Rufus Wainwright Biography
Rufus McGarrigle Wainwright (born July 22, 1973) is a Grammy-nominated,1 Canadian-American singer-songwriter. He has recorded five albums of original music, several EPs, and numerous tracks included on compilations and film soundtracks. He is the son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, brother of Martha Wainwright, and half-brother of Lucy Wainwright Roche.
Wainwright was born in Rhinebeck, New York, to folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III (a direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Director-General of New Netherland2). His parents divorced when he was three years old, and he lived with his mother in Montréal, Canada for most of his youth. Wainwright is both a U.S and Canadian citizen.3 He attended high school at the Millbrook School in upstate New York (which would later inspire his song 'Millbrook'), and later briefly studied piano at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montréal. He began playing the piano at age six, and started touring at thirteen with 'The McGarrigle Sisters and Family', a folk group featuring Rufus, his sister Martha, his mother Kate, and aunt Anna. His song 'I'm a-Runnin'', which he performed in the film Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller at the age of fourteen, earned him a nomination for a 1989 Genie Award for Best Original Song.4 He was also nominated for a 1990 Juno Award for Most Promising Male Vocalist of the Year.5
Wainwright came out as gay while still a teenager.6 In 1999, he told Rolling Stone that his father recognized his son's homosexuality early on. 'We'd drive around in the car, he'd play 'Heart of Glass' and I'd sort of mouth the words, pretend to be Blondie. Just a sign of many other things to come as well.'7 Wainwright later said in another interview that his 'mother and father could not even handle me being gay. We never talked about it really.'8
Wainwright became interested in opera during his adolescent years, and the genre strongly influences his music. (For instance, the song 'Barcelona' features lyrics from the libretto of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, Macbeth.) During this time, he also became deeply interested in Édith Piaf, Al Jolson, and Judy Garland.
At the age of fourteen, Wainwright was sexually assaulted in London's Hyde Park after picking up a man at a bar.8 He remained celibate for seven years after the incident, which he claims postponed his becoming promiscuous.8 In an interview several years later, he described the event: 'I said I wanted to go to the park and see where this big concert was going on. I thought it was going to be a romantic walk in the park, but he raped me and robbed me afterwards and tried to strangle me'.9 Wainwright states that he survived only by pretending to be an epileptic and faking a seizure.10
Through weekly shows at Cafe Sarajevo, Wainwright became a fixture on the Montréal club circuit and eventually cut a series of demo tapes produced by Pierre Marchand, who also later produced Wainwright's album Poses. The resulting tapes impressed Loudon, who passed them on to his friend Van Dyke Parks. Parks, a record producer, songwriter, and recording artist in his own right, sent the recordings to Lenny Waronker, the DreamWorks executive that eventually signed Wainwright to his label.11 Waronker stated the following of Wainwright: 'When I was about to listen to his tape, I remember clearly I was thinking, 'Gee, if he has the mom's musicality and smarts, and the dad's smarts and voice, that'd be nice.' Then I put it on and I said, 'Oh, my God, this is stunning.''11
The singer moved to New York City in 1996 and began performing regularly at Club Fez, building a loyal local audience. He relocated to Los Angeles later that year and began recording his first studio album, 1998's Rufus Wainwright. Waronker paired Wainwright with producer Jon Brion, and the two spent most of 1996 and 1997 making the record. Wainwright recorded 56 songs in total, spread out over 62 rolls of tape. Costs for the recording sessions reached $700,000.11
Wainwright's self-titled debut received critical acclaim; Rolling Stone recognized it as one of the best albums of the year, and named the singer 'Best New Artist' of the year. Wainwright was nominated for four awards by the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards, including Album of the Year, Pop Recording of the Year and Video of the Year, and won for Best New Artist.1213 Rufus Wainwright won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music Album and a Juno Award for Best Alternative Album.145 However, commercial success of the album was limited; the debut failed to chart in any country, though he ranked #24 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart.15
Wainwright toured with Sean Lennon in 1998 and began his first headline tour later that year. In December 1998, he appeared in a Gap commercial directed by Phil Harder, performing Frank Loesser's 'What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?'. The promotion increased both his visibility and his record sales. In March 1999, Wainwright began a headlining tour at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey.
By 1999, Wainwright had taken time off to put music on the back burner. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC for six months, during which he wrote most of his second album. On June 5, 2001, Wainwright's sophomore album, Poses, was released to critical acclaim but limited record sales. The album ranked #117 on the Billboard 200 and #1 on the Top Heatseekers chart.1615 Poses won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music Album, a Juno Award for Best Alternative Album, and was nominated by the Juno Awards for Best Songwriter ('Poses' / 'Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk' / 'Grey Gardens').175 From 2001 to 2004, he toured with Tori Amos, Sting, Ben Folds, and Guster, as well as headlining the 2001 and 2002 tour in support of the album.
