Rufus Wainwright’s second album, Poses, features the singer-songwriter’s rich, vaudevillian voice and piano playing, and details a variety of literately crafted characters. If the songs and scenes are nobly down-at-the-heels, they should be: Wainwright wrote much of the album while living in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel, the bohemian mecca that has provided a temporary home to everyone from Leonard Cohen to Sid and Nancy. The twenty-seven-year-old has spent the past three years well — learning that he’d like to live in both New York and L.A., that Paris isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that it’s better to dream about love than look for it. “It’s cold up here,” he says laconically, calling from his native Canada. “Colder than the human soul.”
You’re virtually an L.A. native now — that cold must be unfamiliar.
At the end of the day, I’m an L.A. boy. I made my first record there, and that took three years, and we did a lot of this record there too, in a house that used to belong to Puff Daddy. I found a couple of concealed weapons under the bed.
What’s Poses about?
Creating a world that I could escape to. During this whole record, I really wasn’t in love with anybody, whereas on the last record I was very much in love. So this time out, I was looking for love, and I fell in love with someone who doesn’t exist. It’s still a very romantic album that deals with human relations and such, but it does it as more of a mythic ideal than as anything that’s actually going on in my life.
Was your writing process different this go-round?
No. The most important thing for me is lyrics. I have to say, honestly, I love Radiohead and a lot of the emotional, romantic bands coming out. But one of the major problems is that I can’t understand a word they’re saying! So I tried to keep lyrics first and tried to have a little more stealth in terms of song structure and melody. Usually I’ll start with a little melody line, and I start singing phonetically, like in fake German. And words slowly appear out of that.
What’s with the fake German?
Religious people speak in tongues. This is my nonreligious tongue. German can sound so sweet and soft and so harsh at the same time. It’s a great language to sing in. Those vowels and those snotty sounds can sound like a kitty’s purr.
How do you feel about your contemporaries in the male-pop-singer category?
Basically, I’m hoping to demolish the mechanism of pop created by the evil empire. It’s like David and Goliath: This record will be a well-polished stone thrown at the forehead of the seven-headed … um … four-, five-headed monster known as the Backstreet Boys. How many of them are there?
I think they’re up to nine. They multiply when you add water.
There will be change, hopefully. I’ve been listening to a lot of Jeff Buckley lately, because people compare us, and I’ve realized that there aren’t many big male singers around. I’ve been mourning the fact that Jeff and I can’t sing a duet. But there’ll be others, I suppose. All of you girly singing boys: Come out of the woodwork. Don’t be scared, it’s OK, you can sing. We’ll start some sort of war between the gangsta rappers and the little singing boys.
How did you spend your days at the Chelsea Hotel?
Sleeping. It was my nights that were fun, and I can hardly remember them. They let me put a piano in my room, which was nice. My room was right by the big neon hotel sign, so I had a big red E just outside. It gave the place the air of a Dutch prostitute’s room. It was about the same size, too. So I’d bring people up there and we’d have fun. For a while, it was a kind of destination after all other avenues were spent. In terms of writing these songs, it was a wonderful place to come back to: all those wrought-iron staircases and the chipped paint.
Did you partake in any of the legendary Chelsea debauchery?
It’s not the flophouse it once was. There are some people who’ve managed to stay there, but if there are any sorts of crazy things going on, they’re between phantoms and ghosts in the hallways of the past. At this point, the hotel is mostly filled with German tourists.
When did you write?
I usually wake up around three and sit at the piano completely naked and play for two or three hours. That gets the juices flowing. Then I dress and go eat after starving myself. I wait until I’m completely delirious. I can’t say that Twenty-third Street is my favorite area, so I’d walk with my very low blood sugar all the way to Tompkins Square Park and, on the edge of death, order some pirogi. It’s a good way to stay thin.
What else is coming up for you?
I have a song in the film Moulin Rouge. It’s a French song. I’m also on a record coming out for the Royal Shakespeare Company that is Shakespearean sonnets put to music. It has Sting, Annie Lennox, Bryan Ferry — all these British people. And I’m getting ready for a tour that starts in May. I feel like a racehorse who’s starting to scuff up his hoofs. My hoofs are getting all bloody, because I want to get out of the gate. I need to get this record released and rejoin my public. It must have been an awful two years without me. Hopefully I don’t look much older. My hair is longer, so I guess I look a bit like Rip Van Winkle.