ARTICLE GIANCARLO DITRAPANO
PHOTOGRAPHY MACIEK KOBIELSKI
STYLIST TOM VAN DORPE
THE LONG, OFT BRUTAL BUT ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL BALLAD OF RUFUS WAINWRIGHT CONTINUES THIS SUMMER WITH OUT OF THE GAME, HIS SEVENTH STUDIO ALBUM. THIS TIME HE’S GOT HIS EYE ON THE MAINSTREAM AND A RONSON TO BACK HIM UP
Throughout the past decade, Rufus Wainwright has been shaming most other musicians on the scene in an awfully bad way. It’s not a contest, but yes it is, and sometimes one can hardly bear to look at how far Wainwright is pulling ahead, ensuring that long after all of us are buried his music will be played. Aside from his prodigious talent, it’s the sincerity and bravery of his work that have laid the groundwork for longevity. A quote from Wainwright around the time of his second album mentions how jealous he was of all the attention and fame the Strokes and the White Stripes were receiving. Now it’s like, LOL—who?
Wainwright has released a very steady stream of vulnerable and unapologetic rock albums, gone fantasy for a stint with the Judy Garland–at-Carnegie-Hall bit, written an opera, and then put out his most raw albums to date, using only a piano and the little bell in his throat (All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu). With lyrics and themes steeped in both classicism and the beautiful and heartbreaking world of gay New York City drug life, Wainwright’s work also has this less-than-subtle “I’m gay, fuck you” quality to it, a sentiment many homosexual artists are too weak-willed to come out and say, which at this point in Santorum-minded America they need to be not just saying but repeating.
Wainwright’s direction for Out of the Game (on sale now via Decca Records) is more commercial, radio-friendly. He says he wants something to throw on and turn up when you’re driving in your car, or to play when you want to dance. (But, um, what does he think we’ve been doing with his past albums?) So cool-haired Mark Ronson got on board to help this wish along. Unlike most producers, whose names are often forgotten (or never learned to begin with), Ronson is someone music fans are already well aware of, having produced one of the biggest albums of the last decade (Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black). If anyone was going to pull this off, it was him.
The two began talking about working together a couple of years ago. Wainwright would send Ronson occasional demos, but they were each occupied by other projects. Wainwright was busy writing his first opera, Prima Donna, and Ronson was working on an album of his own. Over a period of time, they would check in on one another to make sure this thing was still happening. It was, and once they got in the studio together, it went all that much smoother.
Wainwright notes how sometimes an older artist “like myself [he’s 38] who’s had a fair amount of success but is looking to get to that next level, that sometimes the record company will say, Well, why don’t you work with this hotshot producer?”
The forced quality of that often leads to embarrassment, he says, but adds that “Mark and I had a chance to get to know each other and to really make it about the music. We actually like each other.”
It’s so much more than just bullshit hipster philosophy to have a distrust of the powerful and pathetic tastes of the masses. True, most mainstream music is garbage and one might fear that consciously seeking commercial success, even from such a seemingly anticommercial artist, could cause a watering down of the art. But in the end the brave release of Songs for Lulu gives Wainwright permission to do whatever he wants. Not that he needs anyone’s permission for anything. And actually—for him to make a pop record at all? That’s kind of punk.
To Ronson, a pop record just means something that has a beat, has a band behind it, and is accessible. His interpretation of pop is still quite left of the mainstream as he doesn’t make massive Katy Perry–type records. “But if I’m slightly left,” Ronson says, “and Rufus is like fucking Lenin, then it’s pretty obvious this is pop in the loosest sense of the word.”
In choosing to work with him, Wainwright relied heavily on Ronson’s experience as a DJ. He remembers once watching as Ronson knew exactly what to play to reinvigorate a packed room of inebriated people at three in the morning. “It’s just that kind of visceral, humanistic approach to a song where it has a purpose, i.e., Mark brings the life to a party. I’ve always wanted that in my work,” says Wainwright.
Like that which exists between a writer and his editor, the relationship between a musician and his producer is a delicate one in which egos must be set aside for the betterment of the book or album or what have you. It’s been said that it doesn’t matter who writes it, only that it gets written, and these two talk about it like they know that.
Ronson admits that if he had an idea for the arrangement and Wainwright had a different one, “I’d be like, Fuck, but I really like this riff that I wrote. But I’d know I was wrong. Sometimes it’s an ego thing because you just don’t want to be wrong, and you don’t want to realize that your idea isn’t the best.” “Not so much with lyrics,” says Wainwright, “but say with arrangements, if I walked in and Mark said, I don’t really get that, I would try another harmony until he liked it and I was okay with it.”
Wainwright says he was prepared to hand over a lot of songs to Ronson and that he was interested in what he had to bring to the table. Already having produced a couple of his own albums, he was particularly open to suggestions.
As anything that is titled properly should be, Out of the Game is open to manifold interpretations. Maybe it means Wainwright’s settled down (with his fiancé and daughter) or maybe it means out of the rock game, to settle into writing more opera. Certain lyrics in the title track seem to tell the story of a hetero man stepping ‘out of the game’ of sexing women, taking a full turn into the fellatial world of m4m. Or maybe it’s just the simple cheekiness of calling the record you aim at the heart of the mainstream Out of the Game, when in fact you’re wholeheartedly embracing it.
Ronson mentioned a moment when he and the musicians were musing that this record was really one of the best things any of them had ever worked on, to which Wainwright replied: “I’d rather be writing an opera right now.” So maybe he is in fact just going out with a bang: by reminding people they won’t know what they’re missing, especially those who’ve overlooked him and those who never knew he existed. Wainwright has proven time and again that he’s going to do whatever he wants, but hinting at hanging it up this early? No one believes it for a second.
Hair Franco Gobbi (Artlist) Grooming Niki MnRay Prop styling Charlie Welch (Jed Root) Photo assistant Clare Chong Stylist assistant Erin Sullivan Hair assistant Celine Raymond Retouching Gloss