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Rufus Wainwright’s Career at 20: A Tour-Previewing Oral History

Rufus Wainwright is hitting the road to celebrate his debut album's 20th anniversary. He, Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks recall his humble but hoopla-filled salad days.

Rufus Wainwright introduced himself on May 19th, 1998. He was the first new artist signed to DreamWorks Records, the label appendage of the new film studio which launched in 1996. His self-titled album was only a modest success, sales-wise — there were no hit singles — but critics and musicians immediately genuflected. The album made a slew of top 10 lists that year; Rolling Stone named Wainwright the best new artist of 1998; and fellow artists, from Michael Stipe to David Byrne to k.d. lang, became vocal fans. Elton John famously christened Wainwright “the best songwriter on the planet.”

Twenty years on, the now 45-year-old singer — whose lush, neoclassical style was aptly nicknamed “popera,” and who just composed his second actual opera (“Hadrian) — is looking back at the album that started it all with a tour. “All These Poses” kicks off Nov. 9 at L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre, and will take Wainwright and a small band around the world performing songs from “Rufus Wainwright” (“Foolish Love,” “Millbrook,” “Sally Ann”) and his more successful follow-up, “Poses.” In honor of the anniversary, we spoke to the man himself, as well as two pivotal figures: Van Dyke Parks, who was handed the inceptive demo tape by Rufus’ father, Loudon Wainwright III, and who wrote string arrangements on several tracks; and Lenny Waronker, who took the gamble when he signed the 23-year-old musician to DreamWorks. 

Rufus Wainwright: I started professionally making music, arguably, at the age of 12. My mother, Kate McGarrigle, was asked by a film director in Canada to do music for this movie called “Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller,” and she flippantly asked if I wanted to write a song for it. The minute she said that, I just went into the other room and wrote this song called “I’m-a-Running.” The song itself was first nominated for a Genie, which is like a Canadian Oscar, and then I was also nominated for a Juno as Best Young Artist. Neither of those awards I won, thankfully [laughs]. But a star was born, and an ego was stroked.

I then went back to boarding school in upstate New York. In the meantime, I developed this incredible passion for opera. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to be a composer or an opera singer, but I dimmersed myself in that world. I think I knew, deep in the back of my head, that there were a lot of secret ingredients there that I could steal [laughs] for my own songwriting, and really create an aesthetic that was unusual, in terms of drama, and in terms of structure of a song. I wrote this one song called “Liberty Cabbage” — it didn’t make it onto the record — about the United States and how horrifying it was [laughs]. My mom and aunt really loved it. Then I wrote about 30 other songs that were really out there. I sang them all for my mother, and my mother went, “Those are all crap.” She thought I was being completely overwrought and uneconomical. So I trashed all of those and went and wrote “Beauty Mark,” which made it on the first record. That was about her, and she loved that song. It was really from “Beauty Mark” on that I started writing the songs for the first record — “Foolish Love” and everything. I think from my mother’s strong iron fist, I really tried to balance this florid tendency with a kind of anchor in what songwriting should be… which is, you know, relatable [laughs].

Wainwright recorded nine songs, with piano and vocals only, in the studio of Pierre Marchand, who had just produced an album for Kate & Anna McGarrigle (and would go on to produce “Poses” with Wainwright).

Wainwright: I eventually moved down to New York, and started trying to do shows. It was right at the time when Jeff Buckley’s first album had come out and there was a real cult following for him. It was that place, Sin-é, where he played; I went there several times with my little tape, and was refused three times. I was the antithesis of this Lower East Side, nihilistic, heroin-chic person. I was this little bow-tied opera lover and piano-playing queen, so they didn’t get me. But I started going to a lot of gay bars, obviously, and enjoying all that stuff, and there was this one older gay guy who owned a classical record label. We were at this famous Chelsea gay bar, talking about music. I just gave him this “I’m gonna make it” kind of look: “I’m inevitable.” He was taken aback by how fierce my desire was for music, and said, “We should do something together. We could do an album of you doing Schubert songs, because you obviously love opera.” So I recorded a couple of Schubert songs, and that was actually a great education in itself. But my dad got wind of this and got really nervous and protective of me, and felt like maybe I was being led down the garden path, you know? “Yeah sure, ‘Sing some Schubert songs.’ Schu my bert!” So he then took my demo and brought it to Van Dyke. I think it was partially out of appreciation for what it was, but I think it was also out of fear of what was happening to me with this other kind of shady character.

