The Chosen One
Rufus Wainwright was playing piano in Montreal bars when DreamWorks signed him to a big contract. Everyone agrees he has talent. But does he mean business?
By David Hayes, Saturday Night, May 1999
Eyes wide in reverence or closed in rapture, The Damned Ladies found nirvana in Toronto’s Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church one night this March. One came dressed as Tosca, Puccini’s grand diva. Wearing a shiny black floor-length dress, long black gloves, and a pink tiara, she strode regally up and down the aisle blowing soap bubbles into the air. Her friend, in a poofy pink skirt and hooded maroon cape, portrayed Gilda, the court jester’s cloistered daughter in Verdi’s Rigoletto. A third, clutching a homemade doll as an offering, was wearing a long black skirt, charcoal top, black gloves, and ragged blanket thrown over her shoulders, meant to approximate the costume worn by Mimi, the rag trade seamstress from Puccini’s La Boheme. All were in their teens, and their outfits were based less on the operas than on the way the heroines are portrayed in the video of the song “April Fools” being performed live at that moment by the object of their obsession, a cute, slightly gawky twenty-five-year-old with green eyes, seated at a grand piano. He was wearing blue crushed-velvet pants, and a peach-coloured T-shirt bearing the image of a chihuahua, under a brown shirt with flowers stitched along the collar, pockets, and cuffs.
Rufus Wainwright is North America’s most unlikely rising pop star: an opera-loving, openly gay Montrealer whose music, which he has described as “popera” is filled with soaring melodies, complex time changes, and intensely emotional, autobiographical lyrics. When he’s alone on stage, accompanying himself on piano and wisecracking between songs, his performances can transform large concert halls into cabarets. He is probably the only male pop artist whose ambition is to be the next Edith Piaf, or Judy Garland. And how many would declare, as Rufus did to me, that they hoped to write their best material in old age like Verdi, who wrote Otello at seventy-four?
Rufus Wainwright comes with a pedigree. He is the son of Kate McGarrigle — one half of the respected Canadian songwriting duo the McGarrigle Sisters — and the idiosyncratic Loudon Wainwright III, a confessional folkie with a cult following whose big hit was a 1973 novelty song called “Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road).” But their progeny’s music is not so easily explained. Its roots stretch from the eighteenth century forward to music-hall, Stephen Foster, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Hollywood show tunes, and the Beatles. Baby boomers might even detect strains of Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, or the Beach Boys. But nothing about Rufus’s music sounds self-consciously derivative. Younger listeners have compared him to the late Jeff Buckley, who also mined his inner emotional life, had a voice that could swoop from a whisper to a falsetto wail, and loved to banter with his audience. But with all that, Rufus Wainwright — a pop bella figura — defies categorization.
Until his self-tided debut CD was released last May, he was known only to the small audiences who packed his club appearances in Montreal, New York, and Los Angeles. Eight months later, he was named Rolling Stone‘s best new artist of the year. Despite modest sales (about 70,000 in North America to date) his CD made Spin magazine’s top twenty, placed number ten on The Village Voice’s annual critics’ poll, and was mentioned among the top albums of the year by Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times. It won a Juno in March for Best Alternative Album. As well, Wainwright’s been featured in a Gap television ad, on David Letterman and the Today show, and as a runway model in Anna Sui and Perry Ellis fashion shows.
Wainwright’s rise is surprising, especially given the current state of the $13.5-billion North American music industry. Once largely run by people with backgrounds in the music business, the major companies are now being absorbed into much larger entities controlled by fewer and more powerful corporate parents who put a premium on boosting profits and minimizing risk. The safe bets these days tend to be popular styles like hip-hop and rap, mass-appeal artists like Celine Dion and Shania Twain, and teen idols like Britney Spears and Hanson. The odds are against a major label taking on a singer like Wainwright. Yet DreamWorks Records, a new company, has spent nearly a million dollars to produce and promote his first record.
