It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—now let’s dance     

After spending a few years exploring esoteric pursuits like composing the opera Prima Donna and staging a Judy Garland tribute at Carnegie Hall, Rufus Wainwright was ready to aim for the mainstream. “My listeners have been very patient with my little dalliances,” he says. “So I wanted to give them the kind of record you can bring to a party and dance to.” For the new Out of the Game Wainwright, 38, enlisted the help of producer Mark Ronson to record an accessible suite of songs that reflect major changes in his personal life: the 2010 death of his mother, folk legend Kate McGarrigle, and the 2011 birth of his daughter, Viva.

Did the opera influence your writing?

When I entered into the classical-opera arena, I had preconceived notions and an idyllic view of orchestras, opera singers and conductors as these titans of knowledge who were ready to enlighten me with their wondrous powers. And there was a bit of that. But I was immediately struck by how mechanical and constrained that world can be. Creative juices that I took for granted in my songwriting life were completely frowned upon and not understood. It was a clash of cultures. It worked out well in the end because I could bring some of my style into that world, but I also had to play by their rules. So I was looking forward to coming back, being freer and having fun with music.

How was working with Mark?

Mark spends a lot of energy and time and thought getting the right mood with each individual instrument. That’s something I adore. We wanted this record to be about the feel and the moment, so we worked quickly. That was different for me. In the studio, there was nothing patronizing or negative—and that’s rare, because often I’ve had producers or record label people saying, “Well, you’re a great singer, but I don’t know about the opera thing or the piano thing.” But Mark never made me feel insecure at all. He was always complimentary, and he brought so many great ideas and grooves—and a real excitement. In the end, what really sold me was the quality of his recordings. They just sound so beautiful. Also, his amazing hairdo. (laughs)

What is the album about?

There are two sides to this record. The last three years were the darkest I’ve ever experienced, with my mother’s death. At the same time they were the most joyous, with the birth of my daughter Viva. So there’s an intermingling of “It’s time to party” with “Let’s enjoy what time we have left.”

Is Viva interested in music?

Well, she’s only just turned 1, but yes, we’ve played piano together. She spends a lot of time with her grandfather, playing and listening to music, which is great. I’m looking forward to us being able to spend more time together, but it’s hard with touring, because you’re in constant motion, and you’re the kid and the industry is daddy.

How have you coped with the loss of your mother? 

I thought after a year that things would settle down and I would hit the runway. I was ready to land, but the plane took off again—and there are moments now that are even harder than when she died. I do believe that she’s reaching back and reminding me of our great love, and also some of our great battles. (laughs) It’s the kind of experience where you can’t help but be impressed by that which we cannot see.

–Bill DeMain

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