Van Dyke Parks: I’ve known Loudon for decades, since our brunette days. I respect his work, and he indicated he respects mine. He reached out and said, “Van Dyke, I have a tape cassette here. I’d like you to listen to it. Please do what you can.” I immediately sensed that I could do something constructive to bring a father and his son together, so I listened to the tape with great expectation, and I was delighted to hear what I heard, because I felt that he was an excellent songwriter, and I immediately wanted to put my hat in the ring to be the producer of those works. I called post-adolescent Rufus, (who was) very grateful that he would get a call all the way from California, and I told him that I wanted the liberty of playing this tape for Lenny Waronker. Then, and this was a conscious decision, I wrote Lenny Waronker a handwritten — that is, a cursive letter — which said: “Here is a tape that is very important, of this young songwriter. It is essential that it gets made. He is inevitable,” is the word I used. Then I said this sentence: “If you do not want to produce this fellow, please let me know — because I do.”

Lenny Waronker: I just thought, if Van Dyke’s saying it’s undeniable; it’s got to be good. But I didn’t want to play it, because we hadn’t made a deal, and I didn’t want to fall in love with something until we finalized our DreamWorks thing. Once that was done, I had it in my car and I was driving around, and I put it on… and there it was. I couldn’t believe it. It was better than I could have imagined. My daughter was in a band that was pretty well respected, and I played it for her — they were in the same sort of culture — and she said, “You have to sign that guy.” And my son, same thing — he was in Beck(‘s band) at the time, so I had some help from them. I said, “Your generation doesn’t have anything like this.”

Wainwright: I went from being this downtrodden dandy in the East Village where nobody would accept my cassette tape, to being flown first-class to live in the Chateau Marmont and recording orchestra sessions with Van Dyke Parks at Capitol Records, and working at Ocean Way, and being the first artist really signed to DreamWorks. It was a very dramatic shift.

CREDIT: Greg Gorman

Waronker: I had a close friend at work at Geffen Records at the time, Tony Berg, a very accomplished musician and producer. I knew Tony would like it, and I said, “I need to find somebody who can take this and make it otherworldly.” He said, “There’s one guy; his name is Jon Brion.” I loved the idea of having a guy who can play everything and pretty much take it to Mars — but in a beautiful way. And Jon was beyond. He was fabulous.

Parks: I didn’t hear back from Lenny, nor Rufus, for some time. Then someone from Montreal sent me a newspaper article. An interviewer asked Lenny Waronker, “Why didn’t you have Van Dyke Parks produce this record?” And Lenny said to the reporter, “We were looking for someone to do that with new ears.” That was the first indication in my life that I would be the subject of ageism. I was very sorry about that, because my interest in Rufus was absolutely tightly connected to my friendship with Loudon — a familial relationship, you might say. I didn’t want Rufus to fall in the hands of a usurious producer, who would inflate the budget and his own profit in an overly produced record. I’d already done one of those myself, by the way, and I would find that very boring. I was hoping that Rufus would appear very stripped and bleeding, obvious and clear as glacial ice. I knew he was gay and he would be wrestling with that in public. I wanted to be involved. But that was not in the cards.

Wainwright: What happened with Jon Brion… and I always like to preface this with, you know, we made a really amazing record together, and I am eternally indebted to his labors and dedication. But Lenny suggested Jon Brion as a producer. We met. We then went into the studio together for a full 24 hours, and produced and recorded all of two tracks: “Matinee Idol” and “Barcelona.” All there. At which point I was completely possessed with a desire to be involved in all aspects of the production — like, I was throwing out string lines and thinking of percussion parts and harmonies. It was an immediate inundation, and it joined with Jon’s also very manic sensibilities, and we were just in this whirlwind of creativity for about 24 hours. I was arguably never happier than that early dawn, driving through Hollywood listening to what we had done. So it was really obvious that we had to work together. We signed the deal, and Jon then proceeded to completely… it’s hard to say. He shifted gears, and decided that he was the producer, and that my input was to be tempered, and that he had to basically set up a system where we weren’t in communication that much. He told me, flat out, that he was angry that I was the one having my record made and not him [laughs]. And we kind of went from there.

