Neighbor: Rufus Wainwright, Singer

Musician/Artist Rufus Wainwright took his first Museum Tour
Musician/Artist Rufus Wainwright took his first Museum Tour

It was a very, very good summer for Rufus Wainwright.

On July 22 he celebrated his 39th birthday. A day later, he was on “Letterman,” promoting his new album, Out of the Game, reviewed by the Los Angeles Times as “an essential recording.” A day after that, Wainwright was performing at Wolf Trap in Virginia with Ingrid Michaelson. Flash forward a few days and there’s Wainwright rocking the Westhampton Beach PAC, then heading back to Montauk for some serious festivities as he and longtime partner Jorn Weisbrodt were married on August 23, 2012.

With family and friends in attendance, including Alan Cumming, Julianne Moore, Carrie Fisher, Yoko Ono and son Sean Lennon, Lou Reed, and music producer Mark Ronson, the couple were married by their friend, the artist Justin Vivian Bond. Both Wainwright and Weisbrodt wore custom Viktor and Rolf Monsieur, Wainwright in white and Weisbrodt in a dark suit.

Marriage isn’t the only change in Wainwright’s life. He’s also living through the perpetual change that is fatherhood. Together with childhood pal Lorca Cohen, daughter of legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, Wainwright became a dad when Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen was born on February 2, 2011. Announcing the news on his website, Wainwright sounded like any proud parent, commenting that “the little angel is evidently healthy, presumably happy, and certainly very, very beautiful.” Baby Viva lives with her mother in L.A., although Wainwright, along with “Deputy Dad” Weisbrodt, sees his daughter about once a month. ­

Becoming a father has definitely had an impact on Wainwright’s life and art, and the impact is clearly felt in Out of the Game. Produced by Mark Ronson, who has  worked with Adele and Amy Winehouse, the album has more of a pop feel than much of Wainwright’s previous works, although once again he has drawn heavily from events in his own life. One of the songs on the album, “Montauk,” paints a poignant picture of a grown Viva coming to visit her dad and “other dad” in Montauk.  (Among the poignant lyrics: One day you will come to Montauk/And see your dad playing the piano/And see your other dad wearing glasses/Hope that you will want to stay). For a while When Wainwright performed the song live for NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts,” host Bob Boilen remarked “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Almost exactly a year before little Viva made her debut, Wainwright lost his mother, Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle, to cancer. In an interview, Wainwright commented that he and Cohen had often discussed having a child, waiting for the right time. “I was about to experience the most devastating loss I’d ever known,” Wainwright said of his mother’s death and the influence of that tragic event on his subsequent decision to have a child with Cohen.

Wainwright’s music has always been autobiographical, a family trait evident in his parents’ work. Both his mother and father, songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, used their tumultuous relationship and divorce as inspiration for their music. Although they divorced when Wainwright was three, and he spent most of his youth with his mother in Montreal, Rufus remembers the stress and acrimony between them and how they used that fire to fuel the music they wrote. “They got some incredible material out of it,” he remarked.

With a lineage of two singer/songwriters, it wasn’t surprising that both Wainwright and his sister, Martha, went into the family business. Wainwright started playing piano when he was six years old, and his love of opera surfaced early. He would put on performances of Tosca, at family Christmas get-togethers, drafting his cousins to help, although he usually played the title role himself. At the age of 13, he was touring with The McGarrigle Sisters and Family, performing folk music with his mother, his Aunt Anna, and his sister. He had also started composing. At age 14, Wainwright was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Original Song for “I’m a-running,” which he performed in the film Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller.

Soon, Wainwright was on the Montreal club circuit, working on a series of demo tapes. The tapes impressed his father enough to pass them along to his friend Van Dyke Parks, who sent the tapes to DreamWorks executive Lenny Waronker. Wainwright went to L.A. to record his eponymous first album, released in 1998, with producer Jon Brion, but while his debut effort was praised critically it didn’t win a spot on the charts—despite Rolling Stone’s stamp of approval, as they called it one of the best albums of the year. He went on to release numerous albums to critical and commercial success, including Poses (2000), Want One (2003) and Release the Stars (2007). He also overcame a battle with drugs, which landed him a stay at Hazelden, a treatment center in Minnesota, but didn’t stop his creative force.

Wainwright embarked on a number of ambitious projects. He re-created Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall comeback show on location, and then took the show to the London Palladium, the Paris Olympia and the Hollywood Bowl. He composed Prima Donna, his first opera, which he describes as “a day in the life of an opera singer” on the verge of a comeback. The work premiered at the Manchester International Festival at the Palace Theatre and won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Musical/Opera.

The lack of opera halls in Montauk isn’t a problem when Wainwright is home on the East End. Certainly not when, as he revealed in a New York Post interview, he has such local spots to enjoy as the Clam Bar at Napeague and Hampton Chutney Company in Amagansett (“Amagansett is like the Switzerland of the Hamptons. It’s neutral”), Provisions in Sag Harbor and Hampton Gym in Southampton, and of course Montauk locales like Coffee Tauk, Joni’s, Duryea’s Lobster Deck & Seafood Market and Shagwong.

“It’s been there since ’69, and it’s where the Rolling Stones used to hang out,” he said. “It has some of that Montauk funk, which is why we’re all out here.”

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