Rufus Wainwright Talks New Album Unfollow the Rules and Revisiting His Past

On his first pop album in eight years, Rufus Wainwright is just as gleefully grandiose as ever

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright. Photo: V. Tony Hauser

When you look back on his two-decade career, it's clear that following rules was never really part of Rufus Wainwright's m.o. The brooding Byronic face staring out of baroque pop showpieces like Poses and Release the Stars masks the soul of a puckish punk. Early on he decided to write his own rules, which proved to be just as rich and surprising as the songs he'd craft. One of the first openly gay artists to sign with a major label, Wainwright heralded his artistic arrival with his 1998 self-titled debut, a gloriously maximalist affair that marked him as both wildly talented and inherently unclassifiable. The diverse tracks seemed unified only by their striking maturity and dramatic flair, like showtunes minus the show. Since then, Wainwright has defied expectations with a series of unpredictable musical projects that, at first blush, appear far removed from his singer-songwriter métier. Why not restage Judy Garland's legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall performance? Why not put nine of Shakespeare's sonnets to music. Why not compose an opera about the controversial emperor Hadrian? All was fair game in Rufus Land.

So when his 9-year-old daughter Viva — conceived with Leonard Cohen's daughter Lorca, a childhood friend — burst into Wainwright's room one day and urged him to "unfollow the rules," the sentiment must have seemed wholly familiar. Genetics is a funny thing.

One must learn the rules before they can break them, and Wainwright's upbringing provided a masterclass in songcraft. Born to folk troubadours Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, the family home was filled with music and musicians of all stripes. In recent years, he's focused on starting his own family with husband Jörn Weisbrodt and settling into his new life as a classical opera composer. But a series of concerts celebrating the 20th anniversary of his debut restored his passion for pop. Laying down roots in LA's storied Laurel Canyon, Wainwright returned to many of the same studios where he'd recorded his earliest work.

The sessions yielded Unfollow the Rules, his first album of original solo material in eight years. Wainwright has always luxuriated in being himself, but a sense of easy self-assuredness differentiates the 12 tracks from nearly anything else in his canon. Having begun his career as the precocious overachieving Wizkid, Wainwright, now 46, sounds content as he enjoys his domestic idyll. His voice is more sonorous than ever, somehow gaining a deeper resonance without losing an inch of his razor-sharp tenor. Unfollow the Rules was custom made, to an almost self-conscious degree, as a mid-period record, inspired by (to use his own words) "the greats of yore whose second acts produced their finest work." Wainwright may act his age, but he's still as gleefully grandiose as ever.

PEOPLE spoke to Wainwright in January at a café near his Gramercy Park address. Back then, Unfollow the Rules was due out in April, but COVID-19 ultimately delayed the release until mid-July. In the intervening months, Wainwright has kept in touch with fans by performing regular #RobeRecitals (a.k.a. "Quarantunes") from his California living room. It ain't Carnegie Hall, but he makes it work.

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright's Unfollow the Rules. V. Tony Hauser

First and foremost, congratulations on your album. It felt like meeting up with an old friend — familiar in some ways, but it was cool to see how they changed and grown and everything they've been up to. And you've been up to a lot! Hadrian, Take All My Loves

Yes, I've been actively pursuing many avenues of the arts!

What made you decide it was time to return a solo songwriting album?

I released my last studio album about seven years ago with Mark Ronson, Out of the Game. Of course, in the meantime, I released an album of my first opera, I composed another opera, I did a Shakespeare Sonnets record…So I haven't been idle. I've always wrestled with this passion for the classical arts; mostly opera. I guess I needed to spend some time focusing on that over the last few years. So that's what I did, I went out there and exercised my operatic demons. [laughs] And eventually I realized that my public — my songwriting public — misses me a lot and were really in need of some new material. And also, I needed a break from the opera world, as well. The way that I've jiggered it at the moment is that I can kind of ping pong between both [worlds]. Now I've landed back at my day job, which is as a songwriter, and I'm really excited to just do the work that I'm familiar with. Then, once that becomes a little stale after a few years, I'll return to opera world and vice versa. Which I think is actually a good construct for an artist — to be able to work in different departments.

