Rufus Wainwright: ‘I call Yorkshire Gold the crystal meth of teas’

Rufus Wainwright will perform at the Proms next week, a double concert of music from his breakthrough albums Want One and Want Two, the first of which was released 20 years ago. He lives with his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, in California and New York, and shares parenting of their 12-year-old daughter with her mother, Lorca, Leonard Cohen’s daughter. In June Wainwright released an album of folk song collaborations, Folkocracy, celebrating the muscial legacy of his own famous family.

It sounds as if it’s going to be quite an epic night at the Royal Albert Hall – two separate Proms in one evening?
I’m very excited and a little nervous too, because there will be several songs that I haven’t sung in many years and also with brand new arrangements. I did a concert with the Chicago Symphony about a week ago and we explored some of them, and it was pretty thrilling. So I think for the audience it should be a bit of a wild ride – and probably for myself too.

That venue has been special to you over the years.
If someone put a gun to my head – which is not a great thing to say in the United States these days – and I had to say what my favourite venue in the world was, I would probably say the Albert Hall. It was the last place my mother [Kate McGarrigle] played. And it was also one of my first concerts on a major stage. My first taste of true grandeur. It’s epic and intimate. You really do feel like you’re singing to that person in the last row up at the top.

I have been able to observe my father’s example and try to improve on it

You’ve been playing folk festivals over the summer, and the odd jazz festival – can your music be at home anywhere?
I’ve lived by the ethos that I started out with, which was to be completely unpinnable. Musically flailing about, testing out the waters in many seas, whether it’s opera or Broadway or folk. But I think when I do meet an idiom, I take it very seriously.

Is returning to these albums of 20 years ago a bit like confronting your younger self?
I write songs all the time about my life. But I would say when I go back to the Want era, I’m struck by the fact that at that period, writing pop songs and being in the eye of the storm of what kids were listening to, I was also fighting my own battles.

Wainwright performing at the Beacon Theatre, New York, in 2004.
Wainwright performing at the Beacon theatre, New York, in 2004. Photograph: Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Did those albums represent a sort of before and after of your wilder years?
Some of the songs were written before rehab [from crystal meth addiction] – and during and after. So I was on the rebound from a very dark period. I was incredibly haunted by what I’d just experienced, but also much healthier. So I had both the energy and the chops. I could put all that fear and anxiety – but also hope – into the music.

You recently celebrated your 50th birthday. What did you do?
We have a house here in Montauk, New York. And there’s an incredible lighthouse and we did a show at the foot of the lighthouse. I liked the idea of, you know, lighting the world through the storm, but also of singing next to a huge phallic symbol.

I remember you saying that you feared contentment might be the enemy of songwriting. That’s obviously not been the case.
No, I still write all the time, and I’ve found a real wealth of inspiration from my rather traditional life, being married and having a child and so forth. I try to challenge myself more now in the realm of opera and theatre. Partly because it’s fun to write songs for more reckless characters. I like to keep a little bit of that danger in my pocket.

Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004) were written at the beginning of this dark political period in the States, the rise of the homophobic Christian right. Do you think of them as political albums?
The one after [Release the Stars] starts to be a little bit more directly political. These songs were more the last gasp of more glorious days. There is a sense of mourning, but still a bit of glory.

I understand you always made sure you had gay porn magazines on your dressing room rider when you visited the Bible belt states. Is that still the case?
I did, but not any more. Can you even get porn magazines any more?

What’s on the rider for the Albert Hall?
There’s always my obsession, which is Yorkshire Gold tea. I call it the crystal meth of teas. And then I love oat biscuits.

Your daughter, Viva, is 12 now. Is she showing an inclination to join the family business?
She loves singing. She sang at the lighthouse show and had a great time. But we have to be mindful with her only because whether it’s on my side or her mother’s side, the legacy can be a lot of pressure. So we will help her figure out what she wants to do herself.

Has being a father made you more or less empathic with your own wayward dad [the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III]?
Right now I’m having a particularly fantastic time with my father. It’s been quite intense. In a good way. But I have been able to observe my father’s example and try to improve on it. I don’t blame him. And certainly now I’m kind of amazed at his desire to make things better.

You are also writing a musical, finally!
Since my career began everybody’s asked: ”Where’s your fucking musical?” So, yes, I’m finally taking up that mantle. And I do feel in a strange way that since Sondheim has sadly passed, there is a bit more room to inhabit.

Has the birthday caused a sense of creative urgency?
I’m obsessed with the Czech/Bohemian composer Janáček. He wrote his first great opera when he was 50 and went on to write several more. So, I’m kind of seeking that.

  • Prom 66: Want Symphonic – Want One is at the Royal Albert Hall, London on 5 September at 7.30pm, followed by Prom 67: Want Symphonic – Want Two at 10.15pm