When Rufus Wainwright was preparing to go to Berlin last summer to record his new album, the first he would produce himself, he envisioned it as "a kind of pared down bare bones affair." But something dramatically different took hold once Wainwright got there, as opening track "Do I Disappoint You," which boasts an impressive orchestral sweep to match the sturm und drang of the lyrics, amply illustrates.
"Some people go to Berlin to get more cutting edge, I went and started wearing lederhosen and going to visit baroque palaces," Wainwright recounts with a laugh. "The Germany I was enthused with was more old fashioned and kind of romantic. I just got there, and the next thing you know, I had this huge gilded album. It was kind of an amazing experience because I didn't intend it to be that way."
With Release the Stars, his fifth album in a decade, Wainwright artfully establishes the intimacy he was reaching for, while creating a work even more ambitious in scope than his acclaimed 2004 release, Want Two. It's as if he's exchanging confidences one-on-one from the stage of New York City's Metropolitan Opera House in the middle of, say, Aida. There is ravishing sound everywhere, yet it all serves to underscore Wainwright's own performance as commentator, confessor, leading man. On this grand scale, his brilliant, idiosyncratic gifts as a songwriter and vocalist come into even greater focus. The emotions are heightened; his stories more vivid, dramatic, funny, real, and at times very moving. Release the Stars is as direct and personal as Wainwright initially imagined it would be.
"In retrospect I was unwise to think that my lifelong affiliation with operatic curlicues would subside once I was at the helm," Wainwright decides. "The record didn't end up being a bare bones affair, but it was important that I had that image in mind. Even though I have some of the biggest moments of my career on this record, there are some of the most intimate moments too."
Wainwright had begun to compose new material while he was touring in support of Want Two. Before leaving for Europe last year, he worked on the songs in New York City with his band. Then he went to Berlin to continue on his own. As he recalls, "I started recording 'Do I Disappoint You' alone on a synthesizer, just the chords and stuff, and it started sounding like Blade Runner or something, kind of sci fi. I started to wonder, what would pizzicato strings sound like right there, what about a string quartet. Then all these arrangements started tumbling out of me."
The final track would ultimately include fourteen string and horn players, sister Martha Wainwright on backing vocals, and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, who also serves as the album's executive producer, on samples and synthesizers. Among the other notable singers and players on Release the Stars, many of them veterans of Wainwright's previous recordings and shows, are vocalists Teddy Thompson, Jenni Muldaur, Lucy Roche and Sharon Jones (of Dap Kings fame); Richard Thompson and Beck collaborator Smokey Hormel on guitar; and violinist-guitarist-singer Joan Wasser, a/k/a Joan As Policewoman, whom Wainwright showcased as the opening act on his last tour. Longtime collaborator Marius de Vries, who produced Want One and Want Two, conducts the London Session Orchestra on several of these tracks, contributes programming, and mixed the album with Andy Bradfield.
Wainwright also invited, of all people, veteran British actress Sian Phillips, whom Masterpiece Theatre fans of a certain age will remember from her star turn in the classic I, Claudius, to add a theatrical spoken-word passage to the upbeat, love-you-through-the apocalypse "Between My Legs." Wainwright jokingly admits, "I knew I was really in trouble when I hired Sian Phillips to speak on 'Between My Legs.' I became obsessed with her a few years ago when I watched I, Claudius. She was the evil empress who poisoned everybody. I was at a party a while ago and I thought, 'Oh my God, there's the Empress of Rome.' I went over to talk to her and we kind of hit it off."
Regardless of the number of players or Wainwright's often bold strokes as an arranger, the emotional and melodic essence of each song always comes through. Says Wainwright, "With my songwriting in general, I always try to make sure that the songs stand on their own. They could be done with an orchestra, or with a kazoo for that matter. They are built to have a series of love affairs with different settings. I think I've honed the ability to hit the listener immediately with what I have to say. The more I write, the more I realize that the key is to be as direct as possible. And that's something you have to grow into. A lot of these songs were written while I was touring and was in the process of shifting my attitudes on life -- getting a boyfriend, getting a commission to write an opera for the Met, and feeling more comfortable with my situation as an artist. I think the songs were somewhat exclamatory about my needs at the moment.. I don't think I mince words on this album. Whether it's America or my best friend or my lover, I'm specific about what my demands are."
There is deeply personal material on Release the Stars, but, as with "Gay Messiah" on Want Two, Wainwright also couches sharp social commentary in a deceptively beautiful setting. "Going To A Town," the immediately arresting first single, is like an emotional travelogue, with Wainwright surveying the political and social state of the union as he gets ready to depart for Europe. Wainwright reveals, "I wrote that in about five minutes. I remember distinctly that I was waiting to go dinner and I had about twenty minutes to spare. I offhandedly said, 'I think I'll go down and fuck around on the piano' and all of a sudden that song was finished. It sort of arrived. Those are always the best ones; they're from some nether region that you have no control over."
A seize-the-day mood informs much of the twelve-song Release the Stars. Wainwright explains: "The album is dedicated to my mother, who during this whole process, had a rather serious operation. That brought home a real sense of urgency about what I want to accomplish. There are feelings around us all the time that we never come into contact with until there is a traumatic experience. I went to rehab before Want One and I had this kind of personal inventory situation where I had to recreate myself, go through all these different levels of reconstruction, and that was large, arduous, intense and dramatic. But once my mom had that operation, the other thing looked like a mole hill. The moment something happens to one you love, it's twenty times more intense. You experience pain and enlightenment on a much vaster scale."
He was prompted to write the title track, which has a brash, big band-meets-gospel feel, after getting frustrated with a close friend who didn't show up for his landmark Judy Garland concert last February at Carnegie Hall. But his personal reaction evolved into something broader; the message of the song became more inspirational in tone and now serves as a theme for the album: "It's written about the idea that it's time for both me and her -- and, let's say, for all people in their thirties, our generation -- to let everything go and to love as much as possible and really be the best that you can be as a person. Now that we're in our prime, having scaled the wall of adolescence, ridden on the train of our twenties, and been around, once you hit your thirties, the die is cast. It's about action at this point; you have to fulfill your destiny or muddle into uselessness. That's the essential message of the song and it is the message of the record: Now is the time to act on your desires and your dreams, to use your good side. Let's get on with it."
Wainwright already embodies this philosophy, given the breadth of his creative projects over the last year. Perhaps the most audacious undertaking has been his on-site tribute last June to Judy Garland's best-selling 1961 Judy At Carnegie Hall album. Wainwright brought the show to sold-out houses in Paris and London, and is now planning to recreate in Los Angeles the set-list from Garland's follow-up gig at the Hollywood Bowl on September 23, 2007, exactly 46 years ago after that equally legendary performance took place.
He also composed original music for maverick choreographer Stephen Petronio's new work, BLOOM; guest-starred on the Pet Shop Boys' British live disc, Concrete; cut tracks for the films Meet the Robinsons and History Boys; and helped to organize the Wainwright Family and Friends Christmas Concert in New York City, among other things. And, of course, there's that highly anticipated commission from the reinvigorated Metropolitan Opera House. The hard-working Wainwright will tour the world in support of Release the Stars; his itinerary includes appearances at the alt-rock Coachella Festival this spring and several European festivals this summer, including a return to Glastonbury later this summer.