This iconic singer/songwriter was one of the first artists at a major record label to be open about their sexuality.
Professionally, Rufus Wainwright has never been in the closet. His career launched with a self-titled album in 1998, making him one of the first singers at a major record label to be open about their sexuality. “I was dismissed somewhat as this…How can I say? This off-center, unusual creature,” he says on the LGBTQ&A podcast.
Wainwright’s career has indeed been unusual, looking back now over the last 20 years, but not in ways explicitly pertaining to his sexuality. Interspersed between studio albums, Wainwright has written opera, adapted nine of Shakespeare’s sonnets into a full album, and even recreated Judy Garland’s infamous 1961 Carnegie Hall performance, later released as the live album, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall.
This week, Wainwright spoke with the podcast about his career, what’s changed for queer singers in the music industry, what hasn’t, and his first new album in nine years, Unfollow the Rules. Read highlights below and click here to listen to the full interview.
Jeffrey Masters: Your first album came out in 1998. Looking back, I think it’s wild that you’ve never been in the closet professionally.
Rufus Wainwright: Right. It’s something that I actually had to fight for a little bit at certain points in my career. When I started, the first meeting I took with my record company, with Dreamworks Records, I emphatically stated to them that I was gay and that I wasn’t going to hide that.
I don’t claim to be the first out gay artist, but I am one of the first who started my career being out on a major label. And succeeded in the sense that I’ve remained. There was some talk about how Adam Lambert was this incredible pioneer for being the first out gay mainstream artist or something. And, with all due respect to Adam Lambert, who is very talented and a great guy, I got very angry about that. I was like, “No, I kind of did it about 15 years or 10 years earlier than him.”
JM: Did the press or industry make a big deal out of your sexuality?
RW: Certain outlets were, I don’t know, hung up on it a little bit.
And I believe that there was, in terms of how the industry works, there was certain opportunities that I was not allowed to have. I was put back a bit by my sexuality. I wasn’t, by any means, obliterated. But I was dismissed somewhat as this… How can I say? This off-center, unusual creature.
I worked with that energy and it made me fight harder. It made me write more songs. It made me try to really hone my craft.
JM: That surprises me because from the outside it seems like your career had so much momentum, especially early on.
RW: There was always this line that would come up where they’re like, “Can you just pretend to be bisexual at least?” Or they didn’t necessarily want to take the risk of alienating a certain sector of the mainstream audience with me. But I was always shocked at how, if you do just not bring it up, even if it’s plainly obvious, you do go that much further in the pop world. It’s interesting. I don’t know if I would have ever been a huge pop star regardless. But I think it’s a bigger sort of element than it’s given credit for.
JM: When I discovered your music, information was less accessible online. I didn’t know you were gay.
RF: I was as gay as the day is long, especially these days. And I very much took that opportunity to indulge in myself and all the trappings of rock and roll success that I did get at that early stage in my career.
JM: Do you still indulge in those things?
RW: Well, I’m married now and we have a child. And I’m certainly not going on the road anytime soon. So it’s quieted down a bit. But I’ve always been… How can I say this? I have a kind of Hindu belief. I’m not Hindu, but there is this kind of more Eastern philosophy where an individual is comprised of many people and many different facets. And yeah, there are times when the more, whatever, naughty Rufus can show his head suddenly. And I have to contend with that. But it’s just not enough hours in the day, unfortunately.
JM: Growing up with musicians as parents, did you look at their careers as something you want it to surpass?
RW: I think one always wants to surpass their parents. And I think one’s parents always want their kids to surpass them. I think it’s the natural order of things. My mother sadly is no longer with us, Kate McGarrigle. But both of my parents were, and my dad still is, great musicians and really valued songwriters, and did incredibly well.
Now, neither of them became household names, by any means. And so, when my star was on the ascent, let’s just say the mountain I had to jump over wasn’t in the Himalayas. Unlike friends of mine like Sean Lennon or Adam Cohen, whose parents were bonafide superstars. And it would have been churlish to imagine them even going anywhere near their parents’ fame. So I had an easier time of it because my parents were not super famous. But they were incredibly respected. And, in my opinion, just as talented as any big-time person.
But yes, I wanted to supersede them. I also, I don’t know… I wanted to bring them along, as well. It was as much my intention to become more famous and to also show other people their greatness as well, especially my mother. My mother, because she decided to really focus on bringing up her kids as opposed to touring, she lost a lot of opportunities in that department. So I then sang a lot of her material, and would always bring her along, and really champion her.
JM: You’ve made surprising choices in your career. You’ve written opera, you did an album of adapted Shakespeare sonnets. You don’t put out an album like that expecting it to sell millions and millions of copies, right?
RW: No I don’t. I will say that there’s a very foolish side of myself that does believe, before any record of mine comes out, whether it’s a pop record, or the Shakespeare album, or even my opera. That somehow there’s going to be this magical moment where suddenly it’s the most famous, and most acclaimed, and most accepted, and widely sold album I’ve ever made. You always have that second or two of disbelief. And then, of course, reality sets out.
Artistically, I can only do what I want to do.
JM: Do you worry about money?
RW: Oh, of course. Yeah. I’ve done well. And thankfully, before the pandemic, I had been working a lot over the last three years. So I managed to put some cash away. I’m pretty much hand-to-mouth. I also live quite lavishly, in the sense that my husband and I love going to the opera. We love eating in nice restaurants. We love travel. If I was more frugal, it’d probably be better.
And there’s a very good chance we’ll have to become more frugal, to be honest.
JM: Does a long-term relationship, like the one you’re in, provide as much fodder for inspiration for your music?
RW: Oh, very much so. Whether it’s just the trials and tribulations of keeping house, or taking care of elderly parents and, of course, young children. I mean, the drama ensconced in that is formidable. Whether it’s dreaming of escaping from that, at times, which all adults do. Or embracing it and championing it. That’s a pretty wide spectrum.
That being said, there is something to be said for really using your imagination and creating universes that aren’t attached to you, and that you’re just sort of observing.
JM: Is there an example of a song like that on your new album?
RW: Well “Trouble in Paradise” is a bit that. I wrote that for a play. That is loosely based on something that maybe Anna Wintour could sing. It’s sort of about her. But of course, the chorus, “Trouble in Paradise,” is pretty universal at the moment.
JM: Your tracklist seems to be speaking directly to his moment: “Early Morning Sadness,” “Alone Time,” “Hatred.”
RW: Yeah, there’s a lot of correlation. Which, I don’t know, I don’t know what that means. I always try to write about heavy shit and we live in heavy times right now.
JM: I gravitated towards “Peaceful Afternoon,” about your relationship with your husband.
RW: That song really strikes a chord with a lot of people. It’s something that a lot of people wish for. And then there’s other people who don’t give a shit. But I think for those who gravitate towards that piece of music, it’s a strong emotion that it engenders.
Click here to listen to the full interview with Rufus Wainwright. LGBTQ&A is produced by The Advocate magazine, in partnership with GLAAD.
Rufus Wainwright’s new album, Unfollow the Rules, is out July 10.