By Mark Guarino
Rufus Wainwright really, really, really, really, really, really, really wanted to make a simple album. Stripped down. Back to basics. Barebones. Minimal. An “Inside the inner sanctum of Rufus kind of thing,” he said.
He swears this is true.
He did not make that album.
That album he planned to call The Black and White Record — yes, it was meant to be that sparse — ended up with the gloriously grandiose title Release the Stars, the sort of invocation only bearded egomaniacs on Mt. Olympus might be caught saying.
How he ended up here is a puzzle, considering that Wainwright has been down this road before. He is a songwriter who earns the title “auteur” simply because his previous four albums form a map of someone seeking out how pop music could sound if it was a classical art, music that bares naked emotions in ruby colors and tremulous strings, a sumptuous experience of orchestral pomp, of romantic bravado, of towering dramatic heights that even Brian Wilson or Frank Zappa might get vertigo listening to.
This blind ambition is how Wainwright got a commission to write an opera for the Lincoln Metropolitan Opera. Why he earns a critical praise by playing Judy Garland songs at Carnegie Hall. What makes him a favorite for smart people of differing ages and races and persuasions. Next time you’re at his show, look around. Teenagers, boomers, twentysomething hipsters, the NPR latte drinkers, the Broadway set, the leather boys, they all recognize themselves in this 33-year-old proudly gay man’s music. When they’ve felt love or when they’ve left love, inside they hear a string section swell to life majestically. They just never thought someone else heard it too.
But Rufus thought he was all done with that. It was time to move on. He wanted to see things in black, in white, not in a rainbow.
“My intentions were completely foiled,” he said. “It was like I slipped on a creative banana and all the sudden arrangement after arrangement, song after song started tumbling. I don’t really know what happened.”
Release the Stars was recorded in a fury of time and drive last summer when Wainwright lived in Berlin and was enjoying having his first long-term boyfriend, someone who “works on the other side of the footlights” in the theater world, and who, to today, is lasting in his life two years and counting. (“It’s a whole other bag of beans,” he said with a laugh. “I’m fortunate to have experienced it because I was extremely solo and resigned to the fact I would always be a holy whore.”)
Most of the songs reject drum kits and guitars for big choruses, awakening string sections and brass instruments that blare through the gauzy production like foghorns. Expect to be jolted since even the most solemn songs (a quiet opening usually means a deafening end) can reverse themselves. “Do I love you ‘cause you treat me so indifferently/or is it the medication/or is it me,” he sings (“Slideshow”) with dampened spirits until the song stops and the switch is flipped cueing fireworks, all horns, luminous voices and Richard Thompson’s glistening guitar notes, the type of blissful freakout you’d expect would fit nicely into any film by French film surrealist Michel Gondry.
There would be no mistaking that this is the soundtrack of Wainwright’s head, unfiltered. The reason: he is the single producer listed on Release the Stars, a decision made both out of finances (“a great producer has a great price tag”) and out of resolve. He grew up in recording studios thanks to his parents, the folk luminaries Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and spent his four-album career working with a list of producers armed with threatening resumes: Jon Brion (Kanye West, Fiona Apple), Pierre Marchand (Sarah McLachlan, Ron Sexsmith), Marius de Vries (Madonna, David Gray). In addition, industry heavyweight Lenny Waronker (Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks) became a sort of creative patron, looking over everyone’s shoulders since the first album.
“I was ready to utilize that degree that I earned in production school,” Wainwright said. The decision set the album in the ornate direction it would go. “I don’t have much memory of what happened,” he said. “I realized at the end of this process if I do want to (make a simpler album), I could never really produce it myself. Because I think in very big terms. I’m resigned to that now.”
The only ear he went to for advice belonged to Neil Tennant, vocalist with British dance pop duo the Pet Shop Boys. As the album’s executive producer, Tennant had a similar sensibility as Wainwright — an understanding of erudite theories and musical complexity and an upfront love of pop culture trash. “He could come into the studio and see what I as doing intellectually and tell me flat out nobody would get it or everyone will get it,” Wainwright said.
There is exotica on this album but also familiarity. Wainwright’s friends and family guest, including his sister Martha Wainwright, friend and songwriter Teddy Thompson as well as Thompson’s guitar virtuoso father Richard and Sian Phillips, the accomplished Welsh actress (and former wife to Peter O’Toole), who offers a chilling moment of spoken word.
Teddy Thompson, who was set up to be Wainwright’s friend by both their mothers when both musicians were bachelors in Los Angeles, said their kinship was a product of both having grown up in fairly famous folk world families. Both were exposed to similar music growing up and discovered they sang the same songs, but while folk music became Thompson’s bridge to classic pop bands like the Beatles, Wainwright “heard that stuff and went to (Arnold) Schoenberg,” the German expressionist, Thompson said, laughing.
“I tend to look at Rufus as someone who doesn’t rely on the input of other musicians too much. Because he has a very classical approach to things. He has all the parts worked out and written in his head before he begins. So it’s less a pop or rock music approach, you’re not relying on other people to give you inspiration or improvisation. He seems to be self-sufficient,” Thompson said.
When bands raid the local orchestra pit, it’s usually to signify they want to enter an epic phase of their music, where big concepts and many instruments are used to summon significant thoughts about either the state of the world, the devil or the dream they had last year about aliens living among us.
Wainwright can’t be accused of subtlety, yet even when the music suggests it is just about to topple out of the speakers, it still sounds extremely personal. That unusual balance of intimacy on a grand scale is what makes his fans swoon. They understand that frighteningly personal thoughts — “I’m afraid of one thing/will I walk away from love?” — can best be expressed over rattling dance beats, with a harp fluttering above and splashy horns.
Similarly, classical music is inherently emotional, despite its typically dry, conservatory setting.