Lenny Waronker, one of the three heads of DreamWorks Records, is sitting in his new Beverly Hills office. The soft-spoken Waronker, who bears a passing resemblance to Paul Simon, is a short, trim man wearing a brown sweater and faded jeans.
“I doubt anyone would argue how talented Rufus is. He’s a massive talent. But the question I had to ask myself is, where does he fit? By pop standards, his music is unique and foreign to most. With some artists, whose records sound contemporary and where the overall vibe of the music is familiar, it’s not hard for audiences to access. With Rufus, I was aware that initially accessing the music might be difficult.”
Waronker’s parent company, DreamWorks SKG, is the multibillion-dollar media conglomerate founded in 1994 by director Steven Spielberg, Disney refugee Jeffrey Katzenberg, and record-industry mogul David Geffen. To head up DreamWorks’ music division, Geffen picked Waronker, Mo Ostin, and Ostin’s son, Michael. Ostin senior and Waronker were both victims of a corporate shakeup at Warner Bros. Records, where they had nurtured an astonishing roster of talent that included Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Bonnie Raitt, Madonna, Prince, and R.E.M. They brought to DreamWorks a reputation for nurturing young, talented performers to fame and profitability with careful management and savvy promotion. Rufus was their first new project.
In 1996, Rufus had recorded a demo tape, with just piano and voice, produced by Pierre Marchand, whose credits include Sarah McLachlan and the McGarrigle Sisters. His father, Loudon Wainwright III, in an effort to get his son noticed, handed it to Van Dyke Parks in Los Angeles.
At fifty-six, Parks is a highly respected composer, arranger, producer, and musician, one of the few truly eccentric geniuses of American popular music. A Rolling Stone critic once described him as “a mad cross of Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Cole Porter, and Randy Newman.”
“The tape was a definite cut above anything I’d heard recently — in its individual nature, its intimate interpretations of small, personal events,” he says. “I got a sense of place in his work, Montreal, the French, European underwear mixed with American defiance and some good, no-nonsense Canadian intellectualism, all thrown into these great, slightly post-adolescence reminiscences.”
When he’s on a roll, Parks speaks in a kind of melodic, polysyllabic aria, a semi-impressionistic stream of language that requires the listener to ride the wave. We’re having breakfast near Parks’s home in midtown L.A. He’s a small, elfish man with short-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed moustache, both snow-white. “Rufus’s art of musical cuisine is his perspective and his musical ability,” he says. “I thought that he should be given an opportunity, so I decided to try to effect a contract for Loudon’s son.”
Parks had worked with Lenny Waronker at Warner Bros. and he knew of Waronker’s ambitions for DreamWorks. He sent Waronker the tape with a handwritten note that read: “This kid is inevitable. If you don’t want to produce him, I do.” Waronker listened to it several times, then flew Rufus to L.A. The first thing Rufus said to him when they sat down to lunch was: “I’m gay and I don’t want to hide it.” Waronker had no problem with that, but he did give some thought to how it might affect Rufus’s marketing and promotion.
“He was smart, though,” Waronker says.”When you hear someone who’s that honest at a first meeting, you know they have a lot of courage and a devotion to what they’re doing and who they are.”
Waronker signed Rufus in January, 1996, and only then did he dispatch Jim Merlis, a New York-based publicist working for Geffen, to Montreal to hear his new client perform live. Merlis attended one of Rufus’s cabaret-style shows at Club Soda and came away convinced. “I said to my wife, ‘This is the most talented musician I’ve ever seen. This is not about pop culture; it’s about centuries of great music.'” Waronker advised Rufus to move to New York, and Merlis arranged a series of what are known in the music business as “residencies.” Artists early in their careers are secured a regular gig at local dubs — sometimes, as in Rufus’s case, paid for by the record company — to try out new material, hone their act, and develop a fan base. Rufus eventually settled into a regular spot at Fez, a club in the East Village.
