‘I’ve always had a very intense relationship with the Royal Albert Hall,” says Rufus Wainwright. “I was violated… raped in Hyde Park [across from the venue] when I was 14 years old.” On the morning before he played his first solo show there (supporting Sting, around 17 years later, in 2004) he fell and cut his arm on the broken window of a Victorian bathroom in Notting Hill. “Because I was newly sober, I was adamant about refusing painkillers. But still made it on to the stage, playing the piano with 16 stitches in my arm and felt brilliant.”
In December 2009, he joined his sister Martha and their mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, on the same stage for her final, “incredible” Christmas concert. McGarrigle died of cancer, aged 63, six weeks later with her famous, philandering ex-husband (Rufus and Martha’s father) musician Loudon Wainwright III, in the next room.
Now, just turned 50, Wainwright is returning to the Albert Hall for two Proms, at which he’ll perform orchestral versions of his breakthrough baroque pop albums: Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004). Swirling together big swooning elements of pop, jazz, chanson and classical music, the albums feature songs that weave the Canadian-American singer’s louche, worldweary melodies through the bombast of Ravel’s Bolero, and find him proclaiming the arrival of a “Gay Messiah”: “He will then be reborn from 1970s porn/Wearing tube socks with style/And such an innocent smile…”
Two decades ago, when Wainwright wrote that song, he felt that gay rights were largely on the up, “although clearly there was a dark underbelly of homophobia brewing”. Now he feels that “I don’t know how things are in England but in America the battle is back on. There has been a dramatic swing back against gay rights. It’s pretty horrific. I have certain, quite old- fashioned opinions on trans stuff… and I do occasionally like to debate what direction should be taken with children and all that.
“But what has happened means there isn’t even room for those conversations anymore because trans people are under full attack from the government. The amount of legislation that is being passed, how the Right-wing has glommed on to gay and trans people as a target is so ferocious… It’s like a war now. You have to fight for one side or the other, which is never good for anyone. But I’m a gay person with lots of trans friends and so I have to choose that side.”
Wainwright always knew he was gay. But he says he horrified his parents when he came out to them at 18. The superficially tolerant folk scene that they inhabited was pretty straight – you need only look at stories like that of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to know its misogynistic culture all but endorsed heterosexual male cheating while expecting women to remain pure – and, in 1991 they both feared that homosexuality would lead to Aids and an early death. In fact, Wainwright has often said that his early promiscuity – from which he may well have risked contracting HIV – was halted by the Hyde Park rape. But that trauma fed into his later drug addiction, which at one point left him temporarily blind. Elton John ushered him into rehab in 2003, between the Want albums.
“It was in rehab, at the bottom of the barrel,” he tells me, via video link from the Montauk home he shares with his husband Jörn Weisbrodt and their fluffy little “Princess Di-eyed” dog Siegfried, “that I learnt that if you were unloved as a child then your chances of survival are way slimmer. And I did get that love. It wasn’t an easy childhood by any means. In fact it was quite brutal. But there was an underlying sense of love, support and nurture. I saw other people who were really lost, because they did not have that love.”
Reflecting on the recent death of Sinéad O’Connor – who also had same-sex relationships – Wainwright recalls that the Irish singer once described her own mother as “incapable of love”. He feels that while her death “was such a loss, I feel she wanted to go. In a certain sense I’m happy for her, that she was able to release herself from her pain.”
By contrast, Wainwright has felt happier with the passing years. When I last interviewed him, 16 years ago, he told me he dreamed of writing operas like his hero, the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. He has since written two – Prima Donna (2009) and Hadrian (2018) – and is working on a new classical piece. He tells me that some of this music has been “inspired by a neighbour’s lawn mower, because although I’m very disciplined and I sit at the piano for at least an hour a day, I do believe the music comes from the outside”. He has also just released a very well-reviewed folk-pop album, Folkocracy.
But Wainwright’s irritated by the way “so many pop stars today are still so conventional, so focused on the economics”. Even Dolly Parton – one of his idols – has irked him by putting out a cover of the Beatles’ Let it Be with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. “When I heard she had done that, I was like: Really? Because I want to know what’s going on for Dolly now, as an older person. Let’s talk about age, let’s talk about your impending death!” He has no time for great artists “resting on their laurels. Give me something new please!”
Flipping on a dime, though, Wainwright is “thrilled” to revisit his own past at the Proms. “If somebody put a gun to my head and asked for my favourite venue, I would say the Albert Hall,” he says. “It is so formal: this elegant golden cage. And yet it’s so intimate.” And although he feels Hyde Park still has “a darkness”, he hopes to change his relationship to the place by walking his dog there this summer. “Hyde Park has a heavenly vibe for dogs,” he sighs. “Hopefully he won’t get raped.”
Rufus Wainwright’s Want Symphonic Proms are at the Royal Albert Hall (royalalberthall.com), London SW7, on Tues; Folkocracy is out now on BMG