Rufus Wainwright has decided it’s time to dance again. The 38-year-old singer returns to the soft rock sound that made him famous with his new album, Out of the Game which hits stores on April 24. But that doesn’t mean the ambitious artist is giving up on his habit of experiment that challenges both him and his fans.
His last album, All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu, was a melancholy song cycle performed alone at a piano, and before that his projects bounced across the spectrum between a live Judy Garland tribute album all the way over to writing an opera, Prima Donna.
These grand projects are not a thing of the past, but in this moment Wainwright says he’s in the mood for the mainstream.
“I was pretty much ensconced in a fairly dark and lugubrious universe with both the opera and Songs for Lulu,” he says. “And of course personal issues like the death of my mother and so forth. So the past three years or so have been pretty adult. Like, adult contemporary. So I felt in turning around to make this record that, you know, I just wanted to have some fun and I just wanted to focus on the lightness of life. And also maybe make a little money.”
And Wainwright took the adult contemporary idea all the way to what he calls a 1970s Laurel Canyon sound evocative of Fleetwood Mac or Elton John in the heyday of soft rock. He worked with producer Mark Ronson, who had previously polished the works of Amy Winehouse, Adele and Christina Aguilera.
“We really fell in love with each other and could not stop vibing off our individual artistic fervor,” Wainwright says.
The album itself draws on the growing up Wainwright had to do recently. The song “Candles” is about the death of his mother. “Montauk” is a kind of musical conversation with his daughter Viva, whom Wainwright had with his childhood friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard Cohen.
The title track offers the perspective of a man who’s been there to young people trying to make it in show business.
"I just sort of had a real overload of what young people perceive as fame or success and what they’re willing to endure and put themselves through in order to get noticed," Wainwright says, mentioning the reality-TV excesses of real housewives and Kardashians. "The song is a cautionary tale of, get your act together because you’re going down the wrong path. Focus on the music, focus on longevity. That being said, I don’t get too overbearing because in the third verse I then also admit to being slightly jealous of their youth and vigour and so forth. It’s one of those 'youth is wasted on the young' type of arguments, though I still look quite young myself.”
But, being Rufus Wainwright, grand schemes are afoot. He says he has been commissioned to write a second opera and, though not offering details, says there will be an announcement coming soon.
“Anybody who knows an ounce about opera knows that it takes a couple to really get your head around the medium properly,” Wainwright says. “What I have to keep doing is just deepening the field and challenging myself. That’s what you have to with opera, you have to constantly challenge yourself on several fronts and that’s why I love it.”
It seems likely the new opera, like Prima Donna, whose libretto was written in French, won’t be in English.
"I have to be honest, I’m not totally sold on English opera,” he says. “I know it works occasionally. I love Purcell and certain Britten pieces are very beautiful, but in general I don’t find myself turning it on and listening to it. I like German, French and Italian. And Czech I adore. So that’s just sort of an ear issue."
But that’s a project for the future. Right now, Wainwright is happy to enjoy the simpler pleasures of pop music and his new album.
"I’m very relaxed at the moment," he says. "I’ve written my opera. My mother is resting in peace. I have this beautiful child. I’m in a much more easy-going way, because a few big things have been thrown at me in the recent past. So, hey, making music? That’s the cinch."
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