The last few years have been quite a journey for Rufus Wainwright. Creatively, he put pop music aside and concentrated on his other interests, from his Grammy-nominated recreation of Judy Garland's fabled Carnegie Hall concert to the 2009 premiere of his opera, Prima Donna. Wainwright's personal life has been even more dramatic, witnessing the birth of his daughter, Viva; the death of his mother, singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle; and his engagement to partner Jorn Weisbrodt.
All of these experiences inform his seventh studio album, Out of the Game, along with the input of a new collaborator, celebrated producer Mark Ronson. The results are the loosest, most accessible music of Wainwright's career, retaining his distinctive narrative sense and wry wit while adding classic pop pleasures.
"What I wanted was a warmth and a depth in terms of quality of sound, and a certain clarity that's still easy on the ears," he says. "I've done that whole ponderous, pseudo-genius thing, so it was fun to get in there and work really fast and do something that was more about the songs."
Wainwright and Ronson knew each other socially, but the idea of matching them in the studio was the idea of their mutual friend and publicist Barbara Charone (who, in turn, is paid tribute on the album's track "Barbara"). Ronson—winner of the 2008 Grammy for "Producer of the Year," known for his work with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Christina Aguilera—says that initially he was unsure why the singer was turning to him, but that he was instantly inspired by the demo recording of the song that would become the album's title track.
"Hearing 'Out of the Game' set this warm, '70s, slightly Laurel Canyon-meets- Young Americans tone," he says. "I started to hear sounds and ideas as soon as I heard that demo."
Wainwright and Ronson both credit the influence of the great recordings of the 1970s on Out of the Game. They reference such giants as Elton John, Harry Nilsson, and Steely Dan, and the genre-blending and sense of songwriting ambition that characterized the best music of that era.
"We were both born in the '70s and that's the first music that we heard," says Wainwright. "I think it kind of gives us a right to pull from that, because our generation really was the last one that was actually there."
After the brief, initial demo session, they spent six months reviewing the new songs and listening to some of Wainwright's older, unreleased material. By the time the recording began, they had enough preparation and, as Wainwright says, "were getting along like a house on fire," and found that they were able to work at a very productive pace, tracking sixteen songs in just eight days.
"There was nothing precious about the recordings," says Ronson. "The band was playing live, with Rufus singing on a couch in the control room. For the most part the songs are what was recorded in that take, and it feels like you're sitting there with the band."
The sounds on Out of the Game range from the grand horns-and-strings arrangement of "Jericho" to the sparse, hypnotic "Montauk." On "Rashida," Ronson displays his signature love of doo-wop/girl group harmonies, while Wainwright says that "Bitter Tears" allowed the producer to "flex his dance muscles a little bit." He describes "Welcome to the Ball" as the rare pop song that "goes on a serious journey through different musical perspectives."
"I know some stuff about pop music, but I'm really more centered in the classical world, so I was ready to deliver the goods to Mark and have him take over," says Wainwright. "I think I sound the best of any album I've made—I'm hitting a plateau with my voice that's very exciting."
Ronson, who brought in many of the same players he used on sessions with such modern soul masters as Winehouse and D'Angelo—including the hardhitting Dap-Kings—plus guests like Sean Lennon and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs says that Wainwright made an indelible impression. "These guys are the best musicians I know of my generation, but they don't get excited," he says. "And they were saying, 'This is the best album I've ever played on.' For the backing vocals, we used three soul singers that I've used before, but having Rufus's ear for harmonies, they were kind of blown away, singing harmonies and chords they'd never sung before."
Wainwright's relationship with Weisbrodt is explored in "Song Of You" and "Respectable Dive," but the spirit that looms the largest over Out of the Game is Kate McGarrigle, who passed away in early 2010 following a long battle with cancer. "In a lot of ways, while my mother was still alive, I was singing to her," says Wainwright. "She was my toughest critic and my biggest fan. With her not having been around for this album, there was a kind of release, a necessity to get to the next step.
"There's a famous saying that your mother gives birth to you twice—once when you're born and once when you die. So having a slightly tougher, wiser attitude on this record, I think I only could have done that after her passing."
With grace and humor, craft and confidence, Out of the Game is a remarkable return to the pop world for Rufus Wainwright. The scope of sounds and styles is unified by both his incomparable voice and the lucidity of his vision. "Because I'm older and I've had different experiences, there's a diversity in my life that I wanted the record to express," he says. "Maybe in the past, it would get a little confusing to people, but this time we were able to maintain that mountain range of an existence with something tying it together, a certain sound or warmth, which makes all the difference.
"That's always been my mission," Wainwright concludes, "to make albums with variety and a sense of perspective on all that music can be."