A remarkable and audacious talent, Rufus Wainwright will turn his hand at anything, from opera composing to recreating Judy Garland’s iconic performance at the Carnegie Hall in 1961 (which he did in 2005), not to mention seven solo albums of piano-driven, baroque pop hooked around his rich tenor. For his latest record, Out of the Game, the 38-year-old joined forces with producer Mark Ronson and the result finds the singer revelling in playful pop croons as much as velvety sadness. As the son of acclaimed folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright, (and the brother of Martha), raw, deeply confessional songwriting runs through the family tree; and it’s their greatest strength. Having survived the demons of substance addiction and the loss of his mother to cancer in 2010, it seems as though Wainwright is in a very positive place. In the past year he’s had a baby daughter (with Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca), become engaged (to another partner) and directed a film about his mother. We found out more.
Out of the Game is Wainwright’s attempt at happy commercialism. ‘The concept was to make what I thought would be a hit record, but still on my terms. I do know it’s an album you can put on at a party and it enhances the atmosphere.’
But if it works and he becomes as famous as Tom Cruise, he’d ‘probably’ regret it. ‘I was saying to my fiancé this morning, I’m afraid of two things: one, if this album isn’t a success and two, if it is, so I’m in a bit of a quandary. At the end of the day I’ll be fine. I have a very established and rich and varied career and there’s a lot I can fall back on and return to, but when I take on a project go all the way, I don’t go halfway.’
He likens his Judy Garland performance to an exorcism. ‘I’ve always felt that way with my favourite opera composers, be they Verdi, Wagner or Strauss. Those guys will never be exorcised. I can write operas and I want to continue that, but it’s all with the understanding that the greats are the greats and I am who I am and I won’t judge that! Right now I’m very involved with my mother’s material, and I will be for the rest of my life.’
Last month saw the premiere of his tribute film to his mother, Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You – A Concert for Kate McGarrigle at London’s inaugural Sundance festival. ‘I still cry every time I see it, but everybody seems to. The film inhabits the space of two children who lost their mother and everyone can relate to it, so I think it’s a universal film. I don’t think my mother was ever quite understood in her lifetime, but now she’s shining forth.’
He thinks his mum’s songs are better than his. ‘There’s my father, there’s Martha, Leonard Cohen and myself, and I think my mum’s songs are as good, if not better than all of ours. In the film Martha, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris and I all sang her songs and that for me has been one of the richest experiences of my life, which is good because losing her was the worst.’
Writing music makes him teary – but he’s not ashamed. ‘I’ve had no choice. For me songwriting has always been a direct portal to my emotions and I thrive off that. There are times when it’s a bit uncouth, but that’s the way it is. That’s the licence to being an artist. Licence to cry.’ Out of the Game is available now on iTunes.