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Zip Off the Old Block

Rufus Wainwright may have famous folk-music parents, but he has his own energetic blend of Broadway, cabaret and pop.

April 11, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Rufus Wainwright has been called everything from the Poof Daddy of pop (yes, he's gay) to a near genius (his music is indeed quirky and original) to the best pop arrival of 1998 (Rolling Stone).

And the 25-year-old singer-songwriter is comfortable with it all.

"Well, there certainly are a lot of elements that one can talk about with me, aren't there? . . . The sexuality one or the 'son of' one or maybe just the weird record one," the son of folk music stars Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle says good-naturedly during an interview at a West Hollywood restaurant.

Whatever your take on him, Wainwright, who will play the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood on Friday, is a breathtaking talent. His songs about romantic yearning and heartbreak mix the flourish and sophistication of Broadway, cabaret and pop traditions in ways that make most of his contemporaries seem flat-out pedestrian.

His self-titled debut album was named one of the 10 best works of 1998 in the Village Voice's annual poll of an estimated 500 U.S. pop critics. The New Yorker cheered, "His strongly emotive songs show a cinematic, lyrical grasp of unrequited love that can make you swoon." Echoed the Voice itself, "A literate and gifted melodist, an irrepressible font of wisecrack and dish."

None of the acclaim has surprised Lenny Waronker, who as president of Warner Bros. Records worked with such major pop figures as Randy Newman, Paul Simon and James Taylor.

"Knowing his parents, I thought that if Rufus' music was sort of like the mom musically and like the dad lyrically and vocally that it could be interesting," says Waronker, who signed Wainwright to his new DreamWorks label. "But the music was way beyond that. He is this wonderful character who is clearly out there by himself--as talented as it gets."

Not only is Wainwright's music daringly different in an era of hip-hop and alt-rock, but his openness as a gay artist is rare for someone starting his career.

Numerous artists, from Elton John to k.d. lang, have acknowledged their homosexuality, but almost always long after their stardom was established.

"I had no choice," Wainwright says. "I cannot lie. I'm terrible at poker. Besides, no one suggested that I should hide it. In the first meeting with Lenny, I said, 'I'm gay and I'm not hiding it or changing any of the lyrics to my songs.' He said, 'Fine,' and we signed a contract."

Wainwright's pop influences may date back to the era of Cole Porter and before, but there is something distinctly contemporary about him. He comes across as a perpetual bohemian, someone who would have fit in with F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris in the '20s or Kerouac on the road in America in the '50s as easily as he does with today's young taste-makers.

Both his '50s sideburns and the contrasting, mix 'n' match feel of his powder-blue jacket and olive T-shirt stamp him as someone who likes to stand apart.

Wainwright's also a natural showman--one of those people who seems to be always working the camera, even if there's no camera around. It's as if he's simply unable to resist whatever colorful thought comes into his mind. What makes him disarming is that he doesn't come across as vain, but rather as simply unguarded and spontaneous.

"I think of my contemporaries with . . . contempt," he says, succumbing to a pun when asked if he feels any kinship with other '90s singer-songwriters.

"No, no. . . . I'm sure there are lovely writers out there," he adds with a blush of false modesty before turning attention back to himself.

"I think I might have the old Wagner disease," Wainwright offers. "I'm a bit of a megalomaniac. I don't necessarily think I'm the best in the world. It's more like I'm on a different planet. I haven't met my fellow Rufus planet-mate."

On stage, Wainwright is as talkative as he is during interviews. He delights in sharing his thoughts between songs as much as his emotions in them--even if it is as inconsequential as the decor in his hotel room or a troublesome curl in his hair.

His casual demeanor at various Los Angeles club appearances made it easy to assume that he grew up around audiences, and maybe even spent much of his childhood on the road with his musical parents.

But Wainwright didn't see his parents much as professional musicians. His father, one of the most talented folk-accented singer-songwriters to emerge in the '70s, and his mother, part of the well-regarded duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle, were divorced when Rufus was 3, and he moved with his mother from upstate New York to Montreal to be close to her sister and mother. She only toured a couple of weeks a year, preferring to spend her time at home.

There was a lot of music in his life, mostly what he heard at home or when visiting his grandparents, whose taste leaned toward pre-World War II parlor music or English music hall. Wainwright studied classical piano as a youth and fell under the spell of opera.

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