(Brion, who went on to score films including “Magnolia,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Lady Bird,” declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

It took the better part of three years to create the album, done in intermittent spurts at several studios around town — including Ocean Way, Sunset Sound Factory, and Media Vortex — as well as one track at Marchand’s studio in Montreal, where Marchand produced “In My Arms.”

Wainwright: I ended up fighting tooth and nail for what I wanted in that process. I did end up putting tons of harmonies. But we had to bargain. It was a very dramatic shift that he decided to take, and that I, in my naiveté, didn’t really know was bizarre. And a million dollars later, it was finished.

Waronker: It’s kind of a problem that I have. If you’re involved with somebody that’s that special, you want to make sure it’s the best it can be. And it was a difficult task. We spent some money on it. But I just felt like it was almost a debut album for us [DreamWorks], and it was important.

Wainwright: [Brion] could only work, like, three days a week or something. We weren’t allowed to really talk. He said, “If you have any questions for me, you have to ask Valerie, and Valerie will ask me, and I’ll tell her and she’ll tell you. Because I’ll be in the back room.” And then he would, like, grace me with his presence. I hate to have to demonize him, but he was pretty awful to me. But there’s kind of a nice story that ended up happening later on. Apparently when “Want One” came out, he was in some session, and he stopped it and brought everybody into the control room and they listened to “Want One” from beginning to end. I think he was really conflicted, because I think on one hand he adored and wanted to be my greatest champion, but was also incredibly jealous of the position I was in. So I forgive him. And I also thank him, in the sense that it made me pretty tough at the end of the day.

Parks: One day I got a call from Lenny Waronker, and he said, “We have some tunes that might be good for an arrangement or something. Would you listen and see what you think?” I listened to the entirety, and I decided on, I believe, five arrangements. I think four of them made the first record. Of course, I knew that the reason Lenny called me was because they didn’t know what the hell to do with this kid. But Lenny sensed that strings would be a great proscenium for such a talent. If you have 12 violins, you can have four in a line, but then if you have five in the first violins you still haven’t lost any dimension when you put the fifth violin on a solo — which I did do, I think in “Baby.” Even his polymetric approach in “Millbrook,” in the quasi tango intro, there’s an irregular measure there. When I first heard it, I thought: Oh, he’s made a mistake. No, he didn’t make a mistake. He intended it to disrupt a pedestrian approach. All of a sudden, the left foot wasn’t on the left anymore. Very intelligent work.

Waronker: We were fortunate, because we were using real instruments on those songs, and the way Van Dyke arranges this stuff… you’re just aware of the beauty. The string writing is so unique and wonderful. And at the same time, because Rufus’ piano parts, for the most part, were pretty complex, Van Dyke was careful about taking advantage of it, and not getting in the way at the same time. It was great.

Parks: Could I have saved them some money, and a lot of precious time… which is the only thing we can never regain? Yes. In a flash. That’s how able Rufus was, to me, just with a piano and voice. I remember how hard I worked, how much it meant to me. And it still does. Many times I’ve seen myself get buried under a sawtooth guitar and a bass and drums. There are times when I feel I’ve done something that doesn’t matter. But this one mattered, and this one worked out.

Wainwright: What I really hear with the first album is just how great those records sound, because that was still done all on tape. It was like really old-school, splicing — no Pro Tools, no anything. And there is a warmth to that, which I’m happy to have in my repertoire. 

The album, “Rufus Wainwright,” sold less than 40,000 copies and didn’t make any charts save for Billboard’s Top Heatseekers.

Wainwright: I’m not pop, really, and you probably won’t hear me on the radio. But there is something about what I do that… it’s extroverted. So it’s this funny dilemma, and this has always been the story: People think I’m far more famous than I actually am, and then people hear about me without hearing about my music. It’s a strange inequality that I think has actually served me well over the years. If my first record really had been successful on a monetary level, and gotten all the praise and attention, I do think it could have killed me, honestly. I don’t think I was ready to deal with that kind of scrutiny, and that kind of loss of privacy, and I think my ego would have devoured me at that point. So I was spared a lot of misery by not actually being so famous.

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