Rufus Wainwright is being interviewed over lunch, and there’s more on his plate than just chicken tagliatelle.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and he’s in the middle of yet another round of Meet the Press, with interviews and photo shoots stacked up like flights into Pearson. It’s part of a press blitz for his newest album, Out of the Game, which lasts through the end of the week. After that, he heads immediately into rehearsals and then onto the road.
“I start on Monday in Brooklyn,” he says, nibbling on bread crisps at the Spoke Club in downtown Toronto. “My brother-in-law, Brad Albetta, will be my bass player, and we put together this really fantastic band.” He mentions a few of the players – guitarist Teddy Thompson, singer Krystle Warren – and talks about the rehearsal schedule.
“It’s going to be pretty tight, because we have one week, and then we go to London, where we have a couple of days and then we start doing shows. So we kind of have to hit the ground running.”
Still, he says, “pop right now is almost like a vacation.” Even though he’s been making pop records since 1998 – Out of the Game, overseen by Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson, is his seventh studio album – he started composing opera eight years ago, and that marked a major shift in his creative life. “I’d like to actually focus more on that in the future, and make it more central down the line,” he says. “I’m 38, so there’s time. But when you take on that monster, you really have to wear a lot of hats, and have a lot of patience, and tenacity, and kind of a marathon constitution.”
Wainwright thinks that what attracts listeners to his work is that, as he puts it, “I am undefinable. I don’t fit into any particular category.” While that may keep some fans happily surprised, being without an obvious niche hasn’t helped the singer achieve any sort of consistent success. “You kind of fall through the cracks a lot,” he admits.
The last three years have been pretty intense for Wainwright. His last album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, peaked at No. 4 on the Canadian charts. He also worked up a recreation of Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, with himself in the diva role. Meanwhile, his first opera, Prima Donna – which originally had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera Company, had its North American premiere at Luminato in 2010.
His personal life has been no less eventful. Five months before Prima Donna’s Toronto debut, Wainwright’s mother, singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle, died after a long illness; later that year, he announced his engagement to arts administrator Jorn Weisbrodt (who has since become Luminato’s artistic director). And on Feb. 2 of last year, Wainwright and his good friend Lorca Cohen (daughter of Leonard Cohen) announced the birth of their daughter, Viva.
“This is all very new to me,” he says. “Not only is it a new life, it’s also kind of a new situation in general. For the world. I mean, I’m not the first gay person to have a baby, but there’s not a lot of precedent…”
It helps that both Cohen and Wainwright have a similar background, having grown up the children of Canadian pop musicians. “This is a second-generation construct, so maybe we’ll get it a little bit,” he says. “I do think with Skype and cheap airfares that we have a better shot at it than our parents did. And also, Lorca and I weren’t involved in a romantic relationship – we’re just really, really good friends. So we don’t have that to manoeuvre around, either.
“Viva has a really good chance of getting a lot of quality time. But life throws its own little wrenches your way, so who knows what’s going to happen?” There’s a big laugh as he imagines fate, pronouncing: “Don’t get too comfortable.”
Wainwright, in conversation, laughs a lot. Sometimes it’s in reaction to a joke, whether his or someone else’s; sometimes it’s to acknowledge an irony or absurdity. But it also seems a reflection of genuine happiness, so it’s not too surprising to hear him describe an epiphany he had after his mother’s death.
We had been talking about Candles, one of the songs on Out of the Game. “It’s a true story,” he says. “I had lit [devotional]candles in churches all throughout my mother’s illness, and gone so far as to go to Lourdes, and to the Vatican. And I’m not even baptized. But I have Irish Catholic/French Canadian roots, so it’s kind ever-present, those Catholic ideas.
“When my mother passed away, I immediately went to light a candle at a church in Montreal, and the church was out of candles. I made two similar attempts, and the same thing occurred. And it was a strange phenomenon, which I took at first to be a message – you know, ‘I’m on my way. Don’t worry about me, focus on yourself. I’ll be fine.’ “About a week later, I was in Paris, and I went to Notre Dame. I thought, okay, I’ll try again here. I walked in, and there was this huge mass going on, with organ and choirs and incense, and it was this very kind of high-end moment, and I lit the candle for Kate. Then I realized what was going on – she wanted a better venue.” He laughs. “She’s like, ‘If you’re going to light a candle for me, it’s going to be in Notre Dame in Paris, not down the street on Laurier.’”
After lighting the candle, Wainwright lingered in the cathedral. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll ask for some sort of message or counsel,’ ” he says. “And sure enough, as I left the cathedral, there was this distinct sense of gratitude that just hit me like a ton of bricks. It was basically saying, ‘You’re a lucky guy, and that’s what’s going to get you through this.’ ”
While he clearly appreciates his luck, he admits some moments are harder than others. “I have this horrible, horrible habit of going on YouTube and checking out comments about what I do,” he says. “As a kind of gluttony for punishment. If they don’t understand something, they are going to go crazy and do everything they can to tear it down, because it doesn’t fit within the very limited borders of their mind. Which is why they spend so much time commenting on stuff online.”
What keeps him from being driven crazy by such things, he continues, are the lessons he’s learned as a life-long opera fanatic. “When you look at a period of opera, let’s say, the French baroque, and you look at Rameau’s work and you look at someone else’s work [from]the same time, it’s obvious why Rameau’s better,” he says. “And it’s the same thing that makes Wagner better than Meyerbeer in the 19th century, or Verdi better than Donizetti.
“That’s what I focus on when I make and album, or write an opera, or sing a Judy Garland song. It’s when I stray from that and get a wrapped up in the publicity aspect, just the game of it, that I have to really watch myself. And perhaps that’s the meaning of the title, Out of the Game, which I realized just now. It’s like doing the real stuff and not worrying about the game so much. It doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped, or that you’re not going to appear on shows or anything. It’s just, you’re in it for the music.”
And there’s no laugh with that line, only a smile of contentment.