Rufus Wainwright tackles cultural divides on new album Out of the Game
During interviews, Rufus Wainwright manages to muster the visceral, dramatic flair he's been known to bring to his concerts.
For example, asked what traits he hopes his one-year-old daughter Viva will inherit from her father, he shuts his eyes tightly, flings his mane of shoulder-length, brown hair back and faces skyward as if to invite a divine gust of inspiration.
There's an extended pause before the answer trickles out.
"It's already evident how much of a Wainwright she is," he says cautiously. "A kind of ability to... experience... all the facets of life..."
Suddenly he opens his eyes, newly invigorated. "Fearlessness!" he says. "And all that that entails -- the triumph and the tragedy."
And what qualities of his does he hope will skip a generation?
"My eating habits," he says without hesitation.
Speaking with MSN at Toronto's Spoke Club about the Mark Ronson-produced Out of the Game, Wainwright calls his vocals his "greatest accomplishment" in explaining the overarching ethos that unites the album's varied subject matter and sounds.
"My voice has been an ongoing experiment for my entire life. It's changed so many times and sung so many different types of material and it's been so hard to classify," he explains. "Some people adore it, some people can't stand it. It is a monster of its own making."
He credits Ronson, who worked on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black and Adele's 19, with finding a comfortable equilibrium between the grandiosity of his sentiment and the subtly in his arrangements.
"I'm not sure it has really happened before in my career," he explains. "It's happened on certain tracks but I think for a whole album, that hasn't been the case.
"In the past, my records have really been about hurling myself into all these different environments and oftentimes hitting the target and sometimes missing it," he adds. "That's what I love about them -- there's a kind of effort there. This album is the first one I've sat back and relaxed and done what's come naturally and without a kind of message behind what I'm doing. It's just about having fun."
Despite the all-or-nothing play for commercial radio success he's been touting in interviews, the 12-track effort's mainstream pop appeal is far more subtle than the buzz-saw dance beats that prevail on the airwaves today. It's as erudite and emotionally-fraught as his earlier efforts but places more emphasis on three-and-a-half-minute bursts of triumph than on darkly poetic odes to tragedy.
Full of tricky harmonies, fanciful gestures and dry wit, the first half of Out of the Game has the laid back air of early eighties a.m. radio, opening with the toe-tapping meditation on maturity "Out of the Game," the soulful "Jericho" and the synth-led, soft rock number "Barbara," a tribute to his long-time publicist.
Gradually, however, darker themes do appear. In "Montauk," he dryly forewarns his daughter to protect her "other dad" (his fiancé, Jorn Weisbrodt) from his penchant for "evil" behaviour, chronicles dating disappointment on "Respectable Dive" and ends the album with "Candles," a beautiful and solemn requiem for his late mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer in 2010.
"I'm not religious but I do have a propensity for mysticism and certainly accredit the Virgin Mary with a lot of power during my mother's illness and death," he says. "When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, they immediately sent her to the palliative care unit to decide how she was gonna, you know, kick the bucket, which was pretty shocking. She went on to live for three more years and a lot of that was her own defiance and medical intervention but I do believe that a part of it was my prayers to the Virgin Mary. It was not within the Catholic context at all -- but I did the appropriate genuflecting!"
Born to McGarrigle and troubadour father Loudon Wainwright III, Wainwright developed an interest in classical music and opera as a teenager though he would later make his name through lavishly ornate and baroque pop albums, which were often praised for their stellar lyrics and melodies but criticized for their extravagance.
Out of the Game's version of pop feels more refined, which is perhaps due in part to Wainwright's preoccupation with hurling his talents into more formalist pursuits over the past several years. In 2007, he re-staged show biz icon Judy Garland's legendary 1961 concert at New York's Carnegie Hall, wrote the 2009 opera Prima Donna and sang Shakespearean sonnets on his sombre 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.
A bright and cheery mood pervades Out of the Game, but it also comes at the end of a period of personal highs and lows. It's the first album that he wrote following his mother's death, as well the birth of Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, his child with Leonard Cohen's daughter Lorca Cohen.
The album's title track cheekily tackles his simultaneous aversion toward a younger generation obsessed with self-promotion and frivolity and a yearning to be part of it again. There's a whiff of an ageist cultural divide in lyrics like "Look at you/Suckers does your mama know what you're doing?" -- something he articulates more pointedly when, in explaining his obsession with old divas like Judy Garland, he lapses into an unprovoked mini-rant on pop star Lady Gaga's appeal among younger gays.
"I'm a bit of an old school homosexualist," he says. "I have no qualms with subscribing to old fashioned ideas of being gay. I think it's silly to throw the baby out with the bathwater considering all that we've been through and draw this line in the sand to say, 'These are old gays and these are new gays.' I think it's somewhat comical and also a little bit mean to older people.
"I mean, look at f***ing Lady Gaga," he continues, taking a deep breath and then adding, "I think she's very talented. She's a great singer. She's a great pianist. She's an incredible business woman and so forth, but I wouldn't say that she's breaking any new ground with this gay stereotype of what gay men are supposed to like. They're certainly falling for it hook, line and sinker so I don't think anything has really changed at all."
On June 10, Wainwright will perform a free outdoor concert entitled "The Rufus Songbook" as part of Toronto's Luminato festival and on June 15, he'll join his sister Martha and his aunts Jane and Anna McGarrigle to take part in a tribute concert, "Love Over and Over: The Songs of Kate McGarrigle," that will also feature performances by Emmylou Harris, Bruce Cockburn, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Jane Siberry and Peggy Seeger.
"[My mother] was never constrained by pop efforts," he says of her musical legacy. "She just did exactly what she wanted to do as an artist. Growing up with her I was aware of a certain amount of frustration -- she still wanted to be famous and rich like everybody -- but she had decided not to. In the end, she won because her material is just so real.
"I wouldn't be surprised, knowing my mother, if she could swoop in and take away the entire floor right as my big pop album comes out," he adds. "But I'd be happy if that happened because she deserves it."