“He was playing for audiences that were talking through his shows,” Merlis recalls. “He had to really tough it out and work hard. It made him a better performer, a bit like the Beatles going to Hamburg.” It also got him attention. John Cale, originally with Andy Warhol’s house band, the Velvet Underground, showed up at one of Rufus’s gigs and told Rufus he was impressed. Around Easter, 1996, on a plane to Toronto on business, Merlis met Ann Powers, who covers the alternative-music scene for Spin, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. Powers told him she’d heard all about Rufus. So Merlis knew that his strategy was working: already, a groundswell was slowly beginning to build.
In the fall Rufus moved to L.A. to begin work on the record. To ensure that his music would be more accessible, Waronker hired Jon Brion, a multi-instrumentalist and producer known for his sweeping musical range, encompassing everything from turn-of-the-century blues and jazz to the most modern sampled sounds. Brion and Rufus spent the next eighteen months at Ocean Way studios, recording over fifty songs, then selecting a dozen or so to work on. In most cases, they started with Rufus’s piano and voice and later added guitars, bass and drums, mandolin, vibes, marimba, organ, and old-fashioned synthesizers. Van Dyke Parks provided rich string arrangements for three of the tracks. The result was a recording that highlights Wainwright’s solo cabaret style in a range of settings that sometimes sound stately and classical, sometimes like giddy circus music.
Around this time Rufus was playing a regular gig at Largo, a local club, and hanging out with musicians, actors, and assorted young employees of the many businesses that feed the entertainment industry. “I thought of being in L.A. as like going to Versailles,” Rufus told me. “You’re going to the seat of power. I arrived with fabulous credentials because of my DreamWorks connection, but I also hung out in bars, meeting and talking to people. Not that many gay people there are really out, so I’m assuming that being gay and out meant that a lot of people wanted to see me succeed. Anyway, I didn’t see the point of sitting around waiting for it to happen. It’s very un-Canadian, isn’t it?”
His connections led to his face being used for a promotion campaign by the trendy international company, L.A. Eyeworks, a designer of glasses and frames. What Rufus wasn’t doing himself seemed to be happening on its own. One day Waronker met Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R. E.M., a band he had worked closely with at Warner Bros. Stipe wanted him to know about a fantastic artist he’d heard named Rufus Wainwright.”He’s the first person we’ve signed,” Waronker replied.
By the time the CD was ready for release in May, 1998, Rufus had a management deal with Nick Terzo, a stocky, engaging man in his mid-thirties with a shaved, bullet-shaped head and a silver piercing below his lower lip. Terzo had been working as an A&R executive for Maverick Records, Madonna’s company, and was eager to go into business on his own. He saw Rufus Wainwright as an ideal first client.
It’s a manager’s job to figure out a master strategy for the artist. Terzo’s initial marketing plan was, as he put it, “necessarily broad, because you’re directionless at first.” He proposed constant touring to build a nationwide fan base while continuing to solicit, and let Rufus attract, critical attention.
Jim Merlis’s efforts as publicist were made easier because Rufus fit neatly into an irresistible media hook: he was part of a generation of children of musicians who were becoming musicians themselves, including Bob Dylan’s son, Jakob, Pete Townshend’s daughter, Emma, and Leonard Cohen’s son, Adam. Rufus was featured in an April, 1998, Rolling Stone fashion spread called “The Offspring,” which also included Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s son, Jason, and Gregg Allman’s son, Elijah.
“I wanted to build an impressive portfolio,” explains Terzo. “And I didn’t want to get caught up in all the self-congratulatory critical acclaim that could turn him into some kind of obscure critic’s darling. He’s got the looks and personality of a pop star.”
He may have had the attributes of a star, but the people at DreamWorks were still concerned that Rufus’s music was too unusual to be accessible. Even though Terzo had excluded radio from his initial marketing plan, the DreamWorks promotion team decided in August to test the waters. They approached Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative), a format that blends Joni Mitchell, John Hiatt, R.E.M., and Natalie Merchant, and reaches affluent, college-educated listeners from twenty-five to fifty-four. “You go [to Triple-A] when you have things that aren’t really a good fit for anything else,” explains Marc Ratner, the DreamWorks promotion executive responsible for Rufus’s CD. But programmers at Triple-A stations turned it down.
