Wainwright was born in Rhinebeck, New York, to folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III. His parents divorced when he was three, and he lived with his mother in Montreal for most of his youth. Wainwright has dual US and Canadian citizenship. He attended high school at the Millbrook School in New York (which would later inspire his song "Millbrook"), and later briefly studied piano at McGill in Montreal. He began playing the piano at age six, and started touring at age 13 with "The McGarrigle Sisters and Family", a folk group featuring Rufus, his sister Martha, his mother Kate, and auntAnna. His song "I'm a-Runnin'", which he performed in the film Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller at the age of 14, earned him a nomination for a 1989 Genie Award forBest Original Song. He was nominated for a 1990 Juno Award for Most Promising Male Vocalist of the Year.
Wainwright identified as gay while a teenager. In 1999, he told Rolling Stone that his father recognized his homosexuality early on. "We'd drive around in the car, he'd play 'Heart of Glass' and I'd sort of mouth the words, pretend to be Blondie. Just a sign of many other things to come as well." Wainwright later said in another interview that his "mother and father could not even handle me being gay. We never talked about it really."
Wainwright became interested in opera during his adolescent years, and the genre strongly influences his music. (For instance, the song "Barcelona" features lyrics from thelibretto of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, Macbeth.) During this time, he became interested in Édith Piaf, Al Jolson, and Judy Garland.
At age 14, Wainwright was sexually assaulted in London's Hyde Park after picking up a man at a bar. In an interview years later, he described the event: "I said I wanted to go to the park and see where this big concert was going on. I thought it was going to be a romantic walk in the park, but he raped me and robbed me afterwards and tried to strangle me". Wainwright states that he survived only by pretending to be an epileptic and faking a seizure. He has been reported to have stated that he remained celibate for five or seven years after the incident, and eventually became promiscuous.
In 2009 the unofficial biography There Will Be Rainbows: A Biography of Rufus Wainwright and the story of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle by Kirk Lake documented Wainwright's early struggles.
Rise to fame, debut album
Through weekly shows at Cafe Sarajevo, Wainwright was on the Montreal club circuit and eventually cut a series of demo tapes produced by Pierre Marchand, who later produced Wainwright's album Poses. The resulting tapes impressed his father Loudon, who passed them on to his friend Van Dyke Parks. Parks sent the recordings to Lenny Waronker, the DreamWorks executive who eventually signed Wainwright to his label. Waronker stated the following of Wainwright: "When I was about to listen to his tape, I remember clearly I was thinking, 'Gee, if he has the mom's musicality and smarts, and the dad's smarts and voice, that'd be nice.' Then I put it on and I said, 'Oh, my God, this is stunning.'"
The singer moved to New York City in 1996, performing regularly at Club Fez. He relocated to Los Angeles that year and began his first studio album, 1998's Rufus Wainwright. Waronker paired Wainwright with producer Jon Brion, and the two spent most of 1996 and 1997 making the record. Wainwright recorded 56 songs in total, on 62 rolls of tape. The sessions cost $700,000.
Wainwright's self-titled debut received critical acclaim; Rolling Stone recognized it as one of the best albums of the year, and named the singer "Best New Artist" of the year. Wainwright was nominated for four awards by the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards, including Album of the Year, Pop Recording of the Year and Video of the Year, and won for Best New Artist. Rufus Wainwright won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music Album and a Juno Award for Best Alternative Album. However, commercial success of the album was limited; the debut failed to chart in any country, though he ranked No.24 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart.
In 1996 Wainwright toured the UK as "Special Guest" of Kate and Anna McGarrigle. He toured with Sean Lennon in 1998 and began his first headline tour later that year. In December 1998, he appeared in a Gap commercial directed by Phil Harder, performing Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?". In March 1999, Wainwright began a headlining tour at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Poses and struggle with addiction
Wainwright lived in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City for six months, during which he wrote most of his second album. On June 5, 2001, Wainwright's second album, Poses, was released to critical acclaim but limited sales. The album ranked No.117 on the Billboard 200 and No.1 on the Top Heatseekers chart. Poses won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music Album, a Juno Award for Best Alternative Album, and was nominated by the Juno Awards for Best Songwriter ("Poses" / "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" / "Grey Gardens"). From 2001 to 2004, he toured with Tori Amos, Sting, Ben Folds, and Guster, as well as headlining the 2001 and 2002 tour in support of the album.