Replenish the creative well a bit.

Yes, exactly. It's great, when '’m working in the opera world, I can write these solo songs and prepare for these [solo] albums. I can kind of shoot off into the corner and express myself fully. Frankly I have some frustrations with that universe, which is so formal and strict, so I'm very lucky to have outlets for my creativity that come in handy in both worlds. Whether I'm in the classical or the pop world, it can get a little thin in terms of the way the record business works. It's not the most edifying experience at times. That's when I can internalize stuff and start thinking about operatic journeys that will lift me out of doldrums of the day. It's interesting.

You've said that for you, there's "composing" and then there's "songwriting," and songwriting is usually rooted in sadness. Why is that?

I think if you're an artist in general, whether you're doing music, or writing, or painting, you need as many colors as possible to paint a full picture. And it doesn't always have to be sad or depressive in any way — but nonetheless, that is a big part of human existence and you have to be able to draw on that at times. I mean, it's not so much sadness in the sense of this romantic brooding kind of figure who's contemplating death and so forth, like a kind of 19th-century statue or something. It's more, I would think, in the Buddhist sense where life is pain, and that pain is an integral part of life for everybody. Songwriting is just very close to that vent.

You recently wrapped up the tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of your debut and Poses. Did revisiting that time and music influence the writing for your new album at all? I know you worked with some of the same players, like Jim Keltner.

This album is very much a kind of bookend to my first album. As you said, I worked with some of the same musicians. I worked in some of the same studios. It's a fraction of the budget that I started out with years ago in my career. But that being said, I think that's also kind of a factor in the sonic quality of the record. Mitchell Froom, the producer, was tasked with making the record sound as lavish as a classic '70s, '80s, '90s record on a bit of a shoestring budget. But oddly enough, at the end of the day, I think that makes it more tenable and more effective, because there's a sparing quality to it. Everything that's there is meant to be there. Arguably, if anyone's going to be critical of my material, sometimes there's too much going on. With this record, I think I'm very happy about the slimmed-down quality of the production and also the fact that it still sounded quite lavish.

Speaking of slimming down, for your debut album you brought something like 54 songs to the sessions. Was there a culling period for this new record?

Yeah, I had a lot of songs. I played them for Mitchell and he chose what were in his mind the most effective. I just did a show the other day in LA for this other project that will be released at some point where I did a couple of other songs. Everybody was like, "Why aren't those [songs] on the record?" [laughs] So, there's a wealth of material. But these were the ones that made sense to go together.

The title track, "Unfollow the Rules," is an emotional highlight for me. The lines are so evocative: "Don't give me what I want, just give me what I'm needing"/"I'm no Hercules and this is Herculean." What does that song mean to you?

All of my albums, for better or for worse, illustrate exactly what's happening in my life whenever they're released. Even in a spooky way. I'll create a record and often I'll release it a year later, and those songs illustrate how I'm feeling when the album comes out. It's like there's a fortune-telling nature of the record. Some writing has always been that way for me. It's always like two or three steps ahead of where I am. And that song, especially. We're getting to the meat of the matter of my life. I mean, I'm 46 and I'm a father, I'm a husband. I'm also trying to maintain my career as a pop star and composer. All of that. There's a lot on my plate, and I think that "Unfollow the Rules" illustrates some of the intensity that I'm experiencing right now. Arguably, I think it's an intensity that everyone is going through. With this being an election year, we are really bumping headfirst into fundamentals of our existence as a society. So yeah, this is a time for action.

Did the current political climate inspire your return to "traditional songwriting" in any way?

