BARRY J. HOLMES / SUPPLIED
When Rufus Wainwright’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, was dying of a rare clear-cell sarcoma, the acclaimed and somewhat flamboyant singer found great consolation in lighting candles. In Candles, which is easily the most heart-felt song on his seventh album, Out of the Game, Wainwright documents the experience.
“I had a lot of questions in terms of how to capture it,” the 39-year-old says slowly on the phone from New York. “It was the very first take I took in the recording process, and one of the first songs I laid down in general. I wanted to get it away because it was so sad. Luckily, all the spirits joined up and it very naturally came out.”
Described by critics as a “gem of the record,” the almost eight-minute song delves into the vulnerability of watching a loved one succumb to illness, and to the ensuing guilt for not having been able to do more to avoid a fatal outcome. Travelling from church to church in search of a wick, Wainwright finally lights his memorial at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris.
“I thought maybe she was just waiting for a better venue. She didn’t like the crappy little church on 23rd Street,” says Wainwright on the DVD The Making of Out of the Game.
“When I go there, there is this full-blown Mass happening, the organs blaring, incense everywhere. And I light the candle, and it was a beautiful moment, very operatic … as I was leaving I had this epiphany from whoever or whatever, that you have to be grateful. That’s the only way you are going to make it through this.”
Performed with Kate’s sister Anna McGarrigle, who provides an elegant accordion line, and backed by his entire family of singers – father Loudon, sister Martha, half-sister Lucy, aunt Sloan and friends Jenni Muldaur and Chaim Tannenbaum – the song is all-engrossing, and deeply moving.
Not unlike Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, Wainwright’s lyrics have always been intensely personal, with moments of darkness. In 2002, while in the grips of addiction, Wainwright released Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, addressing the spiritual and physical struggles of drug dependency with lines such as: “Everything it seems I like a little bit sweeter?/?A little bit fatter, a little bit harmful for me.”
He has also conveyed his experiences as being an openly gay man – perhaps most notably on the dark and broody album Want Two: “I can’t say that I’m cruising … not that I don’t like cruising”. And he has expressed his bitterness with America, in the poignant song Going to a Town.
“I write about my life. There are a few songs where I dip into fantasy but on the whole what you hear is what is happening in my world.
“I’m very much just translating the human experience.”
In fact, it was his distaste with America, particularly the subsequent war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq, that inspired Wainwright to create his Grammy-nominated re-creation of Judy Garland’s fabled Carnegie Hall concert, often considered “the greatest night in show business history”. Dressed by the Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf and backed by a 40-piece orchestra, Wainwright performed such hits as Get Happy and This Can’t Be Love.
“There are kind of two Americas now,” explains Wainwright, somewhat philosophically. “There’s the idealistic, good, positive, spirit of freedom and openness which I think still exists and it still has the potential to really form a bit of the world. But then that is matched with the capitalist orgy that is also taking over. It is completely sinister and diametrically opposed to what this country stands for. It’s once again a firestorm of a scenario, between good and evil.”
On his last visit to Australia, Wainwright stated in an interview with the ABC that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be a gay male performer in America due to the “seething underbelly of hatred” that exists as “a backlash to Obama”.
Two years on, does he still find it as difficult being a minority? “I’m now finding it a little easier,” says Wainwright. “When Barack Obama admitted, or should I say declared, that he was in support for gay marriage, that was a big deal. There has been more thrust over here in terms of rights and promises and so forth. Where I do find it a little odd now is in Europe … so I’m never quite happy with everybody.”
In August, Wainwright wed his long-term partner, artistic director Jörn Weisbrodt, in Long Island in front of guests Alan Cumming, Julianne Moore, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, Lou Reed and Carrie Fisher. Wainwright, who has previously said that he loves the whole “old-school promiscuous Oscar Wilde freak show of what being gay once was”, says his opinion of marriage changed when he met Weisbrodt, whom he proposed to rather casually over an Indian meal.
“It had to do with this conversation I had with the Dyke Parks, of all people,” says Wainwright. “They were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and I casually asked Sally, ‘so, did you ever think you would be married for over 30 years?’, and she turned to me and said, ‘Rufus, when you get married it’s forever; that’s the whole idea’. And it kind of struck me in that moment the concept of forever. It really doesn’t exist in my inner vocabulary.
“Gay men, especially, are not brought up to have that idea. And we should be able to at least aim for forever.
“But at the same token I don’t think gay marriage is the same as straight marriage. There is a history and a tradition in gay life and a left-of-centre ideology that should also be protected. It’s not about becoming straight, it’s about evolution,” he says.
Last year, the couple had a daughter Viva Katherine with Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard. In the song Montauk, Wainwright imagines Viva is older and comes to visit their house by the beach, and gets to know her two dads as they live their lives, wearing kimonos, pruning roses, playing the piano. It also envisions departure and the inevitability of distance and separation: “You have stayed, don’t worry, I know you’ll have to go.”
This need to translate every feeling, thought and desire into a very public arena is a Wainwright family tradition, which perhaps all began with Wainwright’s father, the prolific folk singer, Loudon Wainwright III, who earned a cult following with his humorous and nakedly honest autobiographical songs.
Loudon regularly communicated with his family through song, and Rufus was the subject of two of his father’s more famous releases, the breastfeeding ode Rufus is a Tit Man and the retrospective A Father and a Son.
On the 2001 album Poses, Rufus covered his father’s self-recriminatory ballad of independence, One-Man Guy. Without changing a word, Rufus turned it into a visceral account of solitude. On his next album, he also confronted his father in the song Dinner at Eight – “Daddy, don’t be surprised?/?If I wanna see the tears in your eyes” – which addresses the bitter memories of Loudon leaving when Rufus and Martha were children. Rufus states that his mother used to cry every time she heard it.
Although Out of the Game has all the uninhibitedly self-confessional material, it is somewhat of a departure stylistically. Produced by Mark Ronson, the Grammy Award-winning producer of hits for Amy Winehouse and Christina Aguilera, the new album is a smooth, easy-going collection, heavily informed by ’70s soul and punk rock.
“A pop record is something that sounds good at a party but it doesn’t necessarily clear the room, and that’s what this album is. It’s something you can play and it will improve the jovial spirit of the evening,” says Wainwright. “But we do live in a tenuous industry at the moment in the world of recording, so in terms of actually selling records, my biggest strategy now is to call my next album Adele.”
Although the two concerts at Hamer Hall this weekend may not be mainstream pop, fans can certainly expect all the trademarks of Rufus Wainwright – a performer whom Elton John once described as the “greatest songwriter on the planet”. Tantalising, spine-chilling melodies, big instrumental sounds, moments of a capella, and of course a little bit of that Rufus-style unpredictability.
Live in concert » Rufus Wainwright plays Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre on September 15 and 16.