With the Help of Mark Ronson, Rufus Wainwright Learns to Dance
The Gramercy Park Hotel self-consciously mixes the styles of Old World Elegance and New York Hip with a below-the-surface warm simplicity, making it the perfect place for Rufus Wainwright. Classy and charming one minute, cool and imperious the next, Wainwright is tucked away in a two-room suite upstairs, promoting his new album, Out of the Game (Decca). Surrounded by a squadron of PR people, two days' worth of whiskers gracing his leading-man good looks, the pop star seems jet-lagged but happy.
He should be—his Game is incredibly winning. Neither pitch-black like his Songs for Lulu nor overly complex like his more ornate, orchestral albums, this disc is radiant with the glow of '70s influences: David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, a soupçon of Philip Glass strings here, some gorgeous choruses there. Producer Mark Ronson keeps things moving and grooving, coaxing from Wainwright some of the least mannered vocals of his career and steering clear of those slurry syllables that once made him sound like Cole Porter on cough syrup.
"I know it's ridiculous that someone named Rufus took so long to get funky," Wainwright says, chuckling. "But this time, I think I have."
Despite its pop polish, the album is compelling for the reason Wainwright's work so often is: He deals with the dangerous, dark, complicated stuff but often juxtaposes it against light, lovely, pastel melodies. Such paradoxes are present in two of Game's most poignant tunes, "Welcome to the Ball" and "Candles." Both are about the 2010 death of Wainwright's beloved mother, singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, yet there's a lovely, letting-go aspect to them. I ask about the air of acceptance and beauty these tunes betray.
"I think her death is woven through the whole record," Wainwright says, fidgeting comically in his chair. "But unlike Lulu, where it's death, loss, abandonment, the tone is different. Yes, my mother died at a young age. Yes, it's very tragic. That being said, she had an incredible life. She left behind an amazing catalog of songs.
"'Candles' shows how much I miss her," he continues. "After my mother died, I went to Notre Dame and lit a candle for her. And asked for some sort of direction. What I received is: 'You need to have a sense of gratitude. About being alive.'" A fey, sardonic chuckle follows. "Of course, there are also moments of real sadness that pop out. Thank God! I don't want to be a mutineer and betray my usual romantic self."
The new record is Wainwright's least fussy, most radio-ready album ever and full of 1970s influence to boot. Why?
"Well, Mark [Ronson] lived with the demos for quite a while before we recorded. I was off locking horns with the classical-musical establishment [while preparing the opera Prima Donna] and writing lieder [German art songs]. Getting back to working on pop songs was a nice change of pace. As for the '70s? Well, there's some 'Young Americans' in there, some 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.' And the cynical, playful feel of it? That's my love of Harry Nilsson."
When I suggest I hear some echoes of Glass in the strings, Wainwright's face lights up.
"You do!" he says. "We figured if we were going to use people from the '70s, we should tap the classical side, too."
Ronson, for his part, found the experience the polar opposite of his often angsty relationship with Amy Winehouse. Calling from Paris, the retro-soul man confirms that producing his pal was lovely.
"The time frame was unique for me," Ronson says. "I listened to Rufus's demos for a year before starting the record. What initially seemed daunting was several tunes had time signatures that were complex. I began as a DJ, so groove is very important to me. I needed time to figure out how [Ronson and those young, yet mysteriously old-school funksters the Dap-Kings] could make the stuff flow. Luckily, Rufus was off doing his opera, so I had time to arrange things."
Ronson agrees that the '70s had a big impact on Out of the Game, then mentions one of the decade's most maligned musicians.
"One of my favorite tracks on the record," he says, "is the [dance-music-damaged track] 'Bitter Tears.' I decided it needed some Vangelis-style synths. Luckily, Rufus thought it really worked well." (Think Blade Runner, not Chariots of Fire.)
Back in the hotel room, I ask Wainwright about his colorful family situation. He is fully committed to and ready to marry his fiancé, the Toronto-based arts director Jörn Weisbrodt, as soon as the two can find the time to do the ceremony right—and in New York. The couple has a daughter, Viva (who lives with Leonard Cohen's daughter, Lorca). Do the lads, I ask Wainwright, expect to be held up as Exhibit A in the ongoing culture wars? Two artistic cats, ultimately married, with a girl born to them by the daughter of yet another great, depressive bohemian? It seems, at the least, complicated—if not incendiary.
"Well, I've always found myself in that battleground, so I'm ready for it," Wainwright says. "But it's interesting. I don't think gay marriage is like straight marriage. We're still in the process of defining it. It's going to be its own entity and take a while to figure out. There's lots of baggage and 2,000 years of oppression to deal with. It's like the civil rights days now. Exciting, but hard and scary, too."
Wainwright stands, staring straight ahead. His thoughts turn round and round: from music to mother, from lover to daughter. And ultimately, to the evanescent nature of life. He wraps a multicolored, maestro-like scarf around his neck, zips his leather jacket, readies to ride the elevator down to the chi-chi hotel lobby.
"One of my favorite tracks on the record is 'Barbara,'" he says. "Though it's got an upbeat groove, it was inspired, partly, by the folk song 'Barbara Allen.'" I nod, knowing the sad tale of a dying young man who summons his love to his side. She is so callous when she's with him that a few months later, out of grief, she dies, too. A briar grows from her grave, a rosebush from his. The two ultimately grow together.
"Yes, my song is about how everything passes, love fades, we ruin love, and we turn into ghosts, you know? In the song, I mention the trees. The trees bear silent witness to it all. They see everything we do. They survive us. I love that idea—that, you know, no matter what happens in our crazy little lives? The trees will remember."
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