Rufus Wainwright: drugs, tragedy and Judy Garland

WITH his dark looks, wry confessional manner and apparent preoccupation with Judy Garland, Rufus Wainwright will be one of the most theatrical figures to take to the stage at Kenwood this summer. The Canadian-American singer-songwriter is curr

Tan Parsons

WITH his dark looks, wry confessional manner and apparent preoccupation with Judy Garland, Rufus Wainwright will be one of the most theatrical figures to take to the stage at Kenwood this summer.

The Canadian-American singer-songwriter is currently touring to promote his latest album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu. It is a dark, stripped-down work of compositions featuring only his voice and the piano. It is born of tragedy to a certain extent - his mother Kate McGarrigle, who died this year, was gravely ill during the making of the record.

"I've had a pretty tragic year," he says. "My mother passed away in January. We were really the best of friends. I'm processing that issue."

He jokes about tragedy being a natural state of affairs for him, given that he is of Irish descent, but he also finds it intriguing stuff as well.

"I feel that the world is a pretty tragic place in general and I feel it's important to acknowledge that and work with the energy to get onto some happy stuff," he says. "And you know, tragedy interests me too. It's where people really become themselves. It's a positive thing sometimes."

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Despite the, at times, bleak sound of the new songs, he knows what his audience will be expecting at Kenwood on July 3 - "light summer fare" with plenty of Judy Garland material, although he will visit some of his most recent songs too.

He says "dark women", including his sister Martha and especially Shakespeare's Dark Lady, were an inspiration on Songs For Lulu, which includes several of the Bard's sonnets, arranged to music. "It's an ode to female trouble," he explains.

The combination of piano and voice on the songs is a simple concept but actually proved very demanding.

"I wouldn't call it tricky, exactly, because it's very effective, and it always has been and always will be. It's just a piano and a voice and you can't get better than that in many respects, but it's a lot more taxing and it's very, very emotionally draining, but also pretty exhilarating as well."

It is not the first time the singer has performed at Kenwood - he last appeared two years ago and enjoyed every moment of the experience.

"I'm coming back because they want me," he says, mimicking a camp luvvie affection for his fans.

"It was an amazing gig last time - the weather was perfect, which makes a lot of difference, although the English are well equipped for the temperate climate. The show went really well and I had a wonderful experience. I want to repeat every aspect exactly as it was, except for the show - except for the material."

He doesn't know the surrounding area terribly well although he enjoyed seeing the Rembrandt paintings on display in Kenwood House when he played there last time. "It's one of the finest collections in London," he says.

However, the reputation of the Heath as a liberated cruising ground for gay men has not passed him by, and he playfully hints at how it could have played a role in his famously promiscuous life were he ever to have lived in north London. "I don't know Hampstead very well. And that's probably a good thing - with me being gay and all."

He discovered he was gay during his teenage years. After a period of "laying low" to appease his dumbfounded parents, he eventually cut loose with a vengeance, embracing a hedonistic lifestyle of sex and drugs.

He was 29 when an addiction to crystal meth nearly killed him, although he finally pulled clear of it with the help of his father. Older now, he seems to have reached a different point in his life - calmer, somehow removed from the events that took place earlier in his life. But the memory of the hedonism is still there, strongly - in places the new record hints at the tumult of his previous lifestyle.

"Well this album's called Songs For Lulu," he says. "One reason it's called that is because Lulu represents this demon energy that threatens the innocent. And it's not a bad force, not a negative power, it's a very life-affirming fire, but you don't want to necessarily get third degree burns.

"I acknowledge the dark side and embrace it as a beautiful and fascinating thing. But I just don't live there any more. My belief is that as you get older you live these various lives and, at a certain point, that life is completed and it kind of joins a cast of characters within your soul and, by the time you pass away, you are composed of various different people - I don't believe you are just one person."

Wainwright didn't just fall into a musical career - he comes from artistic stock. Both his mother and his father, Loudon Wainwright III, were successful singers before him, and his little sister Martha also follows the same tradition.

But he can pinpoint the moment he came to life musically - it was at about the age of 13 when he discovered Verdi.

"It was my first kind of profound musical experience," he says. "The music that really shifted my gears was Verdi's Requiem. It became a requiem for my childhood. I became the most rabid opera fan you ever met. All along, Verdi has been a beacon. Other composers I listen to more now, but Verdi's sense of melody has always mystified me.