Rufus Wainwright: my family values

The singer-songwriter talks about his relationship with his father, Loudon Wainwright III, having a child with Leonard Cohen’s daughter and his marriage to Jörn

After my parents’ divorce, I grew up mostly with my mother’s family in Canada. We had love and attention but it did become a bit of a sitcom at times. My mother and aunt [folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle] worked together, my other aunt was their manager and we’d all go on vacation together.

My mother trained my sister Martha and me. She made us sing and take instrument lessons, and put us on stage. We didn’t see my father [Loudon Wainwright III] as much but when he lived in London, we went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park. I was about 13 and it sparked my appreciation of the theatre.

My dad and I had a very difficult relationship at the outset of my career. There was silence and discomfort. But he came to a lot of my shows. He was proud, but he also felt eclipsed. I realised that I had to make him feel not eclipsed. He needs attention artistically. He’s a fantastic singer-songwriter. I used to think it was just massive ego and he wanted to outshine everybody. But he’s just very ambitious. I can relate to that.

I miss my mother a lot. She died so young, at 63 [in 2010]. My fondest memory is of waking up and hearing her play piano, often the Goldberg Variations by Bach. It was such an expansive and surreal experience. Another great thing was that she always wanted to make things better and it’s something I emulate. We would have huge fights occasionally, but it would be desperately necessary for her to end it with a hug and a kiss.

We’d fight about music mostly. And she wasn’t particularly happy that I was gay. But, if I’d been straight, I would have brought another woman along and that would have been a boxing match. When there were rumblings about my sexuality at 13 or 14, she was scared. It was 1987 and Aids was everywhere, so I forgive her staunch, negative attitude. My father just didn’t want to talk about it.

The one who best helped me was my grandmother Martha, my father’s mother, who was brought up in the South in the 30s. She called and said, “I’ve heard you’re gay but we love you and it doesn’t matter.” We got along well, though she was a total racist.

Growing up, my sister, Martha, and I were always together, which we resented wholeheartedly. But now we rely heavily on each other. Martha is a bit tougher than I am. She knows how to soldier through situations. She’s a lot like my dad. I’m a bit of a loose cannon.

I had my daughter Viva with a friend, Lorca [Leonard Cohen’s daughter]. It happened around my mother’s death. Everything was nuts and it maybe took a bit of that insanity to make it happen. She’s five and I see her every couple of months. She looks a lot like me and she loves the stage. I walked off after a show and she said, “OK, now it’s my turn!”

I needed to get married to my husband [Jörn Weisbrodt]. My attitude to marriage changed. Earlier on, I subscribed to the Wildean school of homosexuality, separated from the straight world – and a part of my heart still harbours that sensibility – but I got to a point where I needed somebody in my life to lean on and to need me. I also wanted Jörn to have an official post as Viva’s stepfather.

We have a modest family house up in Canada that my grandfather built. My grandmother, Gaby, was very imperious. She didn’t like gay people, but she was funny and charming. The adults talked and drank by the fire and the kids sat in the background, picking up stuff they heard. Now, I sit there with Jörn, Martha and her husband, and other people visit. There’s a lot of reminiscing. It’s a nice feeling.

• Rufus Wainwright’s new album, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, is out now. He plays St John-at-Hackney church, London, on 26 April, rufuswainwright.com

Interview by Caroline Rees

The GuardianTramp

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