Rufus Wainwright is curiously dressed as a woman on the cover of his new album Want Two, the much anticipated follow-up to 2003’s Want One. It turns out he’s supposed to be the Lady of Shallot, who fell in love with Sir Lancelot only to be raped by him. She then went insane, hopped into a boat and sang herself to death down a river with the whole town listening.

Wainwright felt the tragic tale fitted perfectly with the mood of Want Two which, much like his other three albums, is full of songs about heartbreak and longing for true love. He also related to the Lady of Shallot on another level, as he was raped as a teenager and experienced a mental breakdown in his late 20s.

Today the 31-year-old New York-based singer seems more self-confident and comfortable in his skin than ever. When asked how his love life was going Wainwright laughed down the phone from Montreal, Canada, where he had just spent Christmas at his family home and was preparing for his Australian tour at the end of January. Well, let’s just say that things get better after you hit 30, he answered. You lose a lot of baggage somehow.

There’s a very strange thing that happens where there’s a whole new section of the gay male population that is suddenly attracted to you because you’re a little older. So it’s not doing too badly at the moment.

But, he added, I’m not madly in love or anything.

Wainwright recently declared he should stop chasing pretty boys and start dating nerds like singer Jarvis Cocker, whom he’s been working with in the Leonard Cohen tribute Came So Far For Beauty which is being staged as part of the Sydney Festival. But the plan hasn’t panned out yet. I’m still a sucker for classical beauty in terms of the whole pantheon of classical beauty, whether it be a construction worker or a dandy or a black postman, he said. Certainly nerds have their own little department in my shopping centre. I’m very, very open.

Wainwright’s style of music is difficult to pigeonhole but is generally described as a mixture of pop, folk, classical and rock. While Want One is a presentable, accessible entity, he said, Want Two contains some of the more operatic, weird stuff the singer is famous for. And critics the world over can’t stop singing the new album’s praises.

He made the two Want albums at the same time in the space of just six months, whereas his first two CDs -“ Rufus Wainwright (1998) and Poses (2001) -“ each took years to complete. He puts the speedy production down to a desperate need for some kind of divine nourishment following his breakdown and stint in rehab due to crystal meth addiction. He also felt a sense of urgency in his life following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Somehow those elements conspired together and the baby just shot out of my womb, he laughed. It was a kind of amazing experience actually.

Wainwright’s struggle with crystal meth and subsequent month in rehab have been well documented. He believes the drug is currently the biggest problem affecting the gay community in the US. Recently I went to my doctor and got all the tests done, like a good gay boy should do, and he said: -˜Every new case of HIV infection that I get is due to crystal meth. Crystal meth is always involved.’

I mean, I can just speak from my own experience, which is that the minute you sniff a line or you smoke a pipe of that substance you are so quickly rendered helpless in terms of your judgment about the proper things to do in terms of sex.

I know I’m just a step away from it happening again for me. It can happen so quickly. It’s like you do it and then an hour later you want to get on the internet wanting to get fisted or something! he laughed uproariously. Not that I have anything against people who want to get fisted. But you know, so long as you’re safe, whatever.

In Wainwright’s song Gay Messiah on Want Two he claims many gay people look to him, one of the world’s few famous openly gay men, for salvation. But, he assures us, the gay Messiah he is not.

Who is? I would have to say that they haven’t arrived yet -¦ Only because they haven’t presented themselves backstage, he said before giggling like a schoolboy again.

He doesn’t consider himself religious but he does believe in God and that gays are loved by whoever God is. There is a divine reason for homosexuals to exist, he said with conviction, and we fit very, very neatly into the story of humanity. That’s precisely why we’re never mentioned in the Bible and it’s never really dealt with, because we are sort of the missing link. I really believe that.

Wainwright came out to his family at the tender age of 14. His parents, singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, didn’t know what to do, mainly because I was so young and also it was right at the time when AIDS was at its onset and, basically, being gay was considered a death sentence.

The year that I did come out I was very promiscuous, for a 14 year old, and ended up actually being raped, and thus didn’t have sex for about seven years. Which, strangely enough, I think was better for me at that time only because AIDS was so prevalent. Today, he said, his family is the most important thing in his life.

As for the future, Wainwright is ready for a change: To be honest I do think that Want One and Want Two are a type of summit or apex of my early career, and certainly if I want to keep it interesting and keep it kind of new I should probably focus on other areas of music and other types of sounds in my next project. For instance I’d love to make a French record, or I’d love to make a really scaled-down album with just piano and voice. Or I’d like to write an opera.

He’s also about to be seen acting in the Merchant Ivory movie Heights opposite Glenn Close, and then there’s the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett. In both films Wainwright plays singers, something he hopes to do again. I would love to be in a musical film, he said. I was thinking it would be great if they did a sequel to Moulin Rouge, called -˜Moulin Blah’, where the brother of Nicole Kidman comes to Paris and takes over where she left off.

Would he play a courtesan like Kidman? I could be a courtesan, he agreed. I’ll be whatever you want me to be.

Rufus Wainwright is doing solo shows at The Basement on 14, 15 February -“ call 9251 2797. He is doing a show with his mother, aunt and sister at the Enmore on 6 February -“ call 9550 3666. Tickets to Came So Far For Beauty have sold out.

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