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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007
Always thinking big
By WAYNE GABEL
Special to The Japan Times
There's no shortage of pop musicians who reached their creative peak in their 20s, then struggled to remain productive and relevant after the flush of youth failed them. Think of Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett and even John Lennon.
Perhaps because he takes his cues from what he calls the "ultimate blueprint" of classical music, which is less swayed by the fickleness of fashion than market-driven pop and is more patient with emerging talent, singer- songwriter Rufus Wainwright foresees his career following a different trajectory from those of some of his rock peers. At 34, he says he's beginning to hit his stride.
"Your 20s should be your experimental time, and your 30s are when you really start going," he says by phone before a gig in Hamburg, Germany, ahead of his upcoming Japan tour. "You've got to get better and better up until the day you keel over."
And when it's his time to finally leave the stage, Wainwright predicts he'll go out with a bang.
"Like Beethoven, when I die, I'll jump up and try to conduct the thunder and lightning that I hear," he says, laughing.
His invocation of classical music is not surprising. Wainwright, whose latest album, "Release The Stars," was released here in May, writes songs that are routinely described as lushly orchestral and sweeping in scope. It's a sound that he naively thought he'd be getting away from by recording the followup to 2003's "Want Two" in Berlin.
Looking back, he says he should have known that his choice of work environment wouldn't be conducive to the stripped-down feel he initially sought for his first self-produced record. He "blames" Germany for the way "Release the Stars" turned out.
"I had this very ephemeral idea of coming to Berlin, getting a weird haircut, hanging out with teenagers and making some kind of hip thing," Wainwright says. "But then, of course, I didn't take care of the fact that I'm such a huge German opera fanatic — and that once I was actually on German soil, I would immediately swerve over to Bayreuth and the palaces of Frederick the Great and King Ludwig II of Bavaria. This big wave of German Romanticism really held me the minute I got here."
Looking back, the Wagner-loving Wainwright says he should have known his musical passions would rule the day.
"It was sort of a silly dream for me to think that I could go to Germany and make a little, tiny album. For an opera lover, it's really the land of cathedrals," says the singer, who even took to wearing custom-made lederhosen during his sojourn.
Though he was thinking big, Wainwright did not write a rock opera. "Release the Stars" is an ambitious and deeply personal collection of conventional pop songs by a musician who has exorcised some of the demons of his youth. A tendency to party a little too hard in his younger years led to a crystal meth addiction that left him temporarily blind. Thanks to the intervention of Elton John, who convinced him to check into rehab, Wainwright avoided joining the ranks of artists whose careers — and sometimes lives — were shortened by drugs.
Though he's been clean since the recording of 2003's "Want One," it's not exactly correct to say Wainwright's on the straight and narrow. He's been open about his homosexuality since his teens, and — as songs like "Gay Messiah" prove — he doesn't shy away from the subject in his music. Like many gay men, he's had to deal with acceptance-related issues. And it's also possible that he's had more than his share of heartache, for true love proved maddeningly elusive.
Wainwright's early exploration of his sexuality came to an abrupt halt when he was raped at 14 in London's Hyde Park during a vacation. Years of abstinence following the attack gave way to a period of promiscuity that failed to yield any lasting relationships. Now, however, an older and wiser Wainwright says he's finally found the man of his dreams.
Being in a committed relationship was one of several developments that helped shape the making of "Release the Stars." The album is dedicated to his mother, Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who recently underwent major surgery.
"There were some pretty dramatic events with my mother and in my own life. With me falling in love and all of these other things, it required a big record," says Wainwright, who brought in the London Session Orchestra on some tracks. "What's cool is that I can now actually make that small record. It still has to be done."
Despite the string-filled album's personal nature, Wainwright views "Release the Stars" as a call to arms for thirtysomethings like himself. As he sees it, one's 30s are a time to make an impact or risk muddling through the rest of life. The fact that he and others his age have reached this critical juncture at a time when the world's in a state of upheaval makes it all the more important to overcome inertia.
"It's really all about action at this point. That's what 'Release the Stars' is about: release your love, release your intelligence — do something, basically," Wainwright says. "That's the matter at hand. Whether it's the environment, politics or religious warfare, it's time to get out there and be a part of the solution, whatever that is."
