After several months in Europe, where he debuted the opera he composed that the Met wouldn't stage because he insisted on writing it in French, Rufus Wainwright is back for the fall in New York, in his new pad in Chelsea, and he is very busy: The CD/DVD set Milwaukee at Last!!!, a filming of a 2007 concert he gave at Milwaukee's Pabst Theater (shot by a team led by legendary documentarian Albert Maysles), is freshly out, plus he has a slew of engagements including being on the roster for a star-studded October 4 AIDS-in-Africa benefit at Carnegie Hall, an October 5 benefit performance for the Ali Forney Center, which serves homeless gay youth, and a big New York City Opera gala on November 5. But he did find ten minutes to talk to us, mainly about how gay it is for him to be back living in Chelsea, backdrop of much of the debauchery of his (earlier) youth.
So how long have you been away from New York?
I was in England for a few months, doing the opera, and that sort of sucked me dry. So after that I quickly retreated to the Hamptons for a couple of months, out in Sagaponack. I just bought a house out there — I won't say where, but pretty far out near the ocean, so I've been doing surfing lessons and yoga classes. So I'm coming back to New York City basically a Ken doll.
You look amazing ...?
Well, I look amazing for about three days, and then I end up going to Little Italy or something ...
How long are you in NYC for this time around?
I'll be in town for a couple of months at least. I'm making my next album a solo piano-voice record. I'm basically downsizing a bit to give everyone, including myself, a break from the grandiosity and do something kind of laid-back. But it's oddly turning out to be the most difficult thing I've ever done.
And you're still with boyfriend Jorn?
I'm still with Jorn. We got to spend some time out here on the beach, which was lovely, and now we're both entering back into the fold of city life. We live in Chelsea, down near the water, near Ninth and 23rd Street.
What are your feelings about Chelsea these days, versus when you lived there about ten years ago, in your twenties?
I've skipped through Chelsea in many ways — metaphorically and physically and spiritually — over the last fifteen years. In fact, my dad lived there when I was a small child. I am really a Chelsea boy in many respects, and I don't know what to think about it. On the one hand, I can be quite disgusted and appalled by the base nature of the way that being gay has become in Chelsea; it's so commercialized. But then on the other hand, I always find myself buying porn and checking out the shop boys at American Apparel. Chelsea I think of as a place you love to hate.
Have you noticed that one of the new porn stores there is called the Happy Store?
I think I did see that. One of my favorite venues — I'm sure they have porn there — is Allen's Alley [the far-from-just-porn, they-have-everything video store on Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street].
What's the last thing you rented there?
In such gay fashion, it was a collection of Joan Crawford movies, with my favorite one called Torch Song. And I bought it in Chelsea. But I don't have the little dog yet, don't worry. I think if I got a little dog, it would die for sure.
So we better talk about Milwaukee at Last!!! for a bit. Of all the dates from your 2007 tour for the last album, Release the Stars, why'd you shoot the doc in Milwaukee?
I'm in love with that theater, the Pabst Theater. It used to be the center of opera for the Midwest; it's this beautiful opera house in the middle of a cornfield. And I love midwestern audiences. They're so appreciative, and they're not so jaded, and they're real.
And what was your dynamic like with Albert Maysles? You wrote a song called "Grey Gardens." Did he say you were like his new Edie Beale?
[Laughs] Eddie Bouvier Beale! Yeah, I don't know, I was kind of nervous for a lot of the time when I was actually talking to him. But certainly when the camera was on, I transformed into a slightly over-the-top scene-stealer, and I think that definitely the spirit of Edie was in the room when the camera was rolling.
Did he ever reminisce about her?
He talked about her a lot. They were quite in love with each other, actually, and he never got over her.
So you're on Twitter.
I haven't posted any tweets, but I would like to tweet.
Oh, you don't write your own tweets?
Helena, the publicist on the call: MCT [his management] actually does.
Well, Rufus, what would you tweet if you tweeted today?
That my hair is terrible and I need to stop eating. I'm eating a lot of Brie cheese because I was just in France, and Jane Birkin gave me a wheel of cheese that I smuggled into America.