Rufus Wainwright carries on his family's proud musical tradition.

'Wright Stuff 

Rufus Wainwright carries on his family's proud musical tradition.

It goes without saying that humility among musicians is scarcer than detangling shampoo in Bob Dylan's shower. After every fifty performers whose swagger is wildly out of proportion with their talent comes one like singer Rufus Wainwright -- someone for whom artistic certainty is not only justified but charming.

"When I see someone famous on TV and think, 'I can do so much better than that,' it's only because I can," Wainwright says by telephone from New York City on a recent rainy afternoon. He laughs. It's an infectious laugh, not smug.

"I was a lot more competitive at a certain point," Wainwright says. "And I am very critical. But having a competitive bone in your body is very important in terms of realizing the work. I'm not doing this for sales or money. My best weapon is my songs."

To that end, you could say that Wainwright is heavy into research and development. "Music is a science at times," he says. "There are rules of gravity and physics you have to follow. You need to know the formula to break out of the formula. I know the formula."

It's hard to argue with him or his good-natured confidence. Last year's addictive Poses resists labeling -- Gilbert and Sullivan at the cabaret, Tin Pan Alley in rehab, fin de siècle VH1 -- because it is uniquely Wainwright's, a soufflé of ambitious production, sophisticated melodies and unsentimental lyrics. Some of its songs do follow a pop theorem, a logical proof that leads to hummable hooks and smooth chord progressions. Others are equally compelling and tuneful misfits of science. The disc brims with lush string sections, thick harmonies and languid piano. Dead center, Wainwright's rich voice, often double-tracked like an echo from Abbey Road, expertly balances wit and weight. It's too early to call the album timeless, but it sure sounds like something more than just one artist's watershed moment.

"The Rufus Wainwright sound I've created," he begins, then trails off. "No one's really been able to explain it, myself included. I've built it so that there's a lot of rooms, secret hiding places and high ceilings. I'm happy to live there."

The majority of Poses was produced or coproduced by Pierre Marchand, best known for adding alluring gloss to Sarah McLachlan's similarly refined sounds. Alex Gifford of Propellerheads also came aboard. "There are five producers who worked on the album," Wainwright explains. "Pierre was very integral. But I just sucked him dry and had to go on to the next one. I want blood." He laughs again, and you can picture him as Anne Rice's rock-star-phase Lestat, only not really sinister and physically even more wan than a vampire. On Rosie O'Donnell's talk show in January, he looked thin enough to slide under a door.

"The process is manic depression," Wainwright says. "When things don't come easily, I find it the most horrifying experience. But once you get it, it's the most glorious. I love writing lyrics. Leonard Cohen, someone I'd dare to call a friend, is my template for what a good lyricist should be. And what he does that even most of the main people I love never do -- what you have to go to opera and classical music to get -- is to follow that steady upward road. Most great classical composers and musicians, their best works are usually on their deathbeds. I'm trying desperately to stay on that path. I'm not saying I'll be as good as Shostakovich or Beethoven, but I'd love to have that kind of career."

Wainwright, 28, grew up on a steady diet of classical music and opera, studying voice, piano and composition and singing with Maria Callas records. He says it is Mahler, Verdi and Sibelius he turns to for inspiration and relief, not Stones discs or Brian Wilson's teen-age symphonies. Even in private school, even as the child of the man who had a small radio hit with a song called "Dead Skunk," Wainwright says he was "the most awkward teen-ager in the world."

Coming of age when nothing on the charts suggested anything like the musical erudition Wainwright was already developing, his angst was compounded by an extended bout of pubescent vocal-cord gymnastics, a Peter Brady nightmare of the first magnitude.

"Thank God I was in boarding school already and therefore that much closer to being institutionalized," Wainwright says. "I would have walked out in traffic. I had the most gorgeous voice when I was a child, but for two years I had no control. The sound was ugly. I went from singing Callas to singing along with Paul Robeson records before puberty. People wouldn't want to listen anymore."

He pauses to say goodbye to his mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, from whom his father, singer/songwriter and actor Loudon Wainwright III (whose "One Man Guy" turns up on Poses) has been divorced for many years. It's an affectionate parting with a rushed exchange of car keys and more laughter. "I was listening to a lot of death masses at that age," Wainwright says as soon as she's gone.

"In my opinion, pop is dead," Wainwright says. "It's still extremely popular, but it's really gone. September 11 was this horrific, life-changing event, and I was terribly saddened by it, but about two weeks earlier, I was far more depressed in a certain helpless way by seeing the MTV Video Awards at the Metropolitan Opera here in New York.

"I'm trying to save a lot of these poor kids," Wainwright continues, deadpan. "A large part of my audience is very young, maybe fourteen years old. I'm assuming there's a fallout from all that marketing. I'm concerned with people who support and fund mediocrity. I'm hoping to catch these kids, be their catcher in the rye." (Now he laughs.)

"I don't want to sound holier-than-thou or get on a soapbox, but I had a great, amazing musical education, classically," Wainwright says. "I studied with some incredible people. I learned all the greats and sucked what I needed out of them, and they know it. And I believe in trying to edify as much as I can, to try to make the world a better place. My main theme as a songwriter is hope. I grew up in a generation of hopelessness. A lot of contemporaries died, Jeff Buckley and Kurt Cobain, and many aren't supported. I'm not going to fall into that utter nihilism and defeat, but it's an upward battle."

You could tell him to listen to Poses for a lift, but he already knows it's good, has already moved on, is already writing songs for his third disc. He sounds worn out from touring, but it's probably more ambition than exhaustion talking when he says that "Poses will be put to sleep" after this string of live dates (supporting a newly reissued Poses with the bonus Beatles cover "Across the Universe," salvaged from the otherwise moribund I Am Sam soundtrack). He's tired, but he might be the only singer younger than thirty who doesn't need a wake-up call, and the fact that he knows it might be the best part. Other than the songs.


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