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Rufus Wainwright embraces pop music ambitions with 'Out of the Game'

TORONTO – Rufus Wainwright is touting the release of what he calls his most pop-leaning album yet, but the eclectic singer-songwriter is far from quitting his ambitious foray into the classical world.

The 38-year-old crooner says he’s set to pen another opera, but the details are staying under wraps, for now.

“I’ve been commissioned to write another one, there’ll be announcements about that at some point,” Wainwright says cryptically during a round of recent media interviews in Toronto.

“I don’t think you can kind of step into that arena and just step right out again. I think that would be very, very cowardly.”

In the meantime, Wainwright returns to the pop sphere this week with his brightly melodic album, “Out of the Game,” an unabashedly mainstream bid shepherded by hit-making uber-producer Mark Ronson.

The 12-song disc is infused with a ’70s flourish and Wainwright’s trademark honey-toned vocals, which weave around evocative vignettes of life with boyfriend Jorn Weisbrodt (“Song of You”), new baby girl Viva (“Montauk”) and mourn the loss of his recently deceased mother, singer Kate McGarrigle (“Candles”).

Musically, the typically bittersweet Wainwright says he strove to create a more commercially bent collection, describing “Out of the Game” as “something that you can put on at a party and people won’t leave the room.”

“Right before this album came out I had written an opera and done a solo piano voice tour, buried my mom, had a baby, you know, so I was really entrenched in these huge adult issues,” he notes.

“For this album I really just wanted to have a good time and kind of rock out and be silly for a little while. And though the record still has that custom-Rufus romantic sadness, I think it’s a little more upbeat and brighter than my past work.”

The disc opens with the hook-laden single, “Out Of The Game,” a twangy, guitar-driven toe-tapper inspired by Wainwright’s own insecurities about being on the outside looking in when it comes to the music business.

“It’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that it is a game and I’m out of it,” he says.

“But before I go, (I offer) my golden nugget of a piece and see what you can do with that. Who knows if it will work or not.”

It’s unabashedly catchy, and for the video, Wainwright sought out a bona fide celebrity to seal the deal. Longtime friend Helena Bonham Carter stars as a straight-laced librarian who lip-syncs to forlorn lyrics until she’s driven into a lustful frenzy by various wanton characters lurking in the stacks, all of them portrayed by Wainwright.

Oblique references in the chorus to “suckers,” in which Wainwright asks: “Does your mama know what you’re doing?” could be taken in myriad ways, but Wainwright allows that it does reflect his dissatisfaction today’s pop hits.

That includes Lady Gaga, who Wainwright praises for displaying a savvy show business acumen but dismisses when it comes to her music.

“I just wish there was more songs there, that’s all,” he says simply, extending his critique to other pop and indie giants as he suggests style has overtaken substance.

“Whether it’s Arcade Fire with their incredible work as a band in getting a real interesting sound or Gaga with fashion and let’s say, I don’t know, Michael Buble with the holidays, there’s stuff going on but the song has fallen into the back seat a little bit. And I really want to fight for the song.”

Of course, Wainwright freely admits to producing “the most unmainstream work of any pop singer around” and being preoccupied himself with figuring out how to court commercial appeal. But that mostly has to do with practical concerns, such as maintaining homes in New York, Toronto and Montreal, he says.

“I wrote an opera and I do some very unusual projects, which are so far from the mainstream that people are often afraid if I’ll ever come back,” says Wainwright, whose opera “Prima Donna” made its U.S. debut earlier this year after premiering at the Manchester International Festival in 2009 and appearing at Toronto’s Luminato festival the following summer.

“But that being said, it’s still a day job and I have to go out there and spend most of my time on a bus or backstage or doing press and it’s a lot of work so you want to get paid for that really well.”

That’s where Ronson comes in.

“I’ve always been a big fan of his albums, both his own work and also of course the production work he’s done over the years,” Wainwright says of Ronson, whose master touch has polished music by Amy Winehouse, Adele and Lily Allen.

“What I was really concerned about was a sonic thread that tied everything together and that’s why I hired Mark. And I think he came through on that front.”

The album caps a tumultuous two years for Wainwright. His mother died in early 2010 and last year, he and Weisbrodt had a baby with Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard. In the meantime, he says his foray into the opera world brought on “the full wrath of the classical establishment.”

It’s for that reason Wainwright views “Out of the Game” as a transitional disc, noting he’s ready to move on from darker times into a new chapter as a father and family man.

“I’m definitely looking to enjoy the rest of my 30s,” he says.

“Out of the Game” goes on sale Tuesday.