Wainwright became addicted to crystal meth in the early 2000s and temporarily lost his vision. His addiction reached its peak in 2002, during what he described as "the most surreal week of my life." During that week, he played a cameo role in the UK comedy television program, Absolutely Fabulous, spent several nights partying with George W. Bush's daughter Barbara, enjoyed a "debauched evening" with his mother and Marianne Faithfull, sang with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons for Zaldy's spring 2003 collection, and experienced recurring hallucinations of his father throughout. He decided after that he "was either going to rehab or I was going to live with my father. I knew I needed an asshole to yell at me, and I felt he fit the bill."
Wainwright in concert in Chicago
In 2003 Rufus released the full-length Want One. Then Wainwright's album Want Two from which four songs were released as the EP Waiting for a Want, was released by DreamWorks/Geffen on November 16, 2004. Afterward, a live iTunes Sessions EP entitledAlright, Already: Live in Montréal was released on March 15, 2005. A DVD entitled All I Want, featuring a biographical documentary, music videos, and live performances, was released internationally in 2005. That same year, Wainwright made two major contributions as a solo vocalist to a pair of records: the Mercury Prize-winning Antony and the Johnsons' I am a Bird Now and Burt Bacharach's At This Time.
Want One and Want Two were repackaged as Want for a November 2005 release to coincide with the beginning of a British tour. This version of Want One contains two extra songs: "Es Muß Sein" and "Velvet Curtain Rag". The Want package in the UK has two bonus tracks: "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" (a Leonard Cohen cover) and "In With the Ladies", which replace "Coeur de parisienne – Reprise d'Arletty" and "Quand vous mourez de nos amours" from 2004's augmented edition.
Release the Stars and Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall
Wainwright's fifth studio album, Release the Stars, was released by Geffen on May 15, 2007. The album was produced by Wainwright and featured Richard Thompson, friend Teddy Thompson, sister Martha Wainwright, mother Kate McGarrigle, Neil Tennant, Joan Wasser, Julianna Raye, Larry Mullins (professionally known as Toby Dammit), and actress Siân Phillips. It reached No.2 on the UK Albums Chart, and debuted at No.23 on theBillboard 200. The first single, "Going to a Town", was released on April 3, 2007 in the iTunes Music Store. The second single released was "Rules and Regulations", and the third single was a 500-copy (12" vinyl) release of "Tiergarten", a one-track EP with the Supermayer remix of Tiergarten, which was released exclusively through iTunes and 7digital on October 29.
Rufus Wainwright: "Banks of the Wabash" (1997)
30 second sample of Rufus Wainwright singing a cover of Paul Dresser's "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" (1897) for the soundtrack to the 1997 film The Myth of Fingerprints.
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Two video clips were released for the album: "Going to a Town", directed by Sophie Muller, and "Rules and Regulations", directed by Petro Papahadjopoulos and styled by J.W. Anderson. Release the Stars was certified gold in the UK. The accompanying world tour saw Wainwright visit North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, ending on February 14, 2008 with a concert at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
On June 10, 2006, NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday broadcast an interview of Wainwright by Scott Simon. The segment concerned Wainwright's sold-out pair of Carnegie Hall shows on June 14 and 15, 2006 in which he performed the entire Judy Garland concert album that was recorded there in 1961. He later repeated his performance at the London Palladium, theParis Olympia, and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Live CD and DVD recordings of the concerts were released on December 4, 2007. The DVD is entitled Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy!: Live from the London Palladium. The CD album, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, is a recording of his show at the legendary New York venue. In 2008, Garland's daughter Lorna Luft expressed strong approval of Wainwright's recordings of her mother's songs. The album was nominated for a 2009 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
Blackoutsabbath and Prima Donna
Wainwright in 2008.
