On his new album, Wainwright recorded a raucous, saloon-hall romp called “Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now,” a retort to her. He calls the critic a “greedy sow” and sings, “I will eat you, your folks and your kids / For breakfast,” then, “I would never wish / Death upon you, your cats and your throw cushions / On Christmas.”
Does he think that was a bit much? “You could tell that she was jealous of my situation,” Wainwright says. “The way she said, ‘Oh, he comes in and everybody’s bowing and clapping and he’s dressed ridiculously.’ It was probably just mass jealousy or something that happened to her as a kid. Her mother didn’t let her play with anybody.” While he allows that “she had every right not to like the piece,” Wainwright says, “she said, ‘I’m going to be as negative and mouthy as possible so that people quote my review,’ which is what happened.” And just happened again, though only because he wrote a song about her that includes the refrain “No, you can’t be the one.” I ask him what he means by that lyric. “I’m saying, ‘You’re not the artist.’ ” The Laugh. “And no matter what you do, you’ll never be the artist, and that’s the end of the story.”
The next afternoon, a few hours before Prima Donna’s final London dress rehearsal, Wainwright and I meet again to chat. He’s been out shopping that day in Camden Passage, a quaint nearby alley of shops with things like embroidered waistcoats and expensive mid-century furnishings, and he seems supremely bored, hiding behind huge sunglasses with gold rims that form a giant figure eight over his eyes. Again, he talks about juggling the new album and the opera and his mourning. “I was either going to sit in the bathroom crying in the mirror or, you know, work.”
I asked him how he feels. “I’m devastated, I’m ecstatic, I’m impatient, I’m lonely, I’m totally satisfied,” he says. Jörn is now here with him, I note. But the loneliness is a different sort of loneliness. “I lived so publicly with this relationship with my mother, this intense mother-son thing was an example for thousands of people, at least. To have that ripped from me is—is a real, you know, tragedy.” So that’s the loneliness? “Of course. We were really famous, our relationship, it’s like when Sonny lost Cher, or when Cher lost Sonny, or when Cher lost Bono.” Wainwright usually caps off seriousness with ridiculousness, which is both endearing and sometimes also numbing.
Soon enough, back on the topic of his opera, he’s in grandiose mode. “Once you’re in the realm of composing an opera,” he tells me breathlessly, “it just kind of flattens everything.” The Laugh. “Conceivably, honestly—if I could become a great opera composer—like a Verdi or a Wagner, Puccini, Strauss”—his eyes are rolling back in his head behind the sunglasses reeling off these names—“but an American! I would be kind of the first.”
What of the other American opera composers? “Samuel Barber, Bernstein,” he recites dismissively, “but no great one. They always fell short.” Quickly shifting to his other frustrated ambition, to be a huge pop star, he says that while that could still very well happen, he doesn’t care in a way, “because I have a whole other career I can fall back on.”
Why does he think he’s not developed more mass-market fame, outside of the indie-folkie set that forms the heart of his fan base? He mulls this over for awhile, finally deciding that his albums have been “probably just too intelligent, really, and too unusual.” Earlier, he’d brought up Lady Gaga’s success and how she’s misunderstood. “I think she’s an amazingly impressive force of nature,” he says. “But watching society fall so hard for something that’s so kind of manipulative—it’s just depressing a little bit. There’s no romance. I want to offer some kind of emotional safe place where people can feel free to be unhappy and sensitive and imperfect. And not cold.”
I ask him if he realizes that his sometimes spectacular ambition can be off-putting by seeming megalomaniacal in some way. “But it would be disingenuous to mask it,” he says. “The one thing I hate the most in the world is false modesty. Those are the most dangerous people in the world. I’ve seen it, with a lot of hip artists—and when I say this, I’m actually fascinated by it and I’ve never been able to do it.” He mentions Beth Orton and Antony Hegarty, both friends he’s played with. “They have this street cred where they can present themselves as extremely sensitive and flawed … and it just makes people rush to them.” However, he acknowledges, “I don’t do that.”