Certainly when Trump won the election I was devastated, as was the entire universe. And anybody who wasn't devastated, or was happy about it, is evil. I'm sorry, but it's come to that. There's no way around it at this point. I should say, people who are still happy [about Trump.] I understand that there were people who maybe had other kinds of ideas of how he'd [be]. But now the line is drawn and you're either a good person or a bad person. I'm sorry, I wish I could be a little more shaded, but it's not. Anyway, that's happening. So, I definitely got a sense that there was a lot of pain to go around. And as the Trump presidency wore on, the need for soothing love and care was more and more evident. With this album coming out during an election year — on the eve of the battle for our soul — I think it's appropriate that I'm back in the saddle.

What is your process like? Do you start off with a feeling that you want to express, and go to the piano and play it out of you? Or do you hear music in your mind and go capture it?

It's both. As you know, I often have a mountain of songs to take from. Whenever I make a record, I always have a glut of material. I think a lot of that is due to having different approaches going at all times. A lot of times, it's after I take walks. I'll walk and something will just come to me in that meditative state. And then other times I'm like, "Look, I really haven't written a song in a while. I need to sit down and write one." And I'll just go down and plug away at it. And then other times I'll be inspired by something I see — whether it's a play or something on television or something I've read — and then I’ll translate it into music. Sometimes it's also hearing another song. I mean, I'm very cognizant of not plagiarizing in any way, but I do feel it's okay to be inspired by other genius work. So yeah, I got several ways to do it. Several ways to skin a cat, as they say.

On much of Unfollow the Rules, especially the title track, you seem to have somehow added another octave to your range. There's a deeper resonance that I feel like I've never heard you use.

I think I always had that register in there. I didn't utilize it as much, probably because I was trying so hard to blow the ceiling of the room! But now that I'm more mature and I have maybe a little more wisdom concerning how to capture an audience, I'm able to sit back a little bit more and bring them to me. Part of that is with the low end of my voice. It can be quite commanding. Maybe it's after years of hanging out with Leonard Cohen when he was alive and witnessing that approach, which was more kind of a firm whisper as opposed to a high-pitched cry.

You brought your current wisdom and maturity to your early songs on your Poses tour. What was it like revisiting those first two albums? Do you recognize the person who wrote those songs?

On one hand, I was reassured by the exercise in terms of the material. I think for the most part, a lot of that work still stands up because it’s well built, and I put the time and the hours and the effort into it. But on the other hand, I do think that my singing is markedly better now than it used to be when I was starting out. So, to reinterpret the songs with the more seasoned voice that was a great thrill.

Sometimes I wish I lived in another era, one that was more vaudevillian. Maybe early Hollywood or something. At that time, I think one had to be more brutally trained at a young age. You had to know how to dance, you had to know how to handle an audience, you had to know how to do 10 shows a day. I probably would've been more advanced as a singer earlier on. I don't blame myself. I blame the period that I live in. But now I'm finally fully formed, so here we go.

There's a great clip out there of you performing in [the Gilbert & Sullivan opera] HMS Pinafore when you were 14. I'd say you'd fit right in during that bygone era!

There was always something in there. I've always had a spark. I don't know if it was always completely ironed out yet. But nonetheless, people seem to don't want to leave the room, so that's good.

At the very start of your recording career, right out of the gate, you had such a singular voice and style. It seemed like you arrived fully formed. What inspired you when you first went into the studio to make your debut?

I grew up in a family of musicians, where one of the main arteries of communication was art. So I often knew what my mother felt about my father through her material and vice versa — and even what my parents thought of me through certain songs. It was mostly positive, though there were some honest, brutal truths that I had to face at a pretty young age in terms of dealing with the music. I think in a lot of ways, it was just second nature to me to embark on that journey.

Going back to the vaudevillian concept and hearkening back to an era that I never lived in, it's very much like Judy Garland, who I obviously admire. There's a famous quote where she said, "Well, nobody ever asked me. That's why I never answered, nobody ever asked me." It was like that. I started very, very young and it was so driven and so ambitious that it's just par for the course.

