Opera and artist are filled with new spirit

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

November 20, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison

There doesn't seem to be an open place for him. Rufus Wainwright is a literate, die-hard romantic with a strong love for opera and all its grandness, and his music reflects this. So pop's overheated, consolidated climate -- the cluttered, beat-driven productions, the polished-to-death imaging -- may be too much for the man who pens such lines as, "Wouldn't it be a lovely headline / 'Life is Beautiful' on The New York Times."

Listening to his new album, Want One, it's apparent that the 30-year-old artist follows his own muse with no regard to trends or flash. And just for the record: That has always been his style. Obsessively, sometimes beautifully, Rufus has explored pop classicism since dropping his self-titled debut in '98. His poignant lyrics usually center on the draining, never-ending search for "true love." (Good luck. When he finds it, I hope he lets us all know exactly what it is). Most of the time, though, his music drifts into the past, drawing inspiration from 19th-century Italian opera, Gershwin, a little Randy Newman, a dollop of Judy Garland. The results, particularly on Want One, are theatrical, opulent -- an immediate, looping emotional trip.

"I was interested in wanting to get a visceral reaction from this record," says Rufus, who's calling from his Manhattan apartment. "I wanted it to affect people's heart and head. It isn't music you'll play at the bar, but it's accessible."

This new musical clarity has much to do with Rufus' recent drug rehabilitation and personal evolution. He's been candid about all the drama: the anonymous sex with men he met at seedy New York clubs and on the Internet (yeah, the singer has been out of the closet now for about 15 years), the drug abuse (alcohol, coke, ecstasy, crystal meth), the deep insecurities (emotional and sexual).

Working through all of that has been "central in making the new record," Rufus says. "I had been in show business all my life, and, essentially, I equated love with applause. I very much had worked on my stage show and very much had forgotten my soul. Eventually, all of that caught up with me."

It was "gay hell," as the New York-born artist puts it. The sex-and-drug binges blurred his focus. His mom, folk singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, laid something heavy on Rufus that jolted him toward recovery: "You can't make records when you're dead."

The singer sought help and spent a month at Hazelden, the addiction treatment center in Minnesota.

He says, "Something -- God or whoever -- told me at that point that it was time to get my house in order."

Growing up, Rufus always found solace in performance. It was easy to do, because his family is so lushly musical. His pops is folk singer-actor Loudon Wainwright III. Overlooked singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright is his sister. While Rufus was still a child, his parents divorced, and the performer and his sister were raised in Montreal. By 13, Rufus was performing in clubs with the McGarrigle Sisters, which consisted of his mother and aunt Anna. It was also around this time that the artist discovered opera, which awakened him spiritually and certainly musically.

"I had a real healthy dislike for it, because it was so outrageous," Rufus says. "But when I was 14, I heard Verdi's Requiem, and I was changed forever. The opera is my church. What I want to take from that art form is the eternal structure of it. That music is built to last."

It was Van Dyke Parks, the eccentric arranger known for his work with Brian Wilson and Frank Sinatra, who helped secure Rufus' deal with Dreamworks Records in 1993. After the release of Rufus Wainwright five years later, the singer became an instant favorite with critics, and a sizable cult following took shape. In 2001, Poses came out and solidified Rufus' reputation for enveloping, baroque pop with Tin Pan Alley flourishes and diary-entry-like lyrics. Next year, the singer will release Want Two, which will be culled from the mammoth six-month sessions that produced Want One.

Rufus says, "I'm at a point where I've reached the pinnacle of my pop career with this record. Not to say that I'm not going to make more records. But I would like to do stuff a little less personal next time, like write for the theater, do a covers album or something."

Whatever he decides to do, it will brim with sincerity. And there's always room for realness.

Wainwright plays George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H streets Northwest, tonight at 8. Call Ticketmaster at 410-481-SEAT or visit www.ticketmas ter.com for tickets or more information.

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