Progress Report: The mercurial singer/songwriter chats about his new Mark Ronson-produced album, Out Of The Game.
Since releasing his debut album back in 1998, Rufus Wainwright has proven himself to be one of the world’s most formidable jacks-of-all-trades. Whether it be writing pithy pop songs, composing grandiose operas, or channeling Judy Garland, Wainwright has aptly lived up to the lofty expectations of the musical family into which he was born (His father being Loudon Wainwright III and his mother being the late, great Kate McGarrigle). Next spring Wainwright will release Out Of The Game, a Mark Ronson-produced collection of songs that Wainwright himself describes as the most commercial record he’s made in years. In addition to a new album, Wainwright will soon hit the road with a full band, as well as put the finishing touches on Prima Donna, his new opera opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February.
RUFUS: Hi Cole.
STEREOGUM: Hello Rufus. How are ya?
RUFUS: Very good.
STEREOGUM: So, tell me about your new record. Is it totally finished?
RUFUS: Yeah, well right now we’re in the process of mixing. I go to London tomorrow. Mark’s already there, sending me stuff. So, y’know, it’s like we’re at the top of the ski jump at this point and we’re getting ready to blast off. And it’s exciting because it really has been — I mean in terms of momentum and, y’know, inertia — we made this album very quickly. Less than two months. There hasn’t been a lot of time to philosophize or construct these kinds of elaborate cathedrals that I tend to do…which is great. But for this one, we really wanted it to be about feel and the moment…and a lot of that has to do with not thinking too much.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. That makes sense.
RUFUS: And it really turned out that way for us. I mean it’s … there’s a real kind of baseline of just me singing the songs with a great band. There are certainly other things … there’s some string lines and some amazing backup singers…but there’s this kind of anchor of guys sitting around jamming. And it’s very sexy, I have to say.
STEREOGUM: Did you have a lot of finished songs all ready to go when you started recording with Mark?
RUFUS: I had a lot of songs. Well, I always seem to have a lot of songs. I’ve kind of boiled song writing down to a bodily function at this point. Eat, shit and write a song. And … so I’ve always got something to say, for better or worse. But we also did actually go back and look at a lot of material that I’d overlooked … things that were kind of discarded from other albums. So there are about three or four numbers that have been sort of resurrected and actually really polished off nicely.
STEREOGUM: Nice. What can you say about the vibe of the record? Is it more of a pop thing?
RUFUS: I think … there are like two sides of this album. First being a sense of relief and lightness and joy about cherishing life because y’know, certainly the last three years were the darkest I’d ever experienced, considering my mother’s death. But by the same token they were also the most joyous, because my daughter Viva is going to be one this year, so that’s sort of intermingled with it. I think on one hand there’s a real “it’s time to party” kind of atmosphere and “let’s enjoy what time we have left.” But then there are certain reflections on my mother’s passing –- I wrote a song about her called “Candles.” And then there’s another song about my daughter Viva called “Montauk,” which is … there’s a sorta bittersweet quality to it ‘cause it does talk about her being without her grandmother and so forth. I don’t know, there’s something almost like a wine or a piece of meat or something, where it’s slightly aged and therefore richer and more complex and more satisfying … and not rotten yet.
STEREOGUM: Not yet.
RUFUS: Not quite yet.
STEREOGUM: Who were the people that played on the record with you?
RUFUS: Uh, well the Dap-Kings, a lot of those members were the backup band, and then Sean Lennon plays on a track and also Nels from Wilco…. and … who else, Martha sings on it… um, oh, Thomas Bartlett who’s a fantastic pianist and keyboard player. We didn’t want to sort of pile on the personalities, y’know? We wanted it to have some sort of streamlined quality. So we also tried to keep it simple as well.
STEREOGUM: How was the experience of working with Mark? Did you guys know each other before?
