In the past 14 years Rufus Wainwright has released 10 albums, battled addiction, fought against gay marriage, fought for gay marriage, lost his mother to cancer and welcomed the birth of a daughter. His latest album, Out of the Game, puts him back in it — only this time the game is different, and so is he.
Xtra: Speaking of Out of the Game, you’ve said that you wanted to make “something to serenade us through these very, very troubling times.” What do you find troubling about these times, and are you going through personal troubles?
Rufus Wainwright: I’m not going through troubling times at the moment, but I’ve had a rough couple years dealing with the death of my mother. I have a boyfriend and a healthy, beautiful daughter, so I’m doing okay.
I think it’s more that I live in Canada and the US. In Canada, the Harper government is similar to the Bush administration, which isn’t so good for us gays. And on the American side, dealing with the rightwing, the Tea Party and a lot of these [GOP] candidates, like Romney and Santorum, it’s just gotten so whacked out that it’s comical.
I lived in the US, and in ways the animosity and confusion was palpable. Do you feel it when you’re there?
Yeah, it can be difficult. But when I’m in the US, I’m usually in New York and LA, so it’s not so bad. I’m sure if I was somewhere like Alabama, it wouldn’t be so comical.
This album is more pop and dance than your earlier work yet remains true to your catalogue. Were you consciously striving for that balance?
Yes, I was conscious of it. But I think more importantly [producer] Mark Ronson was conscious of it . . . On one hand, he took me to the next level, but he also maintained my essence.
There’s a distinctly ’70s vibe to the songs, which I think is done well, possibly because you’re a child of the ’70s. I’m wondering if the death of your mother and birth of your daughter is a part of why you decided to throw back to that era? Does it signify a sort of rebirth for you?
It’s very interesting that you mention that. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that the mother gives birth to you twice — once when you’re born and once when she dies. I think on this album, especially in my voice, there’s a more mature sound. I hate to use the word, but it sounds more “manly” because I’ve had to grow up a little more and get a little tougher. I no longer have the love and attention that my mother gave me, that only a mother can give. So, yeah, it is a rebirth of sorts.
In the single “Out of the Game,” you refer to the absurdity of today’s youth and their obsession with themselves channelled through social media. Do you worry about raising a child in this climate?
I do, but I have a daughter, and I think if I were raising a girl in the 1950s there would be bigger issues to deal with. I tend to think of the positive, and even though we still have a long way to go for women’s rights, I think it’s better to raise a girl now than during any other period in world history.
With your musical family on one side, and with Leonard Cohen as a grandfather on the maternal side [Wainwright and his partner had a baby girl last year with Leonard Cohen’s daughter, Lorca], did your decision to become a father have anything to do with a desire to keep your families’ legacies alive?
In some sense it was about that. I guess it would be ridiculous for me to say that wasn’t a part of it. But I think more of it had to do with my mother’s passing, which stirred up a lot of needs and emotions in me.
Was writing the album cathartic with helping you get over the loss of your mother?
I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. It was a lot of fun writing the album, and that’s what I needed more than anything. I needed to be silly and crazy and, you know, get back to my favourite things, like flirting with straight men, and with Mark I did that. It was great!
Do you fall for straight guys a lot?
I used to. I don’t anymore. But I still like flirting with them, and I think they like flirting with me.
You worked with Helena Bonham Carter in the video for “Out of the Game.” Why did you cast her? What was it like working with her?
She’s a dear friend of mine, and I feel like she’s one of the great living legends of cinema. One of the parts I most enjoyed was dressing her up somewhat like Bette Davis. There’s a lot of Bette Davis going on with her clothes, and with her hair up, she looked absolutely stunning. The one downside was having her next to me. I looked pretty ravaged, so I’m a brave man to put her in my video!
I was watching an interview where you were promoting Want One, in 2003. It was quite early in your career, yet you said that if it all had to end, you were satisfied with what you had contributed to pop. So if you feel that satisfaction, why keep going?
Well, I don’t know. I adore Want One and Want Two, and I feel in a lot of ways they’re my most insightful albums. But now, after working with Mark and really getting a visceral sense of what love is, which is essentially letting go, I think this album is more of a contribution to pop.
Why do you think there aren’t more mainstream gay pop artists? Does it stem from insecurity? Sometimes it seems like we’d rather live vicariously through a female blonde pop star than believe that we could be that pop star.
Well, there’s Ricky Martin, and there’s Mika, who’s sort of gay, or at least he acts gay. Yeah, it is a bit weird. I’ve never quite understood it. Let’s hope that it’s just because the ice is melting and creating change. I’ve always been pretty much at the forefront of that issue. I wouldn’t say that I’m responsible for the changes, but I’ve been pushing hard for them for a few years, and it seems to be paying off. I still have a lot of interest in my career, and people who want to work with me and respect me. You just have to work for it, and it requires a lot of tenacity, which isn’t exactly a pop virtue. Unless you’re Lady Gaga, of course.
What have you not done yet that you still want to accomplish?
There’s a French record lurking in the distance, so watch out for [in a French accent] Roo-foos!
Below is a video interview with Wainwright.