Meanwhile Terzo pursued his touting strategy. Throughout the fall, Rufus opened for acts like Sean Lennon, Lisa Loeb, and the Barenaked Ladies. When he headlined his own shows in smaller venues, they were almost always sold out. Throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan, the reviews were usually glowing.
Then, in San Francisco, where Rufus was already popular, particularly among the music-loving gay crowd, he found himself on the radar of advertising reps working for the San Francisco-based clothing empire, the Gap. In a stroke of good fortune, the Gap’s 1998 Christmas campaign featured a thirty-second spot, aired throughout North America on programs such as Ally McBeal and Dawson’s Creek, with Rufus at a piano singing “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Suddenly, the “bounceback” cards DreamWorks had included in copies of the CD were revealing that more people had heard of him through the Gap ad than from any other single source.
When Rolling Stone‘s end-of-the-year issue named Rufus best new artist of 1998, it certainly owed something to Jim Merlis’s unwavering efforts to keep Rufus on the minds of his contacts at the magazine. But by this time, it was also due to the buzz surrounding Rufus, and to the force of his live performances. Rolling Stone‘s music editor, Joe Levy, told me that when he and several jaded rock critics saw Rufus at last year’s annual South by Southwest industry showcase in Austin, Texas, they had planned to catch the first couple of songs and then move on. They ended up staying for the entire show, mesmerized. The Rolling Stone award spawned more press coverage and guest spots on David Letterman’s and Conan O’Brien’s talk shows, Today, CBS Sunday Morning and PBS’s Sessions at West 54th. Terzo arranged airplay for “April Fools,” the first video from the album, on MTV and M2, MTV’s sister channel. And there was word that director Gus Van Sant and actor Adam Sandler had approached Rufus to write music for their next films.
Rufus’s record was now in the marketplace, but as yet without a serious promotional effort behind it. When the DreamWorks marketing team studied weekly SoundScan reports for record sales and Arbitron diaries for radio airplay, they were able to pinpoint cities — such as San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis, and Austin — where Rufus’s appearances resulted in better-than-average sales and radio interest. The stations playing his music turned out to be Modern AC (or Adult Contemporary), a relatively new format that plays the likes of Sarah McLachlan and the Barenaked Ladies, and targets eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old college-educated women with disposable incomes. Promotion executive Marc Rather began talking to programmers at local Modem AC stations, suggesting contests and other promotions, and guaranteeing access to Rufus around concert appearances.
Then early this year, another pattern emerged, in part traceable to the Gap ad. It first became apparent on the Sean Lennon tour, and by the time Rufus opened for Sloan, a young Canadian rock band with a teenaged following, it was dramatically clear: Rufus Wainwright was becoming a teen pinup idol. It caught an experienced hand like Lenny Waronker by surprise.
“I wasn’t sure exactly who his audience would turn out to be,” Waronker admits, “but I certainly never expected young teens.” And Terzo says: “I must plead complete ignorance. That might have been the one thing I would have missed.”
The day after the Trinity-St. Paul’s concert in Toronto last March, a message appeared on an e-mail fan list written by seventeen-year-old Cheryl Cheung from Richmond Hill, Ontario, the girl who had dressed as Mimi from La Boheme. She wrote: I was in the front row, and when Ruf got up to play the guitar, he was no more than 4 feet away from me. . . . AAAHHHH!!! It took a lot of will power to not die right in my seat! Hehehe! . . . It was SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO good, I’m drooling. And after, I met him again!! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!
“Rufus was born with a solid head on his shoulders,” says his mother, Kate McGarrigle. She is sitting in the ground-floor apartment of the triplex she now owns in Outremont, a middle-class neighbourhood in Montreal. (Rufus’s younger sister, Martha, also a talented singer-songwriter, lives in the flat above, and when he’s in town, Rufus lives in the top-floor loft.) “He was never a jerk. He was always charming. I wouldn’t call him a dutiful son, but he always did what was expected of him.”