RUFUS: Oh fantastic. It was one of the great joys of my life; I have to say, at this point. Mark and I have developed this intense bromance that’s making our respective others – I wouldn’t say nervous but definitely attentive to the situation. We really do adore each other and … I don’t know, I think it’s about — speaking from the gay man’s perspective — it’s been really lovely because you forget about how, especially in our relationships with other men, it often kind of gets mixed up. Is this sexual? is this brother? is this father? what does this mean? And between Mark and I it’s just a very defined brotherly affection. And it’s just lovely to have that in my life again. And I don’t know, its just mano-to-mano … but without any manos.
STEREOGUM: Well he really is one of the great nice guys. And incredibly easy to work with.
RUFUS: Yeah, great nice guy, and great looking, and great style and the quintessential mensch, as they say.
STEREOGUM: Well, how was working with him? Is he a taskmaster who keeps things moving quickly?
RUFUS: Well he’s the taskmaster but he’s very, very … he’s the relaxed taskmaster in that he gets you to work without you knowing it. He’s very good at cajoling and charming and the next thing you know you’ve done eighteen takes. And you’re exhausted. But I don’t know … He himself works like a demon but he also knows how to throw it all up in the air and go out and have a good time, which is crucial, I think, in this line of work.
STEREOGUM: I know that you just announced a bunch of tour dates coming up in the next few months. How will you tour these songs? Are you taking out a big band?
RUFUS: Well I need to get a good little compact band that doesn’t cost me an arm and a leg, because you know, it’s … these are tough times for everybody. So, it’s gotta be worth it. But yeah, I don’t want it to be too big, but I don’t know. I’ll always have to put on a somewhat lavish spectacle, just being myself.
STEREOGUM: You just can’t help it.
RUFUS: Whatever, gay tendencies. But on the other hand, I do really want to maintain a kind of healthy attitude and toughness to the core of this band and have it really be about just the songs and the musicianship and not about dressing up like Judy Garland. I don’t think that took over necessarily, but this is a very kind of … I hate to say it, but it’s kind of a very manly record, I think, which I think is cool. I’ve certainly made enough gay records.
STEREOGUM: I’ve seen you perform everywhere — from tiny little clubs around NYC in the late 90’s to big opera houses. As a performer now, what feels best for you? Do you feel the most comfortable on the biggest possible stage?
RUFUS: Oh I don’t differentiate. That’s kind of been one of my main credos … probably why I sing with my eyes closed a lot, is that once the song starts, it doesn’t matter where the hell you are, you just have to drive it home. And whether be it the Covent Garden Opera House or … like last night I was singing at the Carlyle in the bar with a small ensemble at an impromptu moment … they both have to be equally as formidable.
STEREOGUM: What’s the record called?
RUFUS: Yeah. It’s called Out Of The Game.
STEREOGUM: Out Of The Game? Where does that come from?
RUFUS: Out Of The Game … And that’s partially true, y’know, just because, being a father, and reaching a comfortable level in my career in regards to what I’m allowed to do, I can afford to step out when I need to. But it’s also tongue in cheek because this is the most sort of “pop” and commercially viable, radio-friendly work I’ve produced yet. So it’s a bit like “I don’t need you anymore, but here’s what you want.”
STEREOGUM: That’s an enviable position to be in. What will the next year be like for you?
RUFUS: Touring like a mad man and trying to get time to see my daughter. And also my boyfriend just got a great job up in Toronto. So I’ll also be spending some time up in Canada, which will be nice.
STEREOGUM: Where do you spend most of your time?
RUFUS: All over. But I’ll always keep a New York base as well, so you haven’t lost me yet.
STEREOGUM: Other than the record and the tour, what other big projects do you have in the works?
RUFUS: Well, I have my opera coming to BAM in February –- that’s pretty big.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that’s big.
RUFUS: Prima Donna. And then we have these great Christmas shows that we’re doing with the family and Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson and lots of other friends. We’re doing a Town Hall show on the December 15th to raise money for my mother’s cancer fund. So yeah … I always keep the schedule pretty stacked.
Out Of The Game is out next year.