Rufus Wainwright is a man of many brooches.
For more than two decades, the 45-year-old progeny of folk royalty Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle has been revered as the rebel prince of "popera," notably carving out a single throne in a velvet-curtained, gold-leafed corner of the adult-contemporary world. Sharp and shimmering, Wainwright's lush pop sensibilities and, at times, uncomfortably forthcoming but incredibly endearing approach to songwriting are why fans remain enamored by the artist who once convinced us that "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" was more of a seductive pairing than a tongue-in-cheek cry for help.
These days, Wainwright is a bit more of a rose-pruning Hestia, the Greek goddess of hearth and home, as he reflects on his early years roaming the streets of New York as a havoc-wreaking Dionysus — a self-portrayal explored on 2001's Poses where he describes himself as being "drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue."
"I wouldn't change anything because I do believe I am the sum of my parts," he says. "It took all the trials and tribulation and tragedy to get here, but I would argue I should have probably gone to the gym more when I was 19. Just a little bit more because it took 10 years to institute it into my life and if I started earlier, maybe I would've, I don't know, been in the Olympics! Well, I would be the poolboy, handing out the towels."
As is par for the course for Wainwright, he is in the throes of several projects. Last year saw the premiere of Hadrian, his second opera and the first ever to portray the torrid love affair between the eponymous Roman emperor and Antinous, his young male consort. Shortly after, The New York Times acknowledged Hadrian as a "gay love story that speaks to our time," while also referring to the production as being "frustrating" in the review's headline. Wainwright also embarked on the "All These Poses Tour" — a commemorative 20th-anniversary jaunt in which he revisits his California sun-drenched self-debut and its broody, pre-rehab successor, Poses. Also, with little to no ceremony, he quietly wrapped his eighth studio record in Los Angeles, marking Wainwright's first all-original composition since 2012's Mark Ronson-produced Out of the Game.
"There's a kind of full circle phenomenon which is occurring where a lot of the theories that I put forth in those early records are now starting to reveal themselves as a fact," he says. "I feel really privileged to be able to experience this sort of arch in my life and in my career."
If there were a line between life and career, for Wainwright, it was surely blurred before birth. As a child, he was trained early on to navigate what he calls "choppy waters" when publicly sorting through family life through song — something that is often suggested as being an inherited Wainwright trait. (Rufus' aunt Anna and one half the Canadian folk duo the McGarrigle Sisters once compared "the stage" to the Wainwright's "living room," going on to say that it was where the family came to talk.)
Rufus would be welcomed into the world with his father's "Dilated to Meet You" and again in 1975 through Loudon's "Rufus is a Tit Man" about his infant son's breastfeeding and his subsequent breast envy. He would write songs about his daughter, Martha, too, including "That Hospital" — a song about a near-abortion turned birthday celebration. (Martha would later scribe a track for her father titled "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole".) When it comes to songwriting, for Wainwright, it's always been a more delicate process than a therapeutic game of tug-of-war.
"I have always been really careful in terms of what I put forth," he says. "By the same token, I want it to be real and I want it to be effective and I want it to be meaningful. I don't think when you look at my work, you can ever really trace a thread of malice against someone whom I love, and I'm very, very careful about that because I grew up in that atmosphere. I mean, the song about my dad, 'Dinner at Eight,' is a harsh kind of indictment, but in the end, it's a love song."
At first glance, love songs appear to be Wainwright's bread and butter from the first song on his 1998 debut, titled "Foolish Love." Rarely has he shied away from proclaiming his fleeting devotion to any number of things since — whether it be hypothetical art teachers, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Judy Garland, himself, and even the vibration of a silenced cell-phone in his pant pocket. The latest subject of Wainwright's affection is that of his soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter, Viva, whom he shares with Leonard Cohen's daughter Lorca Cohen and his husband, "deputy dad" Jörn Weisbrodt.
"One day you will come to Montauk/ And see your dad playing piano/ And see your other dad wearing glasses/ Hope that you will want to stay," Wainwright projects on "Montauk" — a song that peers into his daughter's future visits as an adult. Here, he chronicles his and Weisbrodt's kimono-clad gardening and later alludes to separation and sadness, the kind that comes with age, while also giving mention to Viva's grandmother Kate, whom she never got to meet. In other words, a love song. Albeit complicated.
Most things, for all intents and purposes, have gotten easier for Wainwright, who says that he has become more agile in his voice, musicianship, and stagecraft and now is fully comfortable with what it is he wants — a little bit of everything. The next year will find Wainwright focusing on the new record — he assures we will be happy with its results — while bouncing between what he calls a "rock 'n' roll planet" and an "opera moon." He admits he hasn't given detailed thought as to what his impending third and possibly last, opera will be about, though it is likely a comedy. Before the dust is able to settle, though, he lusts after the idea of writing a musical and a French record, as well as a collaborative project with his singer-songwriter sisters Martha and Lucy Roache because, as he puts it, "There's always something to do."
"I would like to be able to stop sometimes and do nothing," he admits, in regard to his creative restlessness. "I do feel at times in my life I could tone it down and just focus more, especially now with having a daughter and being married. It is important to just remember that I'm a human being and I need to go to the bathroom. But I'm very much engaged in the fury of being an artist and being alive," he says.
"Maybe it's because I love so many dead composers and I'm aching to know what Mozart could have written or Verde, or Wagner — all those people if they had kept going, and so it gives me more reason to just get it out there. You got to keep going, you got to keep going!"
Rufus Wainwright will headline the 42nd Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 6:30 p.m. at the Hill Auditorium; 734-764-8350; theark.org; Tickets start at $42.50.
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