The Bard 

Rufus Wainwright on Jeff Buckley, HIV, and NYC

ufus Wainwright is the kind of guy who likes to crack jokes about America's end at the hand of terrorists. Granted, he is Canadian, so it may be his birthright. But the wry, handsome 28-year-old singer/songwriter is deadly serious when it comes to writing songs. DreamWorks Records recently released his second full-length release, Poses, to near-fanatical critical acclaim. While not quite yet a household name, Wainwright is on the verge of stardom, with all the trappings that come with it -- Gap commercials and invitations to the Grammy awards. "I'm not trying to be Madonna," he says from his house in Montreal (his "fortress of solitude"), "but I'd like to think that someone will be listening to my music one hundred years from now." Just five years ago, he considered himself lucky to get anyone to listen to his music, let alone a record executive or someone in the 22nd century.

"I hated Jeff Buckley so bad," says a suddenly confessional Wainwright, "because I wanted to be Jeff Buckley." While cutting his teeth in dives and coffee shops in New York's East Village during the mid-'90s, Wainwright was a nobody from nowhere, while Jeff Buckley was a quickly rising star. But he pressed on with his particular brand of intimate, neo-cabaret-style rock. Eventually, he used his family connections to jumpstart his career, and handed a demo tape to his father, '70s folksinger Loudon Wainwright III. Luckily, the climate in the late '90s was just right for him to be signed: Jeff Buckley was a bona fide star, and Fiona Apple's similar brand of piano-driven cabaret-style rock was clicking on MTV. Wainwright's good looks didn't hurt either, especially with a major label like DreamWorks. "It sounds trite," he sighs, "but having a major record deal really legitimized me in a lot of people's eyes." Even though he had been playing the same songs for years in small NYC clubs like Fez, suddenly the fabulous set started showing up. "You definitely need a calling card in New York," says Wainwright of his record deal.

Of course, once you've made it in New York, San Francisco wants a piece of you. Enter the Gap. The "hipsters" at San Francisco-based Gap Inc. tapped Wainwright for spots featuring musicians doing their thing wearing Gap clothes in an all-white studio. "It's been a part of my success for sure," he says of the ad, which ran around Christmas 1998. "I was apprehensive about doing the ad at first, I must say, but I also didn't really have a reputation as a sell-out then. I didn't really have a reputation at all at that time, so I just went ahead and did it." Wainwright's self-titled debut record went from selling 200 to 4000 copies a week as a result. It eventually went on to sell over 200,000 copies. As he slyly notes, "I don't endorse anything, but I have been known to fall into the Gap every now and again."

On the surface, things seemed to be going well for Wainwright, but in truth he was far from happy. On the inside he was dying -- or at least he thought he was. "There was a long stretch of time where I thought for sure I was HIV positive," he says. His first record, Rufus Wainwright, documents some of his feelings about that particular time in his life when despair, drugs, and unrequited love ruled his inner world. "I wouldn't get tested because I was scared," he admits. "I have been tested recently, but a while back, I had a serious sort of anxiety attack about it, only because there has definitely been a slackening in the gay community in terms of attitudes toward safe sex."

Wainwright has had his close calls, what with sordid Manhattan nights of illicit sex, drugs, and alcohol -- but he has emerged from his days in New York with a new attitude and some fantastic songwriting material to draw upon. Poses offers more hints of his fears and anxieties from his last stay in New York (he wrote much of the record in New York's infamous Chelsea hotel), but with a decidedly more upbeat feel. On the outstanding Propellerheads-produced track "Shadows," Wainwright adopts a self-deprecating tone as he silkily croons, "I could be a great star/ Still I'm far from happy/ Out of these shadows/ Comes the light" over a funky breakbeat. "Rebel Prince" tips its hat to his earlier compositions, with its slinky piano riffs and passages sung in French. But for all of Wainwright's preciousness, the songs and his voice are the true stars. "I like to think of this record as a play with a cast of intriguing characters," he says. "My voice is the star of the play."

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