A fine romance

Mar 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

Never say that Rufus Wainwright isn’t a pragmatist. Following the release of his self-titled debut album, a hugely melodic, piano-based pop recording adored by critics and a growing number of fans, Wainwright hit the long, grueling road, strapping on the guitar for his songs’ live incarnation. After such an extended period of performing, he now declares that the guitar is his new best friend.

"It’s like I’m a Cro-Magnon human being, you know, just learning to stand up," Wainwright jokes about the adjustment to a guitar-based set.

"It’s just not feasible to take a piano everywhere I go on tour, but it’s been really instructive for me, playing the guitar all the time – I’m shaking my ass a little more, coming out of my cocoon onstage."

Similar pragmatism led Wainwright – the son of folk heroes Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III – to forego training in classical music in favor of his current career.

"Well, there’s the whole issue of, you know, making a living," Wainwright replies when asked why an admitted opera-obsessive would turn to writing catchy-as-hell cabaret-pop numbers such as "April Fools" and "Beauty Mark" – two of his album’s standout tracks.

"As much as I love classical music," he continues, "I always kind of wished I wasn’t so drawn to it – it gets kind of lonely hanging out in that section of the record store, if you know what I mean. But the main thing," Wainwright concludes, "you have to admit that all the cute boys are doing rock ’n’ roll."

Wainwright has not disowned his obsessions completely, however. He notes that his focus on melody comes out of many years listening to and composing classical music. But the marked theatricality of many tracks on Rufus Wainwright owes something both to opera’s distended vision of reality and to Wainwright’s very first love, musicals – he recalls wanting to play Annie as a child, and later hoping for a crack in Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Opera’s influence on his songwriting is more than just suggested on songs such as "Damned Ladies." In its verses, he pleads with some of opera’s greatest tragic heroines not to let their fates unwind as penned: "Desdemona do not go to sleep/ Brown-eyed Tosca don’t believe the creep..."

So, pragmatic impulses toward pop music’s accessibility aside, never say that Wainwright isn’t a confirmed romantic, either.

"The songs usually start with some guy’s smile," admits Wainwright with typical jocundity, "which then goes to my eyes, and then I have no choice but to write a song about him … "

"Foolish Love," the first track on Rufus Wainwright, is just such a paean to the impossibly perfect object of Wainwright’s – unrequited – affections. However, he usually checks the fancies of his wayward heart with wonderfully wry, offhand lines. "Foolish Heart," for example, begins all a-quiver: "I don’t want to hold you and feel so helpless/I don’t want to smell you and lose my senses," but quickly shifts into a jauntier mode, wherein Wainwright declares that he’ll "take (his) coffee black, never snack/Hang with the wolves who are sheepish ... All for the sake/Of a foolish love."

Wainwright’s lyrical romanticism is matched by lush, beautifully orchestrated compositions and expressive tenor vocals. Although all the songs on the album were "compositionally complete" when Wainwright went into the studio, he and producer Jim Brion spent two years honing them to the standard Wainwright’s mother had coached him to expect of himself throughout his precocious, intensely musical childhood.

"Even when I was young, she was critical of what I wrote," he recalls. "But thank God for that, because it was very loving criticism, and it totally disciplined me as a songwriter."

Unlike other progeny of ’60s folk stars (Jakob Dylan, Adam Cohen), Wainwright openly embraces the influence of his family. "Beauty Mark" is dedicated to his mother, and Wainwright’s sister, Martha, sings backup on several tracks.

"I love working with my family! I kid sometimes that I only let Martha sing on the album because Mom would kill me otherwise, but actually it was great. We’re going to be a dynasty," he declares. "Just you wait!"

Never, ever say that Rufus Wainwright isn’t looking at the big picture.