After Kate’s marriage to Loudon Wainwright III crumbled in the mid-seventies, she moved home to Montreal with Rufus, who was still a toddler. Rufus and Martha grew up in Westmount in an artsy, bohemian family environment. “Nobody got up in the morning and put on a shirt and tie, so I didn’t think he was going to become a banker,” says Kate.
Though in demand as songwriters, the McGarrigle Sisters ran their careers more like a cottage industry than a mainstream business. They seldom performed in public, and when they did, it was with a travelling entourage of friends and family, sometimes including young Rufus and Martha. Their concerts were crafted to feel like large-scale re-enactments of family sing-songs around the kitchen table.
Kate first noticed Rufus’s musical abilities when she sang him “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and Rufus responded with a perfectly in tune “E-I-E-I-O.” She’d sing the line again, modulating it up one key. Rufus would repeat the response in the new key. Later he would sing and dance along to clips of old musicals on That’s Entertainment, and imitate Al Jolson.
“He always had the lead in the school musicals,” says Kate proudly. “When he was thirteen, I was working on the music for a movie called Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller. He’d written a song called “I’m Running” which he performed in the film, and later it was nominated for both a Juno and a Genie. He was very comfortable with the whole thing, never awkward about performing or writing.”
Rufus attended a private prep school in upstate New York during his high-school years, an experience recounted on his CD in the lushly orchestrated “Millbrook.” He and Martha would spend Christmas and part of the summer with their father in New York, who took them to see a lot of musical theatre. Later Rufus dropped in and out of Montreal universities, spending brief periods studying music at McGill and art at Concordia. By the mid-nineties he had developed a cabaret-style show, accompanying himself on piano at Cafe Sarajevo.
Rufus was sexually precocious as well. He came out when he was fourteen, when he had his first sexual experience, although his mother didn’t fully accept his homosexuality until he was nearly eighteen. He loved travelling in Montreal’s demi-monde, an experience that fed into some of the strongest songs on his album. He had a love affair with a heterosexual ex-junkie named Danny, a relationship filled with Wagnerian highs and lows.
On “Foolish Love” he describes its intensity (“I twist like a corkscrew, the sweetness rising/I drink from the bottle weeping/Why won’t you last?”) against a dense backdrop of vibes, marimba, accordion, and a string section. A romantic one-night stand with a seventeen-year-old junkie was transformed into a plaintive ballad, “In My Arms”: “Looking at hospitals Victorian/Feeling as helpless as the Elephant Man/Wish you were here to chain you up without shame/In my arms tonight.”
Although today he’s somewhat circumspect about discussing the details of his sex life in the mainstream media, he’s more frank when talking to the gay press. In Out magazine, he talked about having crummy times in gay bars, including an incident when he’d been given Rohypnol, the “date rape” drug. “Either I’d end up fucked-up,” he said, “or I’d end up with the most fucked-up people there.”
It’s a rare day off for Rufus following his Montreal show. By the time I arrive, in the early evening, he still looks as if he just woke up. He’d had a night on the town with the old gang, then slept in, visited his mother’s acupuncturist to treat a sore back, and done a dozen phone interviews with media outlets down the Eastern seaboard, the next swing, after Toronto and Montreal, of his North American tour.
His loft is small and funky, and as messy as one might expect of a twenty-five-year-old who’s rarely home. A fur coat lies on the floor where it apparently fell from his shoulders sometime in the early hours of the morning, along with a towel and assorted articles of clothing. Outside, there’s a light snow falling and the sidewalks are treacherous. Rufus, who isn’t a sensible-shoes kind of guy, slips and slides along Fairmont Avenue until we reach one of his favourite Japanese restaurants on Saint-Laurent.