But then also, with opera especially, a lot of that music also helped me cope with the world and my inner demons. Thankfully, as well as composing music and writing songs, I was able to listen to it and garner an equal amount of comfort from the process. I really lived and breathed and survived on music.

I know Verdi's "Requiem" is a very meaningful piece for you. What was it about it that music that touched you in such a profound way?

It was a very cosmic event that occurred with my mother and aunt. The three of us listened to this amazing recording of the Requiem conducted by Fritz Reiner. And by the end of that experience, I was a different person. If you're a true opera fan you can relate. Most of us have this experience where the music has sort of jumped out. It's like a painting has suddenly come alive and taken you and pulled you into it. That's what opera does for true opera lovers. And the piece that did that initially for me was very disrupting and lead to a stream of other work. So it's a mix of destiny and a mix of sorcery and a mix of drama, I guess.

I wanted to ask you about another one of your new songs, "You Ain't Big": "You ain't big unless you're big in Alabama, don't know who you are unless you made it in Wichita." How much of that is satire and how much is your own belief?

I think a lot of that I thought of when I was in England. I didn't live in England, but I spent a lot of time there and I feel there's always talk in England about really being big. Because they have a whole slew of superstars in England that we've never heard of [in North America]. I think even in the UK, you're measured by whether you're popular in the United States. Once you make it in America, you're legit. And when we talk in America, we're not talking about New York or LA. We're talking about the heartland or the Bible belt or whatever. So it's that concept. It's hard to gauge in the United States, because I think you can be big in New York and also big in Europe, which I was for many years. But I thank God every day that I can play in North Dakota and Birmingham, Alabama, because there's this little badge of bigness that I think has currency.

When you were growing up in Montreal, what did success look like to you?

For me, a lot of it had to do with the acceptance of my peers. Well, not so much of my peers, but of my elders. I had a lot of folklore in my upbringing. There was a lot of passing on traditions from one generation to the next. Both my parents were real Pete Seeger-ites. We knew him a little bit. And we knew Emmylou Harris, she would come sing with us. Or Linda Ronstadt. There was a whole slew of folk musicians. And there was always this spirit of continuing a tradition, you know? And so, I think when I started writing songs, I wanted whatever it was to be respected by the heavy hitters.

I always saw a little bit of a rebel prince in you, as well. It's seemed as though you've followed your muse so truly and completely — almost stubbornly. I feel like there's something rebellious about that.

Yeah, I think there was something very rebellious about my generation, especially for gay men my age. They wanted to refute the opera queen, refute the Judy Garland fanatic. Grunge was about deconstructing musical ability. And so, there was this kind of purposeful degradation going on, which was interesting. I mean, I think it was valid. I think in the end I actually gained something from being around at that period but running counter to that stream. On one hand it cut me off from certain opportunities, but it also singled me out and made me different from everybody else. It was a double-edged sword.

I had the immense pleasure of speaking to Linda Ronstadt recently. I asked her a question that I'd love to ask you. What is it like to sing with somebody? What is that fleeting relationship like?

That's a very interesting question. I think I would say it's the most profound event when you're singing with somebody and it works — if it's not working it's complete nightmare, really. (I won't go into when or how that's happened, but it has.) But when it does work, I think for me, the most amazing fact is that time is effaced. There's this strange realm that you enter in with this other person through this communion where the past, the present and the future just disappear and you're kind of floating around in this eternal space that you are allowed to glimpse for that brief period of however long the song lasts.

In a funny way, it's what I've always loved with the opera, because it's all sung and it's all music and it's all people singing with each other. You can go to heaven for six hours, if you're at a good production. It’s this suspension of time. I think that, to me, is the sensation you get. And then you can be completely addicted to [it] and a little fooled by it, because time is not suspended. You are still on earth. But nonetheless, nobody's on earth forever, so maybe you're just making plans for the future.

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