Friday, August 23rd, 2019, 7pm at The Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts in Toms River
  • Saturday, August 24th, 2019, 7pm at South Orange Performing Arts Center in  South Orange

RW: Yeah! Jersey has always been fabulous to me and I can play those gigs, and then you know drive home after the show and wake up in my own bed. I can take a dump in my own toilet and that might sound disgusting, but it’s fucking wonderful.

And I think what’s great about New Jersey is that it really is a different planet from New York. In the minute you’re over that bridge you are on a different planet. It’s kind of a parallel universe, and so it’s always exciting to go. And I have to say I have a somewhat weak spot for the Jersey boys—who are, you know, just so, like, so wrong that you want to make them right you know? And now that I’m a married guy I can only get an imaginary kick from that—you know?

Well, I’m sure a few will still appreciate hearing that from you. Thanks, Rufus.

RW: Thank You!

Additional information and other tour stops are at