When he was just a baby, Rufus Wainwright’s father Loudon Wainwright III wrote a classic song about him: “Rufus Is a Tit Man.” Now Rufus is a father himself — his daughter, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, was born last year (her mother is Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca) — and he’s written a song for her on his new album Out of the Game. “Montauk” is a vision of familial bliss, or at much bliss as his famously combative, famously close musical family hopes for: “One day you will come to Montauk/ And see your dad trying to be evil/ And see your other dad feeling lonely/ Hope that you will protect him and stay.” (The “other dad” is Rufus’s fiancé, Jörn Weisbrodt.) Hive talked with Wainwright about singing for his daughter, his “intense love affair” with opera, and songwriting as a bodily function.
You’re getting married this summer! Have you figured out what the music is going to be?
Well, I think we’re going to have an orchestra — not a huge orchestra, but a small chamber orchestra. So there’ll be a lot of classical music, but afterwards we’re all going to hang out in a bar and play songs and stuff. I’m sure that’ll digress into more popular fare.
You’re also the father of a one-year-old. What does she like to listen to?
I see her about once a month right now, because I’m touring a lot and promoting the album. I just kind of play her what I’m working on when I see her. Her big song right now is “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” I have a good time with that catalog.
Do you remember the songs that meant a lot to you when you were small?
My big song was “My Grandfather’s Clock.” Of course, now that I think about it, it’s about death. I think that’s appropriate.
Who else do you think is making songs with that kind of dramatic, operatic sweep in a pop context now?
My friend Antony, from Antony and the Johnsons. Lady Gaga certainly has the costumes for the opera; I don’t know if she has the score yet! If we all team up together, we could do something great. But yeah, I’d say Antony.
You worked with Mark Ronson on the new record, and you’ve talked about wanting to make it more direct and immediate and pop-radio-friendly. What do you think it takes to make a hit now?
That is a pretty elusive question. I really don’t know. If you’re on the radio a lot, it helps — if people who like your music have power at those stations. But I don’t know if people buy records any more, or if they just download. What I will say is that I’m banking on my performances, which have been really well received, and the show, which I’ve worked really hard to perfect. We’ll see if the music will float into the consciousness of the public. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet any more, unless you have a machine gun or something. A machine gun and several silver bullets.
The bonus is that if you’re attacked by werewolves, you’re set. Are there songs you’ve heard on the radio in the past few years that you think are really stellar as songwriting?
I have a pretty high bar. You have to understand that my main love is opera, and that’s still most of what I listen to. I heard the end of Tristan und Isolde the other day on the radio; I thought that was pretty good. But that’s been around for 150 years. To be honest, I’m mostly in another realm in terms of music. That’s how I keep doing it — I just know that that feeling will never be reached, because in order to reach it you have to die. I don’t mean to say that what’s out there is bad; there is some good stuff, but I don’t personally understand the way it works. And I am personally locked into this intense love affair with opera that’s somewhat like a disease.
What was the first opera that really struck you?
I was into Tosca early on, I was into Rigoletto, but the first piece that really got me was actually Verdi’s Requiem. And of course the first piece would be a death mass. It ties into my love of “My Grandfather’s Clock.”
Do any of the people who worked with you on the new record share your love of opera?
I don’t think they know as much about it as I do, in most cases. But I would say that they appreciate the gesture. Certainly, Mark was really interested in my perspective concerning opera, and actually went to a few, and asked me for recordings. My belief with opera is that people might flat-out say they hate it, but they’re flat-out lying, because you’re dealing with 500 years of music, and there has to be something in there that at least tickles your fancy.
Is there anyone you’d love to hear sing one of your songs who hasn’t done it already?
Do you write songs all the time, or just when it’s time to make a new record?
I write constantly. At this point in my life, I’ve developed songwriting into a kind of bodily function. Whether it’s pooing or singing, they’re both equally important, wouldn’t you say?
Out of the Game is out now via Decca/Polydore.