Since his 1998 self-titled debut, Rufus Wainwright has indulged his love for lush, operatic pop, a passion that culminated on two-album suite Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004). He’s also the loudest and proudest major-label pop singer to have never been in the closet. But nothing was ballsier than his decision last year to re-create Judy Garland’s historic 1961 comeback performance at Carnegie Hall. To even suggest that the then-33-year-old Wainwright might come close to Garland’s stature ruffled a few feather boas (including, rumor has it, Liza Minnelli’s). Yet not only did Wainwright get raves for his Carnegie Hall performance, he then took it on the road. American Beauty director Sam Mendes shot a documentary about the experience that’s due later this year, as is a live album. Just before the Garland performance, Wainwright was also busy finishing his fifth album. Recorded in Berlin, Release The Stars (Geffen) is unusual for Wainwright in that it’s preoccupied with humility and reinvention—particularly that of a North American in Europe on tracks such as “Tiergarten” and “Leaving For Paris No. 2.” It’s not surprising that a Canadian living in New York City with a German boyfriend would find expatriatism such an attractive theme. But for such a timeless, romantic writer who has normally avoided political themes in his work, the decline of the American empire weighs heavily on Release The Stars.
The last time I saw you play live was in Montreal in 2004, and the most memorable part of the evening was when you came out on a cross as the crucified “Gay Messiah.” Which, as campy as it was, was still daring in an election year when gay issues rallied the conservative votes in both Canada and the U.S. Yet I didn’t read much about that element of your performance in the press. Were you mildly disappointed that it wasn’t more provocative?
Initially, there wasn’t a huge splash, but then Madonna appropriated my idea and had it in her set—though I was crucified in a Halston gown, and she chose something from H&M, whatever that means. I was more mad about that, because nobody had pointed that out. But then in Vanity Fair not long after her tour, in the “Then & Now” section, they had her in the “Then” section and me in the “Now.” So even though they got the order wrong, in the annals of publicity and show-biz points, I won that one. In Vanity Fair, anyways. That’s all that matters to me.
Still, compared to other artistic sacrilege like Piss Christ or The Holy Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung, this went completely unnoticed.
There was talk of people walking out and getting upset. But I didn’t do it that much in America. I did it mostly in Europe and in Canada.
It actually turned out that most of my big shows were in Europe and in Canada. I think I did it once in New York. I didn’t do it in Atlanta or anything; I just stayed away from the whole thing.
It goes without saying that the U.S. is still very sexually conservative, but I thought a movie like (last year’s) Shortbus, which features unsimulated sex, would also cause more of a fuss. And instead, mainstream magazines wrote guides to swinger clubs.
I would also say that Shortbus is not totally in the mainstream. I don’t think that movie made it past the Mississippi or over the Sierras. Not to be too morbid, but America right now is basically involved in licking its various wounds and not losing too much blood. I think things have gotten so complicated and impacted that it’s everyone for himself.
“Going To A Town,” the first single from Release The Stars, features the line, “I’m so tired of America.” What’s the reaction to that been?
It’s been released to radio in England, because they do everything early over there, and it’s made it onto the playlists of the major stations there. So far, in America, not one TV show has offered me a slot. Actually, Letterman said I could do something, but they suggested another song. I had this insane vision the other day where I was thinking about America in terms of Moby Dick, and how in that song I’m going out to hunt Moby Dick or something. But then, in my horror, I realized that at the end of the book, the entire ship goes down and everybody dies! You don’t want to upset the beast too much. But we’ll see.
You’re the second artist from Montreal this year to write a song about leaving America behind.
Who’s the other one?
There’s the Arcade Fire song “Windowsill,” with the line, “I don’t want to live in America no more.” It’s actually written by an American expatriate who married into Montreal.
I live in America and love America. This is the deal with that song: I never intended to write it. I was about to go to dinner and had 10 minutes to spare. I sat down at the piano; the next thing you know, it was there. It wasn’t this purposeful thing. Then I recorded it, and it sounded great immediately. Even the record company thought it was an obvious single, because it grabs you right away melodically. We’re just kind of going with it. I do consider it as tapping into a wider subconscious feeling that really pervades the world right now. I’m just the messenger. Don’t shoot me.
How much of your life have you spent in the States compared to Canada?
I left Canada when I was 23, so I’ve been in the States a long time.
Have you ever felt particularly like a citizen of either? Or have you always been between worlds?
I’ve been very much in between worlds. My mom (Kate McGarrigle) is very Canadian; more specifically, she’s from Quebec and entrenched in that whole universe. My father (Loudon Wainwright III) is from a very American family from way back. I take the best from both. Get all you can get while you can get it!
On the song “Between My Legs,” the chorus suggests there’s a looming disaster, something apocalyptic in the background. But it’s merely the setting of the song, not the focus of the narrative.
That’s more of a fantasy … about reality. Where I take something that’s obviously going to happen—i.e., a terrorist attack or environmental disaster—and turn it into a hook to seduce a young man and offer him safe haven. I’m hoping to try this out when the world ends, to have some sort of exit plan for a stripper I met once.
What kind of political writing, if any, do you enjoy yourself?
Songwriting? I’m of two minds on it. On the one hand, I think it’s important to express the situation and so forth, but I had a talk recently with my boyfriend where he pointed out to me that we talk far too much about politics in North America. In Europe, it’s a fraction of the conversations that go on there. We’re so obsessed with debunking Bush in this country that we don’t spend time on any other subjects. That’s a little depressing, that it takes up so much mental space.
When Want One and Two came out, you spoke of those as being an apex of what you’d been trying to achieve since your first album. Is Release The Stars an extension of that or a new beginning?
Those albums were about me toiling in my inner sanctum and rebuilding myself and trying to face the world like a man. It was very arduous and exorcist. Because I worked so hard on the other albums, Release The Stars was very effortless in terms of how big and fast it came. The only parallel I can draw is in terms of the Olympics, as an athlete who trains and trains for years and once they’re in the stadium throwing their discus or jumping on their pole [laughs], I imagine they feel quite happy and it’s rather painless to finally be there. That’s how Release The Stars feels to me: painlessly jumping on a pole and releasing the discus.
You’ve worked with various producers before, and now you produced yourself for the first time. Although the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant is listed as executive producer. Doesn’t that just mean he paid for it?
No. It’s like an advisor. Like Karl Rove. You just ask them questions, and they give you their opinions.
On the title track, you sing of “old Hollywood” being over. Extending that to old media in general, I’m a bit amazed that you still have the support of a major label like Geffen to make these lush, ornate albums that don’t sell millions of copies in a blockbuster world.
Even though I don’t sell millions of albums, I do have a high profile in terms of the film work I’ve done and being able to fill a room. I’m surprised, too, in a way. But on the other hand, I work so hard on my albums and my stage show that I fucking deserve it.