Hearing it from an acclaimed singer/songwriter who’s currently working on an opera, you’d hardly expect the fawning anthem “Tulsa” (“Your suit was the whitest thing since you know who / I feel that that savior I have mentioned may be you / And who would have thought that I’d owe it all to Tulsa?”) to be about, of all people, Brandon Flowers of The Killers. “I spent one night with him at a bar, swooning over him along with everybody else,” jokes Rufus Wainwright.
In fact, Wainwright—son of singer/songwriter Loudon—wrote most of the songs on his new record, Release The Stars, for friends and contemporaries, including some other children of musicians. The string-adorned “Nobody’s Off The Hook” is about Teddy Thompson, son of Richard, and the triumphant title track is about his relationship with longtime friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard. According to Wainwright, the shift in subject matter is part accident and partly a natural consequence of arriving at a more emotionally relaxed place. “I just realized I couldn’t be so precious about my intentions,” he says.
Release The Stars is Wainwright’s first self-produced record. While the original plan was to make a more stripped-down, darker follow-up to the extravagant Want One and Want Two, the new album turned into something just as huge. “When I went in [to the studio this time],” he says, “I was this athletic animal that had to really lay everything out on the line.” The result is another installment of Wainwright’s signature fusion of pop and operatics, but the music comes off as less self-conscious under his total artistic control.
“I think it’s everything that Rufus has ever wanted to do, and everything he should do,” says his sister Martha, who sings on the record. “It’s the truest expression of his songwriting, for better or for worse.”
Since his last pair of records, Wainwright has picked up an extracurricular activity that helped shape the sound of Release The Stars. He reenacted Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall during two sold-out nights in New York last year, along with three more shows in London and Paris this past February. In September, he’ll perform the show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Garland is one of Wainwright’s musical idols, and he wears the influence proudly, taking advantage of the emotional power of theatrical vocals without being saccharine or contrived.
Also in the Dreams Come True department, Wainwright has been commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan to write an opera. “I’m completely obsessed, and have been all my life, with opera and the effect it can have on a person and on society,” he says. “I feel that this is my World Series of artistic pursuit.” The libretto of Wainwright’s Primadonna follows a day in the life of an opera singer, and while he doesn’t expect the piece to come to fruition for several years, he’s working on it constantly, the exposure making his pop arrangements and storytelling even more vivid and intricate.
“He can do Judy Garland, he can do opera, he can do a singer/songwriter pop record,” says Martha. “All that education and life experience has really culminated in a pinnacle for him.”
Wainwright says he’s at a personal pinnacle, too. He’s got a long-term boyfriend (“He’s just a godsend who looks like a god, as well”), he calls his new record “an unintended masterpiece,” he’s getting along with his friends and family, and he’s realizing a lifelong dream with his opera. “There have just been a lot of fulfilled things in his life recently,” says Martha. This lack of personal drama has only strengthened his art.
“For any person who’s worried about getting older and taking care of themselves, I hope that I’m some sort of beacon showing that, in fact, you only really start to hit your stride after you’re done with your 20s,” he says.
He’s even healed a volatile relationship with his folksinger father, which was made public by both Wainwright (“So put up your fists and I’ll put up mine / No running away from the scene of the crime,” from “Dinner At Eight”) and his dad (“I don’t know what all of this fighting is for / But we’re having us a teenage / middle-age war,” from “A Father And A Son”). Wainwright says the two have been bonding when he goes out on his father’s boat in Los Angeles. “My dad and I are very, very traditional at the moment,” he says. “I’ve learned not to expect too much change from him. He does exactly what he wants to do, but I respect that, because in life you’ve gotta do what you want to do to be happy.”
This happy-go-lucky talk might sound strange coming from someone who’s been portrayed for years as an emotional train wreck. Critics often find it hard to resist Wainwright’s sensational side, harping on his former meth addiction, his sexual history (sometimes simply the fact that he’s gay) and his turbulent relationship with his father. But he takes it in stride and answers the questions he’s asked, no matter how invasive or outdated. “I’m somewhat fascinated by the way Madonna or Morrissey or U2, whoever—they seem to really be in control of their personal front and how they’re perceived, and there’s a certain cathedral-like architecture to their persona,” he says. “I think that’s interesting. I just don’t have the energy or the time. So, as far as my life and my feelings are concerned, bring on the vultures. It’s fine.”
But, at this point, there’s really not much for Wainwright to worry about: He’s all grown up; he’s in complete control of his life, artistically and otherwise; he doesn’t have any new stories about drug-induced debauchery or family fights; and it’s not like he can come out of the closet again. His sister says it best: “I think Rufus is a true testament to the fact that you don’t have to be completely miserable to make good art.”