Rufus Wainwright has always known he's a star.
The poperatic son of folk-music royalty - his divorced parents are autobiographical troubadour Loudon Wainwright III and Canadian songwriter Kate McGarrigle - began touring with his mother and her sister, Anna, when he was 13.
After he released his first album, Rufus Wainwright, in 1998, the piano-playing singer and songwriter, who plays the Mann Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, with Neko Case, found himself in Birmingham, Ala.
"I was doing a show that night in town," says Wainwright, 34, whose lush new album, Release the Stars, includes contributions from sister Martha and friend Teddy Thompson (and Teddy's father, Richard), plus R&B singer Sharon Jones and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant.
"And I went and sat in a cafe for five hours with huge sunglasses on, smoking. Just waiting for somebody to recognize me. Anyone. Fishing for any kind of nod. But nothing came. And then I went to the show that night, and there were like five people there. I always feel like I'm much more famous than I really am."
In the near-decade since that lonely afternoon in Alabama, however, Wainwright has become plenty famous. He's known for the audacious ambitiousness of his music, which on albums such as Poses (2001) and the opulent song cycles Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004) bear the influence of Wagner, Verdi and Marlene Dietrich.
He's made such high-profile career moves as singing George Gershwin's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" in The Aviator (director Martin Scorsese called him "a one-man Greek chorus") and, last summer, performing Judy Garland's famous 1961 Carnegie Hall concert in its entirety (the DVD is due out next month).
Wainwright, who lives in New York with his German boyfriend, Jorn Weisbrodt, and has been called "the first post-liberation gay pop star," phoned in last week from Kansas City, Mo., where he was on tour to support Release the Stars:
Question: In "Going to a Town," on Release the Stars, you sing: "You took advantage of a world that loved you so well . . . I'm so tired of you America." What moved you to write that song?
Answer: I never intended to write "Going to a Town." I was enjoying the fruits of the empire in the fortress called Manhattan. I do have a constant annoyance with how this country works, and the political side, which is the main objection. But I also have a very comfortable life and I don't want to move or anything.
But then one night I sat down at the piano and had a melody going and the next thing you know, the entire song kind of arrived. So I consider myself more of a messenger. So don't shoot the messenger, please.
Q: There's a song you wrote called "Beauty" on Linda Thompson's 2007 album Versatile Heart: "All that it has given me is a longing for people and things I can never afford." That's a beautiful song. How could you give that away?
A: Well, that just means you have to write another one. I wrote that a while ago, and it really captures my life at a particular time - the wandering sad minstrel boy, which I still am in a sense, but I was really feeling it back then.
Q: Are songs of longing your metier?
A: For a songwriter, longing is almost like using a divining rod to find water. You follow the longing and define it and hopefully it will translate into . . . some money [laughs]. I do feel that when I started my career I was centered on that notion. Now I'm a little more Napoleonic, I guess. Or strategic. I have more of an arsenal now. I also want to get on the radio and I want to write my opera.
Q: So the opera's next?
A: Yeah, and it'll take quite a while to do that well. It's called Prima Donna. It's a day in the life of an opera singer. It's singers singing about singing. We're [Wainwright and the Metropolitan Opera] in negotiations. Writing for the Met is a big deal. It's the biggest house in the world. So we'll see what happens.
Q: Growing up, was it hyper-competitive around the dinner table?
A: There was always a sense of healthy competition. Maybe overly healthy. We really had to delineate our territory. But that being said, that just comes with the territory. Because you have to be incredibly competitive if you're going to be a musician. It's a necessity. And it just sort of kicks in when the lights go on and the mike turns on.
Q: You wrote "Dinner at Eight," about how your dad threatened to kill you after you told him that it was because of you that the two of you were on the cover of Vanity Fair. How's your relationship with him now?
A: Oh, very good. My father's married and bringing up a daughter. And he never had a chance to do that, because he was always touring. It's really lovely to see that happen.
Q: Has it been hard to take his always writing songs about the family, starting with "Rufus Is a Tit Man," back when you were being breast fed?
A: It has been. But he's not an evil person. He might be troubled, but the idea of his songs is to get closer with his music. Even if it means hitting you over the head and dragging you into a cave with him.
Q: Why did you want to do your own version of the Judy Garland concert?
A: That happened of its own volition as well. 9/11 occurred, and then the war in Iraq, and I was pretty down on the U.S., and feeling really depressed about how things had turned out in the world, like everyone else.
Except when I put on that Judy Garland album. I put on that record, and this blissful ignorance of the state of America took over. And I was once again reminded of all the hope and glory and class that this country controlled and held. And then I thought it would be great to spread some of this vibe around, the whole party atmosphere of it.
Q: Was it daunting to try to live up to her example?
A: There were some pretty scary moments. But you just have to trust in the material. The material will take you where you need to go. Don't overdo it. Believe it or not, even with Judy Garland, she never really overdid it. She just kind of hit the note. Sometimes when she was really screwed up maybe she didn't, but there was a certain respect for the work that she had.
Q: When you were making your first album, did you ever consider not coming out as a gay artist?
A: I never thought twice about it. My first-ever meeting with the record company, the very first thing I said to [legendary record men] Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin was that I'm gay and I'm not going to change it, or lie about it or cover it up. That was the very first stipulation. That being said, I do think for better or worse it affected my career in an adverse way initially. But now, having been honest all this time, there's a validity there that's pretty unshakable.
Q: In "Sanssouci," on the new album, you sing about debauching yourself to the extent that you went temporarily blind from using crystal meth.
A: For about an hour, I did. I probably wouldn't have been so vocal about what happened to me if it hadn't happened with crystal meth. I don't harbor any kind of judgment of other people's drug use, except for crystal meth. I think there's nothing redeeming about that drug. It epitomizes evil. There's no excuse whatsoever to do it. And going blind was one of the many horror stories when I was on it. . . . I just felt it was my duty as a gay man to say that.
Q: On Release the Stars, you strike several poses while wearing lederhosen. What's up with that?
A: They're from Austria. And they make me look 10 years old. When you hit 34, you have to start thinking of things that make you look at least five years younger. So they did the job.