“I definitely feel my decision to really develop a solid knowledge of what great classical music is al about and what makes it work has helped me infinitely in my pursuit of pop music. I think if someone slaps on some classical idea as a kind of setting, it’s going to slap you back in your face. But if you actually know that stuff — and I don’t think you have to write music or study it in a scientific way — if you listen to it and are open to it, you will learn the secret of everlasting eternity. Because those pieces that have lasted, continually rejuvenating and always pertinent, those pieces really hold the key to the mystery of art.”
That brings us to Franz Ferdinand.
As ornate as Release the Stars is, there are songs on it that break from the pack to provide a different kind of bittersweet symphony: glossy dancefloor pop. “Between My Legs” was written with the dapper Scots in check. “I wanted to illustrate a sense of sloppy chaotic order and then end with magisterial synthesis,” is how Wainwright explains the process. Listening to the song itself does not require as many syllables. Its synthesized drive never wavers as Wainwright imagines playing piano as a naked man sits listening in his bed. “Now that you're away, I'm out there without you/And I shed a tear between my legs,” he sings.
Wainwright is known for confessional songwriting, casting himself as the protagonist and leading the listener through the ups and downs of single life on the New York club scene. In 2003, he told Anthony DeCurtis in the New York Times of the price come daylight: an addiction to Methamphetamine and Cocaine, a predilection for anonymous sex and the emotional collapse that followed.
Release the Stars does not have the raw hurt and devastating yearning of Want One, the album he released that same year. These new songs are the most direct he’s ever written, addressed to specific people in his life about incidents that got logged in his memory. He already dressed himself as a fallen knight, a battle-scared casualty on the battlefield of love. Here, the costume is off and he’s not mincing words.
“There’s no fantasy going on, there’s no philosophical pensive activity. It’s really about the facts, about addressing what has to be addressed,” he said. “I think that has taken a long time to do.”
“Tulsa” is, improbably, about a quick and unexplained rendezvous in that city with none other than Brandon Flowers of the Killers. “This is just a reminder of the antique shop I want to go back to and visit when it’s open,” he sings.
On “Nobody’s Off the Hook,” Wainwright turns to Teddy Thompson and reminisces about life on the prowl in Los Angeles when both were in their early twenties and single, a time when Thompson was starting to write songs and Wainwright had just landed a major record deal. (“He was like my little gay shepherd through the hills of the music business,” Thompson said.) Wainwright sings, “Who would have ever thought/hanging with a homo and hairdresser/you would become the one desired in every woman’s heart?” but then adds a warning: “life will take that little heart/and bring you to your knees/threatening to break it for the final time/and you’ll believe it.”
“It’s a sort of very sweet dig at womanizing,” said Thompson, 31. “I didn’t take it to be cruel or malicious. Only Rufus can take something like that and make it into something beautiful. I took it as a beautiful compliment.”
Then there is the song Wainwright considers “a message from the collective subconscious of the world.” The song, “Going to a Town,” is addressed to us, a collective of people called America. With hurt in his voice and surrounded by plucking string players, he admits, “I’m so tired of America/I’m going to make up for all of the Sunday Times/I’m going to make it up for all of the nursery rhymes/They never seem to want to tell the truth.”
He wrote the song in two minutes, stopping himself before going out to dinner to beeline to a piano. He realizes this is his Dixie Chick moment.
“When people say artists shouldn’t be political or ‘shut up and sing’, the fact is, artists just write about events in their life and the world around them. And things that happen, like love and death and sex or whatever, at this point political disillusionment … is just another fact of life.
“I don’t think it’s a ‘fuck you America’ song. It’s more like, ‘I was in love with you once, everyone was in love with you and you broke our heart.”
He says this from New York City, where he returned after his time in Berlin. Europe, he says, understands his music more than here, that they’re “more receptive and proactive. They get it.” That said, he plans to tour the U.S. extensively with this album with hopes of “breaking through the glass ceiling that exists here. I’m not through with the United States by any means.”
Admit it, you always wanted to know: What do Rufus Wainwright and Emerson, Lake and Palmer have in common?
The answer: Czech composer Leos Janacek.
Prog rockers ELP borrowed from Janacek on their 1970 self-titled debut. Wainwright wants to borrow his career. In February 2006, the New York Metropolitan Opera commissioned Wainwright to write an opera, an endeavor that he is prepared “to fail, honestly.” He looks up to Janacek, who died in 1928 at age 74, as an inspiration, having written “Jenufa,” his greatest opera, late in his life. “So I have until my fifties to really wrestle this bull,” Wainwright said. “The great thing about classical music is it is about time and wisdom and experience.”
Wainwright said he’ll need a few years to finish “Prima Donna,” his two-act opera detailing a day in the life of an opera singer. Given that he was raised in Montreal, it will be written in French.
“It’s my great dream and passion to write an opera. In doing this, I intend to very much do my best to resurrect the art form and make it more accessible to modern day audiences,” he said.
Mission accomplished for Judy Garland. Last June at Carnegie Hall, he recreated the tragic Hollywood legend’s 1961 concert at the same venue, eight years before her death, a period when she was considered washed up but found resurrection. He performed the album in London in February and plans to bring it to Los Angeles in September, the same month as the CD release of last year’s debut.
The inspiration to revisit at Garland in her tragic peak came after Sept. 11, when he listened to the live album repeatedly. “I was horrified by humanity in general and somehow, every time I put on that album, I was instantly made happy,” he said.
There is also a incidental reason why Judy is relevant in 2007. “America is Judy Garland,” Wainwright said. “A fat, drugged-out, has-been star who still has tremendous amount of talent and strength if she makes the right decision. And if the muses are with us, then there will be a second coming.”