Wainwright, a dual U.S-Canadian national, stirred up controversy with the album's first single, "Going to a Town," a song he banged out in less than an hour while sitting at the piano awaiting a dinner engagement. Conceived on the eve of his departure for Berlin, the tune finds the singer wearily lamenting that he's "so tired of you America" as he's leaving for "a town that has already been burned down." In scolding the country for taking "advantage of a world that loved you well," he reminds listeners of the fate that befell the capital of another power-hungry land.
"Germany has had the best and the worst of everything, whether it be music or politics or philosophy or whatever. It's such a wide spectrum," Wainwright says. "Germans have so much to contend with in terms of their history and what they've given the world. It is incredibly debilitating for some of them, but also incredibly enriching at the same time."
Though "Going to a Town" has been branded anti-American, it's a rebuke that's delivered with the genuine affection of someone who's sincerely concerned about where his nation is headed. Wainwright, who hesitates to characterize himself as hopeful now that the Bush years appear to be coming to an end, sees the situation from two different perspectives. Raised in Montreal, he lives in New York City and isn't afraid to take Canadians to task for what he feels are narrow-minded views of their neighbors to the south.
"I've always had a pretty good take on what was up in terms of America, mainly because even though I grew up in Canada, I spent a lot of time in the United States because my father was down there. It was like being in the gallery and looking at the boxing match taking place in front of you. I could get a good view of what was going on without actually being in the heat of battle myself," he says, adding, "Some Canadians never leave Canada, and they have the worst perspective on the United States."
While other musicians choose to make their opinions known at election time or adopt pet causes, Wainwright believes his sexual orientation leaves him no choice but to be eternally vigilant in the political sphere.
"In terms of the environmental situation, we're all in the same basket, whether you're a musician or a plumber. We're all living on god's green Earth," he says. "As far as gay issues are concerned, the big problem is not so much what's happening in the United States, though there are still problems there. It's really what's happening elsewhere in the world. To be gay in a Third World country amounts to a death sentence in many cases. It's a huge human-rights issue. And that is forgotten even by the gay community."
Wainwright, whose parents reportedly had difficulties accepting his homosexuality when he came out, has at times had a stormy relationship with his father, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. While the classic American Dream is based on the idea of parents wanting their children to have it better than they did, the younger Wainwright is open to the idea that artistically inclined families might operate according to a different dynamic.
"Whenever a performer gets out on stage and the lights go down and the spotlight hits you and the mic is on, you really do become ageless and you want to live forever. It is a bit of a drug. To have that attention taken away from you as a performer is really the hardest thing that you'll go through as a human being," says Wainwright, who's enjoying greater success than his parents ever knew and maintains a higher profile than his younger sister Martha, a singer who guests on his new album.
But being a pop star isn't the only goal on Wainwright's agenda. Predictably perhaps, he's set his sights on the classical world, though he's not classically trained. As part of a project jointly overseen by New York's Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, he's been commissioned to write an opera.
The work, tentatively titled "Prima Donna," follows a day in the life of a singer who's smitten with a journalist. Wainwright says he's written the first act and most of the second act in sketch form and has almost finished the libretto. He estimates it'll be a couple of years before the opera is ready. He'll have more time to focus on it, he says, after his touring obligations largely come to an end next September.
"I intend to really turn my back to the pop world for a good year. I'll probably do shows here and there to eat, but I'll really hunker down and focus on the orchestration," he says. "The big deal is the orchestration. It's got to be viable. It can't be Puccini-like."
Wainwright acknowledges that he dares to dream of ranking among the great composers, but he adds that he won't be bothered if he's remembered as a singer-songwriter.
"I hail from a family of singer- songwriters. I'm proud of that lineage. But I also have to be a composer. I'm just an overachiever," he says, laughing. "I've got to chill out one day — probably in my 40s."
Rufus Wainwright performs Jan. 20, 5 p.m. at Diamond Hall in Nagoya (¥7,000;  241-8118); Jan. 21, 7 p.m. at Namba Hatch, Osaka (¥7,000;  6341-4506); Jan. 23, 7 p.m. at Tokyo International Forum Hall C (¥7,000;  3402-5999). For more information, visit www.udo.jp/artist/RufusWainwright/index.html