Interview: Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright is the kind of guy who laughs at his own jokes. But that’s OK, ’cause they’re funnier than yours. The 38-year-old Canadian-American son of folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III generates banter nearly on the same level as his musicianship, which is saying something: His seventh album, Out of the Game, is his most direct and accessible connection to the singer-songwriter tradition of his parents’ generation. Despite subtle modern touches by star producer Mark Ronson and supporting contributions by members of Wilco, Miike Snow, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Dap-Kings, it’s leaner and groovier than such quintessentially extravagant Wainwright discs as Want One and Want Two. At times, it even recalls prime-era Elton, Nilsson and Lennon. It reflects a far happier Rufus than the one who made 2010′s brooding All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, and it’s this Rufus who wisecracked with eMusic.
How did the process of making Out of the Game differ from your previous recording projects?
My life in the recent past has been pretty intense with all sorts of adult experiences — death, birth, opera, Judy Garland, whatever. So I was angling for a fun and lighthearted rock ‘n’ roll experience, and that’s exactly what I got with Mark. We did it very quickly and I think you can hear that sense of urgency in the album as well.
This album references those big-budget ’70s adult-rock classics that for the most part are no longer financially possible. The music industry is now much more concerned with T-shirts or commercial placements. How do those changes affect what you do?
Mark and I both had to be extremely agile and parsimonious and strategic in our approach with this record. We still managed to get string sections and topnotch mixers and great musicians, but we had to totally watch our back the whole time and do the job without any kind of drama getting into the way. If anything, it’s a testament to our maturity as workers in this hit factory — let’s hope “hit” factory, in my case — and I’m extremely proud of that. I know that [I've been critical of] Lady Gaga. And I don’t mean to be so harsh on her. Most of the time I very much admire her ability, but I will say that on a shoestring, I’m not sure if [her presentation] would have quite the same effect.
You’ve worked with a long line of talented collaborators, from Van Dyke Parks to Mark Ronson. What typically happens when there’s a disagreement?
Well, it’s hard for me to encapsulate from Van Dyke to Mark — there’s a lot of water under that bridge. [Laughs] And a lot of it’s white water, in terms of some of the people I’ve worked with. Stay away from the white water, as they say; that’s where some of the sharks are! But by the time I hit Mark, we had no huge disagreements. And it’s a great triumph, because I did have patches with other producers in the past that were arduous. But with Mark, it was such an easy sail, and therefore it only lasted two months. Like anything fun, it was brief.
How do you compare the Rufus that made this album with the one that made the first two?
I would say that a lot of it has to do with my voice. I love early Rufus, and there are brilliant moments on the first and second albums where it is complete and a kind of monolithic message. But there’s a lot of it also where you can hear me learning and developing and trying to do things, and not really accomplishing them. I stepped out as this working artist who is going to let you see all of the different facets, even if they’re not totally ready yet. I think that now, and especially with this album, I’m pretty solid on all fronts in terms of what I’m doing — with songwriting and pop and so forth. And there’s a formidable arsenal I’ve developed over years that I’m now ready to use on people and kill them with love.
What has being in a relationship and being in love done for your songwriting process?
Well, I have a German boyfriend, soon-to-be husband. And I think one of the things that keeps our relationship going is that within the tradition of German life, there’s a real attention paid to organization and output and just hard facts of this world. And, needless to say, my man requires at least two songs about him for each album, and so therefore I have to produce the quota. It’s fabulous because they do come, and it does mean something, and it does make me dig in to my musical chest and figure out how to build another ensemble. It’s been one of the bedrocks of my existence over the last seven years.
Do you feel as though you still have the freedom to write in the first person about being a slut?
[Silence, then eruption of laughter] Well, I do, don’t I, still? That’s to the listener to surmise. I have kind of a Hindu philosophy where over your life you develop these different characters who just become the cast of your life and you are not made up of one person; you’re made up of several, and yes, that slutty crystal meth addict is alive and well in somewhere in my psyche along with the German hausfrau and we just have to set another place at the table.
What happens when you try to write a hit single?
Well, I don’t know.
You never sat down with that goal?
No, no. [Catches himself] What am I talking about — I worked with [Robbie Williams collaborator] Guy Chambers on a TV show [BBC's Secrets of the Pop Song] and we wrote a song together ["World War III"] with the idea that it would be a hit single, and it will be released, actually, as a B-side at some point. Maybe it’ll be a hit single, I don’t know. But in most cases, I don’t pay any attention to that whatsoever.
If you could change the rules of popular music, what would you do?
It would be kind of fun to have everybody wear a paper bag over their head just to see what that would do and make it not so much about youth or stylists. Not that I mind that; I certainly have enjoyed that aspect of it. But if the entire world would be made blind somehow, that could help.
Is there a gay aesthetic in popular music?
At this point, I think two arteries have developed — one positive and one negative. Both come from the same place, which was a time when being gay was totally underground and illegal and there was no place to be yourself, and therefore you had to inhabit the theatre or the art world. You had to try that little bit harder to make your mark and be successful, and therefore it bred some of the greatest artists and thinkers of history. I think part of that tradition still exists, but now there’s another part that just uses a lot of the artifice and window dressing that’s a distraction from actual culture. I’m trying to make [what I do] about quality as opposed to lighting.
What for you has proven more addictive — crystal meth, or perfectionism?
I would say crystal meth, hands down. It’s funny; I try to be perfect, but often times when I’m really involved in something artistically and it means a lot to me and it’s close to my heart, it just dictates its own existence and it tells me when it’s done. In some people’s eyes it’s perfect and to other people it’s flawed, but it is what it is. So I don’t know how much of a perfectionist I actually am. I’m just very good at following through on an idea.
So you do know when a piece of music is done. That’s great.
It’s an emotional decision for me when it’s done. It’s not a practical one. But all of that is changing too. Certainly within my foray into the opera world I’ve discovered many other levels of how perfect you can get. And there is a certain depth or height that you probably do have to take crystal meth to achieve! I don’t intend to do that, by the way.
The influence of our parents often looms even larger when they die. In what ways have you become aware of your mother’s posthumous impact on your art?
The instant she passed away, we all knew that she left us with one of the great catalogs of her era. And especially from the perspective of a woman and a mother and someone who didn’t sell out artistically in the least. Both Kate and Anna McGarrigle chose to encapsulate their career at its most beautiful and perfect point and keep it that way, giving up whatever monetary success. And just the brilliance of my mom’s songs, it’s really guiding the way for my sister and I in so many ways now.
What’s your spirituality?
I don’t know; I’m kind of a snail or something — a spiritual snail. I just feel my way along and leave a lot of goo.
If you were a minute away from death, what would be your biggest regret and what would you consider your greatest achievement?
Well, as a gay man, I regret not having gotten into sports as a young person. It would make things a lot easier today in terms of how I feel about my posture. And my greatest achievement would be my relationship with my soon-to-be-husband.