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One On 1: Rufus Wainwright Plays Up Family Ties

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Musician Rufus Wainwright has quite a family history, and has made some history of his own as he continues to inspire passion in admirers around the world. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Since he was a small boy, one aspect of Rufus Wainwright's life has never changed.

"I had this blind ambition and fearless desire to go out there and entertain," says Wainwright.


Elton John has called Rufus Wainwright "the greatest songwriter on the planet." He is clearly an original. At 36, he's already composed an opera, reenacted a Judy Garland concert at a sold out Carnegie Hall and achieved success writing about openly gay themes.

Wainwright's work reflects a myriad of influences: his beloved opera, the folk music roots of his parents Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III and the French influence of the Montreal of his youth.

He has lived in New York for 10 years. As a kid he came here to visit his father. And when his mother would play Carnegie Hall, they would often go across the street to visit Steinway Hall.

"We would come over here and just wander the hall," Wainwright recalls. "There are a lot of visceral memories in this building."

This is a season of visceral memories for Rufus Wainwright as he performs and promotes his latest album, "All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu."

His mother died in January after a long battle with cancer.


"I've been on stage doing a show and suddenly a memory will skip across my mind's eye in conjunction with a lyric or a chord, and good luck," says Wainwright.

In 2009, Wainwright realized a lifelong dream when he debuted his opera "Prima Donna," the story of an aging opera singer trying to regain past glory.

"You start out the process guns blazing, everyone's smiling, it's this fantastic opportunity. And then in the middle you say, 'Why the hell did I ever decide to do this? I hate this," says Wainwright.

But all was right again on opening night in Manchester, England, and during the run, Wainwright drew first timers to the opera house.

"This idea the conductor will stand up and talk about Mozart for a half an hour and play the magic flute. That's great, but it's not going to get ex drug users in," says Wainwright.

Much of Wainwright's work is intensely personal, and the subject of his family is never far off. Perhaps his most personal and painful song is "Dinner at 8," written in the late 90s in the aftermath of an argument with his father, a song that harkens all the way back to his parents' breakup when Rufus was only three.

"'Dinner at 8' has always been a hot potato. Get it over with or sink in too deeply and ride like a hurricane. But that was the point of that song to take down the house," says Wainwright.

Rufus Wainwright grew up around music from day one.

"My first crib was a guitar case, when my mother left the hospital, had to go by the studio first to see my dad. And there was no bed there so they had to put me in a guitar case," says Wainwright.

His parents split up when he was three. Wainwright and his sister Martha were raised in Montreal by their mother, musician Kate McGarrigle. As a young man, he was most intrigued not by his parents' folk music, but by opera.

"I listened to Verdi's Requiem and it was a fantastic recording with Leontyne Price and after that hour and a half experience I was hooked," recalls Wainwright.

It was around this time when Wainwright told his parents that he was gay. Wainwright has said that he was sexually active at the time. But at 14, he was sexually attacked by a man he met in London. He says a fear of AIDS led him to remain celibate for seven years and that opera saved his life.


"To be openly gay at the time was to die, it was pretty intense. Opera dealt with a lot of those issues and gave me hope and strength to go on," says Wainwright.

Wainwright was sent off to boarding school in upstate New York, a positive experience which had its unusual moments.

"They'd be playing lacrosse and I'd be singing Edith Piaf and then a couple hours later we'd all be in the shower together -- not doing anything bad," jokes Wainwright.

He briefly went to music school, tried to make it in New York and failed, only to return to Montreal, where he performed at a cafe run by Bosnian and Croatian refugees from the war in the Balkans.

"People who would probably kill each other over there, but here they were watching me sing. So I had to really entertain them," says Wainwright.

Wainwright was eventually signed by a record company in Los Angeles and recorded his debut album, which was showered with praise. He came back to New York to record another critically acclaimed album, Poses.

He eventually became addicted to crystal meth, going on what he called "sexual crystal meth binges."

Wainwright never missed gigs or recording sessions, but he describes the period as a "gay hell" and says one episode left him temporarily blind.

"And I did have a moment, the apex of that downfall where my mind was outside of my body and I thought it might not return," recalls Wainwright.

After speaking with Elton John, Wainwright went into rehab, sobered up and resumed writing and recording.

It's not just the texture of the songs that separates Rufus Wainwright from the pack. How many popular musicians compose an entire opera, and recreate a famous Judy Garland concert in its entirety?


"I was really in this funk of going to album stores and thinking I'm going to get the new Radiohead album and walking out with The Wizard of Oz. And over and over, there is something in here that I have to exorcize, this beautiful demon," says Wainwright.

Wainwright currently lives in Chelsea with his boyfriend Jorn. Since his mother's death in January, Rufus says the outpouring of love for her has been "astounding."

And though they'd been divorced for more than 30 years, his father was at his mother's bedside when she died. And on the night of her funeral service, dedicated his Grammy Award to her.

"Yes there were difficult times, for sure. Especially when my career started and sort o the paradigm shifted and it wasn't easy for anybody," recalls Wainwright. "But I think we have come out the other end successfully. And we have been very loving and supportive of each other in the end."

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