Wainwright's big left turn

The singer-songwriter goes for the major issues: love, war, sex, the Oval Office ...

December 03, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Rufus Wainwright, the literate singer-songwriter, has small roles in two new films: Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and the Merchant-Ivory production Heights. "In both of these movies, I have great entrances," he says on the phone from Los Angeles, "and that's all you really need."

The 31-year-old musician, who will be playing at Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall tonight, has been making great entrances for a long time now. Consider his lineage: His parents are the legendary folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. But Rufus has veered sharply from those homespun roots into richly orchestrated and starkly emotional pop.

"I really took a left turn when I was 14 and decided to dedicate my musical ambition to imitating opera and accepted that form as my muse, and neither my parents or my sister knew what the hell I was doing," Wainwright says, adding that he's never felt in the shadow of his parents. "I felt more challenged by dead composers."

The songs on his newest album, Want Two, a follow-up to last year's Want One, traffic in subjects both timeless and transient - war, family, love and sexuality, and the current occupant of the White House. One song, "Waiting for a Dream" has a line written last year about the "ogre in the Oval Office."

"That's definitely still current," Wainwright says. "I didn't necessarily want it to be current when the album was released, but art must have its way, I suppose."

He admits to a flair for the overdramatic - the new album begins with the Agnus Dei, the Latin Catholic prayer Wainwright intends as an anti-war statement - and his mother once described his music as "somewhere over the top." But it's also full of beautiful melodies, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies and whimsical asides ("There's never been so grave a matter as comparing our new brand name black sunglasses").

But Wainwright is serious about his ambition. Want Two includes the catchy, radio-friendly "The One You Love," and his film appearances might earn him a wider audience.

"Oh, I want it all," he deadpans, "and my mother wants me to get it all. When I was a kid, for years my mother would always whisper into my ear, `You're the greatest,' and it kind of really propelled me to succeed for better or for worse. I relate a lot to people like Alexander the Great or Cole Porter, not so much because of their stage mothers but their ambitions."

Since his self-titled debut album in 1998, Wainwright's music has been forthright about his homosexuality. Want Two includes a song called "Gay Messiah," which Wainwright says can be seen as a tongue-in-cheek response to the popularity of the film The Passion of the Christ earlier this year.

"I felt a need to almost create my own Gospel," he says, joking again. But more seriously, he adds, "Unfortunately, if you're going to follow what the main preachers are saying and what they believe, gay people - more than anyone - are the enemy and there's no real place for us in that world."

The album, which comes with a DVD of one of Wainwright's concerts at the Fillmore in San Francisco earlier this year, and its predecessor are the product of a writing and recording burst that came after he spent a month in rehab following years of frequent drug use, including cocaine and methamphetamines.

"What happened was a classic kind of example of realizing that no amount of money or attention or friendship or anything could really save you," he says. "I had to be my own knight in shining armor at that moment and seek help and that, in the end, it really really was responsible for saving at least my career and possibly my life."

He will still judge his career, he said, against dead composers - such as Verdi, one of his favorites, whose operas got better as he aged - and not on whether one of his odd, lovely songs ever becomes a radio hit.

"And I hope it always stays that way," he says, "because you never quite think you're good enough, and I think that's important in music."

Rufus Wainwright

When: Doors open at 7 tonight

Where: Shriver Hall on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University

Tickets: $3 for Hopkins students, $6 for other students, $12 for the public

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