Despite all I’d learned, it was still startling to hear Rufus talk in a hard-headed way about the need to do all the necessary promotion and pay attention to the business. He admits that he would hang out with Gus Van Sant and Michael Stipe for ambitious reasons, “although I was very honest about it,” he adds. “I was always bringing something to the table. I wasn’t trying to get into their personal lives or take advantage of them.”
It reminded me of something Lenny Waronker had told me: “You have this kid doing this strange, wonderful thing musically, and at the same time he’s willing to do what’s necessary to get people to listen to it without being ashamed of that in any way.” And Kate McGarrigle had said: “Rufus is not an anarchist. He’s very practical. He understands that you don’t have to be a total iconoclast, that you can make it through the world as yourself, while still being part of some larger framework.”
I remembered, too, that a few days earlier, before the Toronto show, I’d noticed Rufus quizzing Terzo about why the Toronto media didn’t have his newest publicity photographs. When I asked him about it, Terzo said: “You know, my big advantage as a manager is that I have an artist who always delivers, every time, whether in performance or in the studio or doing media or paying attention to the little details.”
Over the preceding two months, I’d been watching the e-mail lists and electronic bulletin boards devoted to Rufus. A fan attending a show in New York wrote: “Oh! and even cuter. . . instead of having a glass of water to drink he had a beer, so in the middle of 1 song; he burped and was like, ‘ooh, excuse me!'” Another concert-goer wrote: “Hey guys, i just saw Rufus last Saturday night in Providence, Rhode Island. . . . The entire concert he was drinking beer and whiskey, everyone could tell that he was pretty drunk by the end of the show . . . it was pretty hilarious. he’s got such a charming personality, kept talking to the audience, making jokes.”
I had seen the same thing — the drinking and the charm — last year during a concert at the Rivoli, a small Toronto club. When I mentioned this to Van Dyke Parks, his reaction was unambiguous. “It’s not good. Charm will not work. We’ve seen the act. You can’t do it better than Judy Garland or Oscar Levant.”
I tell Rufus what Parks had said, and he looks concerned. “Yeah, I worry about it sometimes. There’s a serious history of alcoholism in my family. Not Loudon, but other family members on my father’s side. On my mother’s side there’s a lot of drinking. But I’ve tried to cut down. I really can’t do my stage show if I’m too screwed up. I don’t see it as being a problem, but it’s true I do like to drink.”
I say that even if artists take their work very seriously, the world of pop music still revolves around glamour and high-rolling excess. Rufus agrees, mentioning that when he shared a place in L.A. with his high-school friend, Melissa auf der Maur, the bassist in Courtney Love’s band, Hole, there were many sleazy, sometimes frightening characters coming around, the kind attracted to the dark legacy of Love and her late husband, Kurt Cobain. “There are a lot of drugs around me still. More than there used to be.” Frowning, he says, “Horrible,” then brightens and adds: “but sometimes fun.”
“I think he’s probably already seen the dangers of alcohol excess,” Parks had said. “Probably thrown a few shows. Restraint is learning how to escape from freedom, in the words of Erich Fromm, and I think he has the character to do it.”
Rufus returns to the topic of art and commerce. He tells me about the opera composer Jean-Philippe Rameau who was part of the fussy French baroque period at the time of Louis XIV and XV. Musicians in his time had a system of patronage rather than a record industry; they answered to the Louis’ rather than to a succession of Wall Street CEOs. When Rameau wrote Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733, he shocked audiences with his unusual harmonic effects, rhythmic novelties, and innovative orchestrations.
“But it was a step forward,” explains Rufus excitedly, draining his sake, “more sophisticated and challenging than the last great work of that era. That’s my goal. If your ambitions are on the scale of opera, or the great songs written by people like Cole Porter, you have to think big. You have to think national treasures, state funerals, streets named after you….”
Rufus looks at me with a twinkle in his eye, as though he knows how pretentious he sounds but, frankly, doesn’t give a damn. “I have an agenda,” he says with a laugh. “To build the show, to work with an orchestra, to make a record of Rufus Wainwright playing La Scala.”