Wainwright became addicted to crystal meth in the early 2000s and temporarily lost his vision as a result. His addiction reached its peak in 2002, during what he described as 'the most surreal week of my life.' During that week, he played a cameo role in the UK comedy television program, Absolutely Fabulous, spent several nights partying with George W. Bush's daughter Barbara,18 enjoyed a 'debauched evening' with his mother and Marianne Faithfull, sang with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons for Zaldy's spring 2003 collection, and experienced recurring hallucinations of his father throughout. He decided shortly after that he 'was either going to rehab or I was going to live with my father. I knew I needed an asshole to yell at me, and I felt he fit the bill.'19
Seeking guidance, he telephoned his friend Elton John, who persuaded him to check in to rehab at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota. He detoxed and underwent therapy at the facility, which he has stated in several interviews gave him 'a second chance'. He refrains from discussing his experience in rehab or answering questions about his subsequent sobriety, although he adamantly opposes crystal meth use.
Wainwright's album Want Two, from which four songs were released as the EP Waiting for a Want, was released by DreamWorks/Geffen on November 16, 2004. It is a companion/sequel to the 2003 release, Want One. Afterward, a live iTunes Sessions EP entitled Alright, Already: Live in Montréal was released on March 15, 2005. A DVD entitled All I Want, featuring a biographical documentary, music videos, and live performances, was released internationally in 2005. That same year, Wainwright made two major contributions as a solo vocalist to a pair of records: the Mercury Prize-winning Antony and the Johnsons' I am a Bird Now and Burt Bacharach's At This Time.
Want One and Want Two were repackaged as Want for a November 2005 release to coincide with the beginning of a British tour. This version of Want One contains two extra songs: 'Es Muß Sein' and 'Velvet Curtain Rag'. The Want package in the UK has two bonus tracks: 'Chelsea Hotel No. 2' (a Leonard Cohen cover) and 'In With the Ladies', which replace 'Coeur de Parisienne — Reprise d'Arletty' and 'Quand Vous Mourez de Nos Amours' from 2004's augmented edition.
Wainwright's fifth studio album, Release the Stars, was released by Geffen on May 15, 2007. The album was produced by Wainwright and featured Richard Thompson, friend Teddy Thompson, sister Martha Wainwright, mother Kate McGarrigle, Neil Tennant, Joan Wasser, Julianna Raye, Larry Mullins (professionally known as Toby Dammit), and actress Siân Phillips.20 It reached #2 on the UK Albums Chart, and debuted at #23 on the Billboard 200. The first single, 'Going to a Town', was released on April 3, 2007 via the iTunes Music Store. The second single released was 'Rules and Regulations', and the third and final single was a 500-copy (12' vinyl) release of 'Tiergarten', a one-track EP also containing the Supermayer remix of Tiergarten, which was released exclusively through iTunes and 7digital on October 29. Two video clips were released for the album: 'Going to a Town', directed by Sophie Muller, and 'Rules and Regulations', directed by Petro Papahadjopoulos and styled by J.W. Anderson. Release the Stars was eventually certified gold in the UK. The accompanying world tour saw Wainwright visit North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, ending on February 14, 2008 with a concert at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
On June 10, 2006, NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday broadcast an interview of Wainwright by Scott Simon. The segment concerned Wainwright's sold-out pair of Carnegie Hall shows on June 14 and June 15, 2006 in which he performed the entire Judy Garland concert album that was recorded there in 1961.21 He later repeated his performance at the London Palladium, the Paris Olympia, and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.22 Live CD and DVD recordings of the concerts were released on December 4, 2007. The DVD is entitled Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy!: Live from the London Palladium. The CD album, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, is a recording of his show at the legendary New York venue.23 In 2008, Garland's daughter Lorna Luft expressed strong approval of Wainwright's recordings of her mother's songs.24 The album was nominated for a 2009 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.1
Wainwright created the concept of Blackoutsabbath in early 2008. In an attempt to become more environmentally conscious, participants are asked to live 'off the grid' as much as possible on a designated date by unplugging appliances, walking or cycling for transportation, turning out lights and decreasing energy usage in any other ways possible.
