When express last spoke with legendary singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, back in 2010, he’d just released his sixth studio album album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, a haunting ode to his late mother, Kate McGarrigle. Now, the gay icon’s latest album, Out of the Game, is days away from release. It’s an album he says is his best to date… and that couldn’t be more different from his last studio effort.
A slick, 12-song pop package, Out of the Game clearly shows the influence of iconic producer Mark Ronson, the 2008 winner of the Producer of the Year Grammy who’s famous for his work with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera and Adele. Ronson – who’s labelled Wainwright’s opus “the best work of my career” – enlisted funk/soul group The Dap-Kings, who featured prominently on Winehouse’s 2006 Back to Black, to bring their particular brand of rollicking doo-wop to the album. Their presence, Wainwright explains, is what led him to recently declare Out of the Game the “manliest record” he’s ever made.
“I’m probably the only person in the world who can actually say that!” he exclaims. “I made the Judy Garland concert album [2007's Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall], so I kind of own that – I’ve made the gayest album of all time! So I can say that I’ve made a manly record and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn.
“But I think what I’m essentially referring to is that the Dap-Kings… are pretty staunch heterosexualists. They’ve all got girlfriends and they all wear t-shirts and whatever, don’t shave… and hang out in their little lair of boy juice,” he laughs. “I was kind of confronted with that and it was a wonderful experience – I felt like I was in some sort of after-school special in a tree house! It was actually pretty sexy in a lot of ways. And at the end of the whole process I turned to them and said, ‘Now you’ve made an album with me we can change your name to the Dap-Queens’… and nobody laughed!”
Out of the Game – which also features Wainwright’s “old, old friend” Sean Lennon, sister Martha, and guitarist Nels Cline of Wilco fame – is, like Songs for Lulu before it, heavily influenced by his late mother. The closing track, “Candles”, a moving blend of a marching drum beat, an almost funereal bagpipe solo and Wainwright’s soaring vocals, was written soon after her death and describes the singer trying to make sense of the experience. But more recent, joyful experiences make their mark on the album, too: notably, Wainwright’s engagement to partner Jörn Weisbrodt and the birth of his daughter, Viva, who just celebrated her first birthday. The arpeggio-laden, nursery-rhyme-esque “Montauk” describes Wainwright’s excitement at bringing his daughter – whose mother is Lorca, daughter of Leonard, Cohen – to visit the New York house that he and Weisbrodt share: “One day you will come to Montauk / and see your dad playing the piano / and see your other dad wearing glasses / hope that you will want to stay,” he warbles.
The song summarises Wainwright’s current relationship with his daughter – which is often, due to the nature of his work, comprised of snatched moments together.
“I don’t get to see her that much because I’m a working musician… and I come from a long line of troubadours who appear mysteriously on special occasions to their children!” he says. “But I do at some time want to sit down and write another opera, for which I have to be in one place for a huge chunk of time… [so] that’ll shift.
“[Viva's birth] came out of a certain amount of chaos, which I think is good for me, because I spend so much of my life planning: I’ll write my next opera by the time I’m 45 and then on my 50th I want to paint, like, three masterpieces, and then I want to build a chateau with my own bare hands, whatever,” he continues. “I have that type of mind that it’s just constantly putting one giraffe leg in front of the other. And it’s nice to have a child who will maybe make me slow down a little bit and just enjoy life.”
One standout from the album is the title track, “Out of the Game”, which Wainwright explains “came to me through seeing what kids today do to themselves for attention, doing all that they have to do on YouTube”. Other highlights include the grandiose, gospel-tinged rock anthem “Jericho” and the surprisingly danceable “Bitter Tears”. “Respectable Dive”, meanwhile, is “about being in a relationship and how it can be akin to a card game… it’s about truces and compromise and also the belief that we have to continue”.
After seven studio albums, are Wainwright’s creative juices in danger of drying up? Not on your life. “I have developed song writing and lyric writing into a kind of bodily function at this point… I mean, I eat, shit and make music,” he laughs. He credits his mother with preparing him for the high-pressure world of showbiz, saying that she realised he and Martha would be involved in the business from very early on. “She immediately supported us but was also very, very critical and honest about the realities of the situation and made us work our little asses off!”
Honouring his mother’s memory is a matter of great importance for Wainwright and his work with the Kate McGarrigle Cancer Fund, which was established before her death, is ongoing. The fund supports cancer care and research in McGarrigle’s hometown of Montreal and both Wainwright and his sister are prolific supporters, routinely donating proceeds from both album and concert sales.
“We’ve received such support and energy from helping others, so it’s very very important that my sister and I keep [the fund] going,” Wainwright says. Soon, the pair will announce another fundraising Christmas show – a tradition started in 2009 with an “incredible” concert held at London’s Royal Albert Hall. “It’s going to be a yearly thing. And maybe I’ll be able to bring it to New Zealand someday – I’m not sure if I can guarantee that, but who knows?”
But first, there’s other work to be done. At the time of writing, Wainwright has just embarked on his latest tour, promoting Out of the Game throughout Europe, the US and Canada – a voyage that promises to be high on performance and low on rock star antics. “I always treat [touring] a bit like a boot camp,” he laughs. “I’m taking a trainer with me and he will also be monitoring the room service charges!
“If all things go according to plan, I’ll tour for a year-and-a-half – I just want to tour, tour, tour and really launch this album into the stratosphere that it deserves.”
| Anna Loren
Out of the Game will be released in New Zealand on 30 April.