Originally published in The Irish Times, April 20th 2012.
THE FIRST THING you think of is Freud. Then, noticing the relaxed posture, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, or perhaps a painting by some Renaissance artist. It’s not quite clear whether Rufus Wainwright is waiting to be psycho-analysed or pampered, but stretched out on a sofa in a room of a trendy London hotel, the singer/songwriter certainly looks comfortable.
“He felt like he was coming down with something yesterday, so he did most of his interviews lying down,” his publicist explains. And today? “Oh no, he feels fine today. He’s just relaxing.”
To be fair, Wainwright can afford to loosen up as he talks about his new album, Out of the Game. Despite its apparently defeatist title, the New York-born, Montreal-raised singer/songwriter’s seventh studio album is his best in almost a decade, and certainly since 2003’s career-defining masterpiece Want One. Perhaps most surprisingly, it’s what Wainwright himself has called his “most commercial work to date”.
Pop is not a dirty word in his world, although it’s unexpected that he’s chosen to release such a record now – especially given the fact that he has spent the last few years deeply immersed in the classical world. He wrote his first opera, Prima Donna, in 2008 and followed it with a dark, minimalist studio album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, in 2010.
“I’m a little shocked at how soon this one came out as well,” he says, running his hands through his hair and leaning back on to a cushion. “When I was very young, I signed a rather dubious deal with Dreamworks that I’m only now coming to the end of – we’ll see if I pick it up again or not – but I knew that this would be my ultimate work for the big boys. I always thought it’d be fun to give them what they wanted all along now, at the 11th hour, ’cos I certainly haven’t in the past,” he adds with an infectiously mischievous cackle.
“I’d done the opera, I’d done the Lulu tour, and I became completely re-enamoured with the pop world. And then Mark wanted to make the album, and the idea of having a pretty hotshot producer wanting to work with you was great.”
The Mark he speaks of is none other than Mark Ronson, and the revelation that he was Wainwright’s newest collaborator struck anxiety into the hearts of ardent fans. Having worked with hugely respected yet low-key producers such as Jon Brion and Marius de Vries in the past, Wainwright’s pairing with a “celebrity producer” seemed odd, but Ronson has treated the songs with subtlety and deference.
“Oh, he did an amazing job, yeah, but part of that, I have to say, is because I allowed him to,” Wainwright says, emitting another of those roguish cackles.
“I approached him, but he immediately got back to me and was interested. It’s funny, because I think both of us tend to have our fingers in a lot of different pies: give me opera, and Judy Garland, and pop music, folk music. He’s DJing, and producing and doing photoshoots and that stuff. I think that we could both sort of see that we had to get back to the business of our day jobs: him as a producer, me as a pop singer/ songwriter. That was really needed in both of our lives – quite intensely, actually – so we both really threw ourselves into it.”
Musically, Out of the Game is Wainwright’s most varied album in years, from the Eurythmics-esque Bitter Tears to swoonsome love song Respectable to slinky pop tune Jericho. And throwing himself into a project was necessary, given that the past three or four years have been some of the most turbulent in his life. The subject of death – primarily that of his folk singer mother Kate McGarrigle, who died in January 2010 – is addressed on several songs, most notably Sometimes You Need and Candles.
“Well, that song [Candles] is particularly holy for me. I mean, I’m not baptised Catholic, but I do light candles for the Virgin Mary. I’ve always had a thing for her. I’m more of a ‘real Madonna’ fan; her early, early phase – like Byzantine,” he deadpans. “And lo and behold, having a hankering for that hocus pocus business, I would light candles for my mother all the time while she was alive. And once she died, I went to three different churches in one week to light a candle for her, and all three churches were out of candles. So I took that as a message, like my mom was saying ‘Don’t worry Rufus, I’m on my way, I’ll be OK – take care of yourself’. But the next church I went to after that was in Paris, Notre Dame. And as I was lighting it, I thought ‘Oh, of course. Kate wanted it done at Notre Dame. None of these silly little second-rate corner churches in New York City,’” he laughs. “And then the song came to me.
“I guess I’m a believer; if you believe, it will come. Maybe I’m an idiot in that way, but I get a lot of good songs.”
If death inspired one lyrical thread on Out of the Game, it’s balanced by its opposing tenet: birth. Wainwright became a father last year to Viva, whose mother is Lorca Cohen (daughter of Leonard). The beautiful piano ballad Montauk addresses the one-year-old and makes reference to both “dad” and “other dad” – Wainwright’s partner, Jorn Weisbrodt, whom he will marry later this year. To say that he is in a different personal space these days would be something of an understatement.
“I think I’ve always been someone who’s conscientious about staying on the bright side of the affair,” he says of the highs and lows of the last two years. “I can be cutting, I can be witty, I can be controversial – but I’m never, ever mean. Never.
“Except, y’know, to certain critics concerning opera reviews,” he adds, arching an eyebrow. “And the same goes for writing a song about my daughter. I’m mindful that there is a silver lining in anything I’m gonna say about her – or anyone else, for that matter. I mean, I grew up with Loudon Wainwright, and part of his brilliance is that there is no filter: he will write about anything – whatever he’s feeling. He can be really reckless at times, but he really goes for the truth of the matter. And I’m very lucky to have that example in my consciousness, because he always pushes the envelope. Sometimes it explodes, and sometimes, y’know . . .” he smiles, a glint in his eye, “ . . . it’s full of cash.”
His tumultuous relationship with Wainwright Snr. has been well documented in the past, but recent events have brought a re-evalution of their relationship.
“Well, especially after the death of my mother, there’s not much point in being negative about your parents, because once you lose one . . . well, it just gives you such a different perspective,” he nods. “I do admire him. I especially admire his singing voice. I mean, he’s singing better now than he ever has, and he’s acting in a play right now in New York, and I know he’s happiest when he’s actually acting, he loves the theatre.”
As the title track of Out of the Game makes clear, the 38-year-old Wainwright – something of a firebrand in his early 20s – has come to accept that he’s now older and wiser. “Well, I feel like I gotta keep my nose clean a lot more now, in terms of having kids and being in a marriage and wanting to write another opera, and being deep in that field,” he says.
“You gotta work out, and moisturise, and sing your scales and stuff. But I think that’s how I’ve survived in my life. My existence is that I just throw these big projects in front of me, and do whatever it takes to accomplish them. Number one thing: stay alive!”
Now that “project pop” has been completed, what exactly does he hope to achieve from it? Is superstardom an objective?
“I mean, I think I should win some Grammys . . . I think I should be heard in elevators, that sort of thing. And also, I wouldn’t mind some kind of . . . not so much recognition, but ummm . . . money?” he jokes.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve done very, very well, and I’ve nothing to complain about – and if worst comes to worst, I’ll just keep playing Carnegie Hall, so I shouldn’t be that concerned about it. But that being said, whether it’s Neil Tennant, or Elton John, or Sting – a lot of the people that I know personally who are just more wildly successful than I am – I’d like to bridge that gap a little bit. I’m tired of being the poor cousin.”
A Broadway musical may be the next scheme on the cards. “I think that’s the one big thing that has to come to fruition at some point, aside from operas, or song cycles, or whatever – especially living in New York,” he says, stretching his limbs and smiling.
“But Steven Sondheim is what, 85 or something? I’ve still got time.”