As the sun sets on the evening of Blackoutsabbath, participants write down a list of ways they can contribute to the earth's well-being throughout the rest of the year. Annual benefit concerts take place to raise awareness of the cause. Special guests performing at the concert included Joan Wasser, Jenni Muldaur, and friend and fellow singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson.25 The organization's official site contains updates about the program and contains links to various tools, green products and services, studies, and groups that promote energy conservation and environmental protection.26
Following his 2007–2008 tour, Wainwright began writing his first opera, Prima Donna, which he says will be about 'a day in the life of an opera singer' anxiously preparing for her comeback, who falls in love with a journalist.2728 There are four characters, and the libretto will be in French.29 The opera was originally commissioned by Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb. However, because of a dispute over Wainwright's decision to write the libretto in French and the Met's inability to schedule an opening in the 2009 season, Wainwright and the Met have ended their relationship.30 Instead of opening Prima Donna in New York, Wainwright will stage it for the Manchester International Festival in 2009, where the first stagings will take place on July 10, 12, 14, 17, and 19.3132
In addition to his baritone singing voice, he plays both piano and the guitar, often switching between the two instruments when performing live. While some songs feature just Wainwright and his piano, his later work is often accompanied by rock instrumentation or a symphony orchestra, displaying complex layering and harmonies with an operatic feel. Wainwright is an avid fan of opera and Franz Schubert's Lieder.citation needed Some of Wainwright's songs have been described as 'popera' (pop opera) or 'baroque pop'. Many of his compositions are densely packed amalgams of strings, horns, operatic choruses, ragtime rhythms, and his own distinctively warm vocal timbre.33
He often performs with his sister, Martha Wainwright, on backup vocals. Despite a growing cult following and critical acclaim, Wainwright has experienced somewhat limited commercial success in the United States, although the release of Release the Stars saw increased media attention there, as did the associated 2007 U.S. tour.34
In addition to his role in Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, Wainwright has appeared in the films The Aviator and Heights. He has also recorded tracks specially for films, including Brokeback Mountain, I am Sam, Moulin Rouge!, Shrek, Meet the Robinsons, Big Daddy, and Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. He is seen in the Denys Arcand film, L’Âge des ténèbres, performing two arias.22
The All I Want DVD, released in 2005, features a full-length documentary (A Portrait of Rufus Wainwright), performances at Central Park SummerStage and Cambridge Corn Exchange, studio sessions, music videos, and two bonus Easter eggs: a 12-minute documentary from 1998, featuring Wainwright and his family, and a short tribute to the McGarrigle sisters featuring Rufus and Martha.
In February 2005, the Pennsylvania Ballet premiered a ballet by Matthew Neenan that was set to Wainwright's music.35 The Pennsylvania Ballet has performed the work (titled 11:11) several times, including during an eponymous program in June 2006.36 It has been an audience favorite,36 although critical reviews have been mixed.37
In May 2006, Wainwright was one of three special guests (along with Robbie Williams and Frances Barber) to star with the Pet Shop Boys in a concert at London's Mermaid Theatre. He covered the Pet Shop Boys' 'Casanova in Hell' (from Fundamental). The critically acclaimed show was broadcast on the UK's BBC Radio 2 and repeated on BBC 6 Music, and released as a CD (Concrete) in October 2006.
In June 2007, Wainwright was a part of the multi-artist True Colors Tour, which traveled through 15 cities in the United States and Canada. The tour, sponsored by the Logo channel, began on June 8, 2007. Hosted by comedian Margaret Cho and headlined by Cyndi Lauper, the tour also included Debbie Harry, The Gossip, the Indigo Girls, The Dresden Dolls, The MisShapes, and Erasure. Profits went to the Human Rights Campaign. In August 2007, Wainwright said that he considered it a 'great honor' to perform on the gay rights tour.38
Wainwright continued to tour during 2007 and embraced forms of expression not usually part of mainstream American music concerts. These included dressing in red lipstick and stiletto heeled shoes to perform Judy Garland songs, and expressing his concerns against the current U.S. political situation. His performances were critically acclaimed.39
Wainwright's oeuvre contains several recurring themes: opera, literature, pop culture, and more recently politics, attraction, yearning, and love (often unrequited). In 'Foolish Love', Wainwright describes the joys of initial infatuation with stateside radio producer Jon W. Knowles, and in 'The Art Teacher' he tackles a first-person infatuation between a schoolgirl and her teacher.40 Other songs address full-blown love and the consequences of falling out of love ('This Love Affair' and 'Peach Trees'). Wainwright also sings about his family relationships. 'Beauty Mark', 'Little Sister', and 'Dinner at Eight' address, respectively, his experiences with his mother, sisters, and father.
Religion and religious imagery also appear in his music ('Agnus Dei', 'Gay Messiah', and 'Greek Song'). Wainwright also sings about experiences in the world and distant geography ('Oh What a World' and 'April Fools'). Several songs address his experiences with crystal meth and rehab ('Go Or Go Ahead' and 'I Don't Know What It Is').
Wainwright wrote the song 'Millbrook' about his high school, Millbrook School in Millbrook, New York. The song 'Matinee Idol' from that album was written about River Phoenix. 'Memphis Skyline' is a tribute to the late singer Jeff Buckley, who drowned in Memphis in the Wolf River (a tributary of the Mississippi) on May 29, 1997. The two met briefly in the 1990s when Wainwright was an up-and-coming act. By this time, Buckley had already released his first album Grace, and was well on his way to stardom. He has said that he had been irritated that Buckley played at Sin-é, a café on the Lower East Side, as Wainwright had been rejected three times by the club. The two met several months prior to Buckley's drowning, during a gig by Wainwright. Buckley helped out with some technical problems, and the two chatted over beers for a few hours. The song references 'Hallelujah', a Leonard Cohen song covered by Buckley (and later by Wainwright).
The song 'Sanssouci' ('carefree' in French) was inspired by 18th century Prussian monarch Frederick the Great's Rococo summer palace of the same name in Potsdam, outside Berlin, Germany. 'Tiergarten', also from Release the Stars, refers to the Berlin Tiergarten, and is written about his boyfriend of three years, German arts administrator Jörn Weisbrodt.
Also from Release the Stars, 'Nobody's Off the Hook' is said to be written to close friend and fellow musician Teddy Thompson, whom Wainwright has known for about 10 years.
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