Wainwright created the concept of Blackoutsabbath in early 2008. In an attempt to become more environmentally conscious, participants are asked to live "off the grid" as much as possible on a designated date by unplugging appliances, walking or cycling for transportation, turning out lights and decreasing energy usage in any other ways possible.
As the sun sets on the evening of Blackoutsabbath, participants write ways they can contribute to the Earth's well-being throughout the rest of the year. Annual benefit concerts take place to raise awareness of the cause. Special guests performing at the concert included Joan Wasser, Jenni Muldaur, and friend and fellow singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson. The organization's official site contains updates about the program and contains links to various tools, green products and services, studies, and groups that promote energy conservation and environmental protection.
Following his 2007–2008 tour, Wainwright began writing his first opera, Prima Donna, about "a day in the life of an opera singer", anxiously preparing for her comeback, who falls in love with a journalist. There are four characters, and the libretto is in French.The opera was originally commissioned by Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb. However, because of a dispute over Wainwright's decision to write the libretto in French and the Met's inability to schedule an opening in the 2009 season, Wainwright and the Met ended their relationship. Instead of a New York opening, Prima Donna was staged during the Manchester International Festival, where the first performance took place at the Palace Theatre on July 10, 2009. Reviews for the performance were mixed, with one publication suggesting Wainwright "may struggle to convince critics he is worthy of a place among the greats". Prima Donna won aDora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Musical/Opera in June 2011.
In December 2008 Rufus performed alongside his sister, Martha Wainwright, and mother Kate McGarrigle as well as many more of his family at the Knitting Factory in downtown Manhattan. Joined by other artists such as Grammy Award-winner Emmylou Harris, Velvet Underground front man Lou Reed and famed performance artist Laurie Anderson, the eclectic cast performed original and traditional Christmas-themed songs. In November 2009 Revelation Films released the concert on DVD.
All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu and birth of daughter
In November 2009, Wainwright announced that he had finished recording his sixth studio album, and was calling it All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. The album was released on March 23 in Canada, April 5 in the UK and April 20 in the US, with the first single "Who Are You New York?".
In December 2009, Wainwright appeared with sister Martha Wainwright and mother Kate McGarrigle at the Royal Albert Hall in London, raising $55,000 for the Kate McGarrigle Fund, which was established in 2008 to raise awareness of sarcoma, a rare cancer that affects connective tissue such as bone, muscle, nerves, and cartilage. It was the last performance made by his mother before her death in January 2010.
Wainwright and his husband, German arts administrator Jörn Weisbrodt, in 2010.
In late 2010 Wainwright became engaged to his partner Jörn Weisbrodt. The couple moved to Toronto, Ontario in early 2012 after Weisbrodt was named artistic director of Toronto's annual Luminato festival.
In 2011, Wainwright announced that he and Leonard Cohen's daughter, Lorca Cohen, had had a child. He announced on his website: "Darling daughter Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen was born on February 2, 2011 in Los Angeles, California to proud parents Lorca Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, and Deputy Dad Jorn Weisbrodt. The little angel is evidently healthy, presumably happy, and certainly very very beautiful."
In July 2011 a 19-disc box set called House of Rufus containing all his studio and live recordings as well as previously unreleased material was released.
Out of the Game and marriage
Wainwright recorded his seventh studio album with producer Mark Ronson. He described the new songs as more "danceable" than his previous material. The album, titled Out of the Game, was released in late April 2012 in the UK and Canada and in early May in the US.
On August 23, 2012 Rufus Wainwright and Jörn Weisbrodt married in Montauk, New York. Artist Justin Vivian Bond officiated. Wainwright and Weisbrodt have a daughter, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, in a parenting partnership with friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard Cohen.
His second opera, called Hadrian, will premiere at the Canadian Opera Company as their opening production of the 2018 mainstage season at the Four Seasons Centre, inToronto, Ontario, Canada. The libretto is being written by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor.