DANCE WITH THE DEVIL Rufus Wainwright (Pt. 1)

It’s
make-or-break time. Can the celebrated songwriter add “pop star” to his
resume with his Mark Ronson-produced album – and national tour, starting
this weekend?

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Rufus Wainwright looks slightly nervous.

 

The curtain just went down on the magnificent American debut
of his first-ever opera, Prima Donna,
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Wainwright’s heading upstairs to greet his
well-est wishers. To a (wo)man, each member of that assembly, yours truly
included, will marvel aloud about how Wainwright embraced the traditions of
classic opera-with but a few melodic nods to modernists such as Glass-to tell
the story of an aging diva soprano seeking to make her grand comeback only to
be stymied by an overbearing manager and a self-loving music journalist with
whom she’s become smitten with.

 

To a crowd featuring his show’s cast, father Loudon
Wainwright III, aunt Anna McGarrigle (the sister to Rufus’ mom, the late great
Kate) and his fiancé Jörn Weisbrodt, as well as friends Lou Reed and Laurie
Anderson, Rufus stands confidently, his back to the steaming sunlight pouring
through BAM’s lengthy cathedral windows, at a rostrum and begins to speak.
Dressed like toreador as outfitted by Jean Paul Gaultier, he discusses the long
process of getting Prima Donna to
U.S. stages, its future with three other opera companies, and how he can now go
about the business of being a husband and a father to his new baby, Viva
Katherine Wainwright Cohen (whose mother is Leonard Cohen’s daughter, Lorca
Cohen, therefore making Viva the most talented child on the planet).

 

He forgot to mention pop star. Maybe that’s why, behind his
cocksure smile, he looks anxious. To Wainwright, after eight critically
acclaimed operatic albums, including a live jaunt and his legendary tribute to
Judy Garland (to say nothing of a career-assessing all-inclusive, rarity-packed
19-disc box set), and a life of complex musicality and lyricism, there is a
crossroads to behold: the notion that, at 38, he’s at an artistic impasse. His
records don’t sell in the millions despite his massive talent.

Wainwright’s dam (or is it deal) breaker? Out
of the Game
, his most effortlessly open, soulful and poppy effort produced
by hitmaker Mark Ronson and featuring the talents of the brassy Dap-Kings
ensemble. It’s a warm and wonderful affair and their unified goal is to make a
smash-selling success from Wainwright’s plaintive oboe-like croon and
complicated tunesmith-ing, with danceable songs about his mother, his daughter,
his publicist, death, life and love finally requited.

 

“I’m pretty much geared to do anything to make this album a
success,” says Wainwright the morning after Prima
Donna
‘s debut. “A lot of opera houses are interested, four cities to start,
and that is a huge compliment. I can let that happen while I get back to my
bread and butter. Out of the Game is
where all my efforts are going to be.”

 

No wonder he looked distressed.

 

 


Out of the Game by Rufus Wainwright

 

 

POPERA

On the morning after Prima Donna‘s
Brooklyn debut, Wainwright is bouncing between giving last minute notes to his
opera’s cast, crew and directors and packing for a trek through Europe to pre-promote the upcoming Out of the Game. He can’t get the opera off his mind. It’s
something he wanted to do since childhood. Inspired to make a staged diva-mentary
after watching a film of the legendary Maria Callas, Wainwright is still in awe
of her, the opera and his own rich accomplishments.

 

“I was absolutely summoned by the characters in this piece,”
says Wainwright, preoccupied by the room’s buzz of activity. “When I watched
Callas talking about the lonely life of a singer it all of a sudden hit me-an
opera about an opera singer. It was a guttural reaction what I wrote, a
commandment to go forth and give birth to this.” Wainwright wasn’t looking to
write, for his first opera, a War and
Peace
type epic. He wanted something romantic, something recognizable, beautiful.
“I’d do it again,” he laughs.

 

Where the recognizable is concerned I have to tease him
about the possible relish he took in making the journalist in Prima Donna a dolt, a preening
self-obsessed provoker in the face of such love from the opera’s lead “Madam
Regine” as she’s preparing her emotional return to the stage following a long
period of being away from the game. Wainwright begins to laugh long and
continuously throughout his response. “My testy presentation of the journalist
was a bit of a time bomb and what that would evoke from the press,” he says.
“But not one of the bad reviews-or good ones, even-mentioned the fact that the
journalist wants to be a singer or how I handled him. I find that very
revealing. That said, he’s villainous, not a baaaaaaaaad person, per se, but an example of fans and press people
that I have met-certainly not all, don’t get me wrong-but those overly effected
by fame. They love the excitement of it all. They want to be part of the
action.”

 

Wainwright does acknowledge, though, that he’s long been a
critical darling. Surely, ever since his eponymous 1998 debut with its top
notch production (Jon Brion, Van Dyke Parks) based upon his near-classic demos
(found in the House of Rufus box set),
Wainwright’s been adored by the press. Industry wonks too long salivated over
the handsome son of Loudon and Kate who had written his first songs at age 14
when his childhood tunes appeared in Canadian films. When he got to L.A. with his first batch
of songs, Wainwright was placed into a studio with money and time at his
disposal. The results of that1998 album and its equally potent 2001 follow-up, Poses, showed the sort of weird-pop
prowess that would mesmerize even the most jaded journalist. The clash of
environments and that he’s not comfortable remaining in one fixed orbit aside,
“they’ve been very enthusiastic, the pop and the opera press,” he says.

 

Yet, the idea behind making Out of the Game, beyond crafting his usual retinue of hypnotically
entrancing songs with intense lyrical themes and haunting elastic vocals, is to
go beyond just critical recognition and make the most of all things Rufus.

 

 


Song Of You by Rufus Wainwright

 

 

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

 

Wainwright started a year of intensity with House of Rufus, a 19 disc box set of all
of his albums, rarities, first album demos, familial pairings, DVDs (including Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy!:
Live from the London Palladium
and Prima
Donna: The Making of an Opera
) and film and television songs (yes to covers
“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” from The Aviator, “King of the Road” from Brokeback Mountain and “Bewitched, Bothered and
Bewildered” from The History Boys;
no, though, to What are You Doing
New Year’s Eve?” from his Gap ads). It shows off the highest ever level of
introspection and retrospection-not to mention he’s too young for such a
package. Wainwright even took time off from recording Out of the Game to perform a five-night residency at the Royal
Opera House in London
to promote the release of House of Rufus.

 

“I don’t know what that says about me that I was willing to
look back and take stock at what’s happened so that now I can move onto the
next phase-or not,” he laughs. “I’m at some sort of apex in my career. That’s
exciting. The new album is a big move for me – my major shot.” Wainwright is
investing a lot of emotion and care into the new album. Not that he hasn’t been
careful with the other albums; but this one, he says, weighs heavier on every
part of him. “I have to go out there and do whatever it is I have to make a
success of this. You can only pour your heart out there so many times-it is
always sincere and heartfelt-but it makes me vulnerable. With that, you have to
take care of yourself.” He sounds strained when he say this. “I have always
taken great risks and have always exposed myself; I think this time I’ll be
rewarded for my efforts, but it is quite a task.”

 

For a guy who sounds so willing to go for the gold (or the
platinum), the song “Out of the Game” talks about getting away from it all,
eschewing stardom for sanity and leaving the limelight so to find stillness as
well as missing his youthful days of being obsessed about everything. So to, to
an extent, does the idea of leaving the wild coasts for the solace of
“Montauk.” When you think about it, Prima
Donna,
too, is about the greatest of disappearing acts. Why is Wainwright
toying with departures at a time when he’s preparing to give pop stardom its
biggest shot?

“Well, I‘ve been doing this professionally since the age of 13-arguably I was
touring earlier than that with my mother. In terms of my parents’ career, I saw
a drop off in appreciation of who they were and what they did for a time. Now
that all got rectified and respect finally came, but for both of them, I’ve
seen times where we had to stay at Motel 8’s with just a few bucks to support
the children. It’s a hard life.” He pauses. You can hear him thinking if he has
said too much. “I know the other side of it is all. It’s not like with my fancy
friends Sean Lennon and Adam Cohen. Their parents were always OK, always in the
mainstream. My parents had to struggle for a long time.” He pushes out a laugh.
“Then again, I don’t know, a lot of it, too, is tongue is cheek. Who’s leaving,
right? I’m putting my best foot forward.”

 

 


Jericho by Rufus Wainwright

 

GETTING GAME

Along with bringing Mark Ronson’s hot sound to bear on his newest songs [see sidebar], Wainwright’s idea of what Out
of the Game
would be was shaped by its elegiac predecessor, the mournful All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu of
2010 that was dedicated, in part, to his recently deceased mother. His new
album’s genesis would therefore become about enjoying life while it lasts.
“It’s a sad happiness,” he snickers “that comes with my mother’s death and the
birth of my daughter. I really see how, whether it’s your health, your work or
your happiness, you have to enjoy it now. There is desperation in that, I know
but there is also truth. It’s like at the end of Prima Donna where I say the fireworks are over and they don’t last
every long [laughs] That’s where I’m
at now.”

 

Where he’s at, sonically, is varied. “Welcome to the Ball,”
the new album’s oldest song, is manically classical and was once intended for a
Broadway musical. The rolling arpeggios of “Montauk” sound like the Philip
Glass-like elements of his opera. There are danceable soul-pop bits, and the
glam rock spirits of David Bowie at his Young
Americans
best, Elton John in his Tumbleweed
Connection
Los Angeles-by-way-of-Louisiana finest and Queen linger
throughout. Beyond the work of Ronson and his crew, this was Wainwright writing
for his big pop experiment. “This record was about getting it front of as many
eyes and ears as possible with all the silly little games you have to play to
be in the game-heck, I’ve tried everything else-so I gleaned from those who have
been successful in the past that I can relate to and broaden it. It’s fey ‘70s
rock ‘n’ roll stars…. yet it’s me.”

 

Very him. There might be grand Queen-styled swells and Bowie-esque
swoons, but Out of the Game is still
a Wainwright-y bright universe of verbal and lyrical tics. Odd that he mentions
sounding danceable with that inspiration, as the album is hardly dubstep or
underground trance. Wainwright laughs about not keeping up with the kids’
musical palette. “Sad to say, I don’t listen to much. I appreciate Lady
Gaga’s… hmm, bravery… but I don’t think she’s got a song to stand on. [laughs] I see the appeal [but] I’m
pretty detached. I guess if this album cracks the charts I’ll head to the
festivals and re-introduce myself to the teens and hope I make it out in one
piece.”

 

Lyrically, Wainwright also seems to be trying to make it
through in one piece. As he never thought of himself in a monogamous
relationship for long, having a fiancé and a child is something difficult to
consider yet sounds so easy on “Montauk” and “Song of You.” He’s used to
penning lyrics about love unrequited and running away from relationships. “Love
is treacherous and becomes arduous. The honeymoon is over after a certain time.
How do you make it fresh? Right? But when lighting strikes with a new
perspective on the world-the real love that you have and share-you run with it.
I’m on it now.” Wainwright claims his life and lyrical switch comes down to
needing moral and spiritual support, loved ones to come home to. “I can’t do
this alone,” he says. “Children grow up so fast.” Yet those same tunes embrace
the spirit of his late mother as well as his sweet newborn. That “Montauk” and
“Candles” bring about the figure of his child and his mother stems from the
fact that the birth and death came so close together. “I’m in shock still about
having had a child, for better or for worse. I’m very happy but it all happened
at the same time, that birth and that death, so it’s very mixed up for me. The
stakes are higher now.”

 

The life stakes are higher and the work stakes are higher.
Wainwright not only has to deal with the responsibility, he wants to. He plans to make himself
available to all those outlets he had previously shut down. Will he go on Dancing with the Stars? He shouts, “I’ll
do that. I’ll dance with stars. I’ll dance with a bear. I’ll dance with the
devil.”

 

There’s a new level of competition to be considered in the
Wainwright household and, as only he can, his fangs do come up when required.
“I appreciate other people’s success and don’t take it personally that’s it’s
not happening when it ain’t. The moment. But I want my due. I know there is
resistance and that’s frustrating. Maybe I’m delusional. But I don’t want to
become a bitter dissatisfied old queen or create a barrier. I have to maneuver
my way around that.”

 

There is one thing to consider, though, regarding Out of the Game‘s successes. No, he
won’t comment on or even think about a downside. Yet that wasn’t what I was
suggesting. What if it is a smash and the chameleon who has crafted such an
intimate melodic brand of art-pop has to stay in one skin and continue to stamp
out more hits?

 

“I want it to happen very badly, you know that. Yet this
sort of success”-he laughs hard as he says this-“could be the worst thing to
ever happen to me.”

 

 

To be continued…
tomorrow, a conversation with Wainwright and producer Ronson. Wainwright’s
national tour also starts this weekend in Big Sur then Seattle – tour dates can be found here.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Barry J. Holmes]

 

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