Rufus Wainwright: How Rufus got his groove back

How Rufus got his groove back

Rufus Wainwright: "I was desperately in need of a vacation, musically"
Photo: Rachel Côté

Between forays into opera, Rufus Wainwright returns to pop with Out of the Game

For a while there, it seemed like the world of pop had lost one of its most distinctive voices. Between the creation of Prima Donna, his first opera, and the release of All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, an austere album featuring nothing but his voice and piano, Rufus Wainwright seemed to be only interested in flexing his muscles as a capital-A Artist.

Hence, it’s a delightful surprise to find him swinging back into pop with Out of the Game, a new LP filled with slick, smooth and sensual sounds. "I wanted to reignite a kind of teenage dream that I had, in between opera nightmares," says Wainwright. "Whether it was Songs for Lulu or the opera, my mother’s death or the birth of my daughter, it was just this real jungle of intense personal and artistic experiences that I had been going through, and I was desperately in need of a vacation, musically. I wanted to just go into a space, be with a bunch of friends and have some fun, so that’s what we did on this album."

"Also, my record company was sort of twiddling their thumbs a little bit and going, ‘Okay, you’ve been allowed to do your little vanity projects’ – which of course in my mind are so far from that – ‘But we need to sell some records!’ So I’m pleasing a lot of people right now, including myself."

To help him do all of that pleasing, Rufus hooked up with Mark Ronson, the English producer best known for his Grammy Award-winning work on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. "I approached him about working together, mainly because I love the sound of his albums. He pays such attention to the quality of recording, and I think that’s the basis of everything," says the singer, who was happy to discover that Ronson was equally excited about collaborating with him. "I think we both had something to offer each other. I wanted a little more mainstream success, more of an upbeat party atmosphere with this album. And he wanted to work with a vocalist with a certain level of sophistication, like Amy, someone who is really centred around interpreting a song like nobody else."

Rufus let Ronson pick most of the players who would lend him support on this seventh studio album, including Sean Lennon, Nels Cline (Wilco), Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett, Andrew Wyatt (Miike Snow) and members of the almighty Dap-Kings. This merry bunch created an album with a strong 70s vibe, bearing the influence of Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Steely Dan and other artists of that era. "Mark and I were both born in the 70s; I was born in 1973, and I do actually have quite a few memories from that period," says Wainwright. "I think this album, in terms of going back to those 70s roots, is a way of examining both his and my subconscious."

It also seems like Rufus has little use for the mainstream music that’s being produced nowadays. The title song of Out of the Game is "a light slap in the face, with a velvet glove, to the world of pop music. In a lot of ways, it’s a bit of a challenge, it’s me saying, ‘Okay kids, let’s see something a little more interesting because this really isn’t cutting it,’" he explains. "A lot of it has to do with what I see young people do today for attention. I guess with all these outlets, YouTube, Xtube, reality television, American Idol… There’s just no sense of pacing yourself. Whether it’s banking or being a musical composer, you have to think in the long term if you’re going to win this game."

"But in saying that I’m out of the game, it’s really me saying that I’m in the game. That being said, I don’t have to be here and I probably won’t stay that long," warns Wainwright. "I have my eyes set on this very meaningful goal, which is opera; it’s my first love and I really want to continue doing that. But in a lot of ways, it has freed up this kind of intense worry and frustration that I had in my own career, which in a strange way makes it better."

Rufus Wainwright
Out of the Game
(Decca Records/Universal Music Canada)
In stores April 24

Montreal Jazz Fest
at Place des Festivals
June 28

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