I took a lot of crystal meth, Special K and Ecstasy all at once,” Rufus Wainwright says about a five-day bender last October. “I went blind for an hour.” Hitting rock bottom after years of indulgence in alcohol and uppers, Wainwright decided to seek help. In October 2002, he checked himself into rehab, where, for a month, he cleaned up and started to write his third album, Want One. Afterward, in a blast of sober creativity, Wainwright recorded two albums’ worth of material, with songs that address issues including his rocky relationship with his parents, singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and his past ambitions of superstardom.
“I was starting to get very resentful of other people’s success, like the Strokes and the White Stripes,” Wainwright says, attacking a chocolate milkshake at a cafe near his Manhattan apartment. “I was measuring my happiness with my success and ignoring the fact that I just needed to be loved.”
What is your first musical memory?
Singing songs from Annie, like “The sun will come out tomorrow.” I was probably seven. I had a real guttural, electric reaction to musicals. I’d listen to Oliver! — but sped up really fast — and sing and dance and smash my head into the couch.
What’s the first song you wrote?
I wanted to write operas and ballets when I was very, very young. The first thing I wrote was a little piece on the piano called “The Dancing Lady.” It was about some chick with castanets I used to hang out with at recess while everybody was playing dodge ball.
How did your fascination with Leonard Cohen begin?
With I’m Your Man. I was pubescent and very much in contact with my homosexual feelings. That was the only record that talked about the fact that people were dropping left and right with AIDS. The bottom line for him was lyrics, and I’d like to think that that’s the same in my music.
Is there a line by Cohen that jumps out at you?
Yeah: “Give me crack and anal sex.” [Laughs] That was it.
What was the last song you wrote before going into rehab?
The big song for me was “I Don’t Know What It Is.” I started writing that when I realized there might be a problem. The song starts from a party and ends up in, like, Auschwitz. I was confused. After I finished that song, I went away.
On the song “Want,” you sing, “I just want to be my dad/With a slight sprinkling of my mother.” What were your parents’ reactions to that?
They’ve been oddly silent. My mother is a career-oriented person, and my dad’s more concerned with the humanistic level. I think both of my parents together make one good parent [laughs]. I wrote “Want” on my last day in rehab, and it encapsulates something I realized, which is that it’s all about the simple things. What I want is plebeian and has more in common with the normal person walking in the street than with the celebrity mill.
If you wanted to turn a kid on to good music, what three albums would you give him?
Serge Gainsbourg’s Couleur Café. I don’t think anything tops Gainsbourg in terms of sound quality and how it affects the world atmospherically. Put it on at a party, at any time, it always works. Also, one of Maria Callas’ La Divina CDs — that I wouldn’t put on at any party [laughs]. Then I think that Blonde on Blonde is as good as it gets in terms of American music.
Who is your favorite artist to sing along to?
I’m a big Everly Brothers fan. I’ll listen to their records and try to figure out the harmonies, which I enjoy because they’re usually really simple. They’re like a laser beam.
What musicians are in denial about their homosexuality?
Like Robbie Williams? [Laughs] I don’t know. Part of me thinks that it may have been better if I had hidden that I was gay, in terms of record sales. If anything, I admire people who stay in the closet.
It must take incredible wherewithal and guts to be so dishonest. So my hat’s off to all you closeted people. You’re one step ahead of me.
What musical family has the greatest legacy?
Well, the Carter Family sounded great together. In terms of different sounds, I would have to say my family, if you include the McGarrigles and the Roches, my father and my sister Martha. I don’t know, is that terrible to say?