In Conversation: Rufus Wainwright’s New Rules

The singer-songwriter on love and politics, mom and dad, and his frank new album, Unfollow the Rules.

Rufus Wainwright is ready to take his place as the reigning king of elegant, earthen and sophisticated art pop. His soft rock aplomb with a cool complexity, he still has a knack for crooning smartly piquant, yet deeply emotional lyrics with cosmopolitan melodies that come across more Tin Pan Alley, London Palladium and Topanga Canyon than something out of today’s more nebulous and steely AutoTune universe.

Devotees of Wainwright’s slippery, oboe-like vocals and Noel Coward-in-a-leather-bar-like scenarios have long acknowledged Rufus’ reign since the swooning, one-two punch of his 1998 self-titled release and follow up, 2001’s Poses. Yet, according to Wainwright, he never knew this, even from the glossy mod-pop of his most recent studio album in 2012, the Mark Ronson produced Out of the Game.

Now a husband with a daughter (who named pop’s new album), an occasional beard, and a Los Angeles address (again), Wainwright has shifted his attitude from being a quirky songwriter, switched labels (from the Universal universe to BMG) after all these years, and released Unfollow the Rules. Bristling and bracing, Unfollow the Rules is Wainwright’s most orchestrated effort in more than 20 years, and a fresh start to a welcome platform.

We caught up with Wainwright, who is self-isolated back home in LA, where he talked parenthood, politics, and picked apart Unfollow the Rules.

The new album sounds like it embraces many shades of personal and political dissatisfaction, and personal satisfaction. Considering some of its vibes, and the single release “Sword of Damocles,” I’ll take a stab that Unfollow the Rules unofficially began in 2018. Am I close? And what gave rise to its recording?

I’d say you’re about right, though its feelings began right after the time of the last election cycle 2016, 2017. Also, with this material there was a period of time when I away in opera land for a few years—working on Prima Donna and Hadrian. I worked through the Shakespeare Sonnets album, which was very ethereal place for me. All throughout that period, though, I wrote songs. We moved back to California before the election, mainly to be with our daughter (Viva, with whom Wainwright, and his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, share custody with Lorca Cohen, the daughter of Leonard Cohen). We were kind of set up for this happy, sunset ending—beautiful house, marriage with kids, Hilary Clinton was set to be the first woman president—then pow. (Laughs hard). So not everything happened as we all thought it would.

The world took a pretty severe left, or right turn.

To say the least. But, that being said, we stayed in California, chose to center our life around our child and when it came time to make an album—and, what is good, if you’re going to say anything good about the current presidency, is that it tempered this happy walk into the sunset with drama, and a little bit more tragedy intertwined.

The not-so-feel-good Hollywood ending.

Yes. That’s exactly what the new song, “Trouble in Paradise,” alludes to, that conflict.

I do not recall you being exactly politicized in song, “Sword of Damocles,” “Going to a Town,” and “Hatred” aside. What does it mean to put yourself in that mind set?

You’re correct that, in no way have I professed to be an activist politically. And I know what that means as I come from a folk music background. I grew up with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and the like. I admire that writing and advocacy immensely. I wish there was more of it, quite frankly. That being said, “Going to a Town,” during the Bush presidency and the Iraq struggle, did become something of an anthem, one that, sadly, keeps resonating. And, as a performer, I’m no fool.  I understand the wealth of singing songs that get a rise out of people. So whether in happiness or anger, I keep singing “Going to a Town. I believe in its message and it is a useful tool during my show. That keeps going. Once you’re in that arena, it’s pretty hard to get out.

“We were kind-of set up for this happy, sunset ending—beautiful house, marriage with kids, Hilary Clinton was set to be the first woman president—then pow. (Laughs hard). So not everything happened as we all thought it would.”

I’ve seen your operas of which you discussed. We’ve talked about the Sonnets. Are you compartmentalizing your writing process? Are you shifting times and thought into pop songs, away from those? How does the process work?

I can only really examine what has occurred, which has, you know, some distance from the beginning of my career until now. There is a pattern of which I can identify. There is this ping-ponging, back-and-forth, between the classical world and the pop world. That itself is an exercise in appreciation of both forms, mostly when I’m not in either one… In the sense that when I get to the opera world, I hate opera, and miss the pop world, and when I get to the pop world, I hate the pop world, and miss the opera world. So I go back then forth,  But I love them both, and bring elements of one into the other. Ultimately, I think it’s all just to keep me entertained at the end of the day (laughs). It’s no more complicated than that.

You had just started the first album anniversary tour the last time we spoke. You were saying then that the then next album you were working on–Unfollow the Rules–had elements of your start, and felt like a bookend to Rufus Wainwright and Poses. Listening to the new album and seeing familiar names such as Jim Keltner, I don’t know that I heard that. Can you explain the parallels, the bookending and such?

For me, what it is, is that along with working with some of the same musicians, I’m working in a lot of the same rooms—the studios—and wanted to return to that feeling. When I initially made my first record, I was very very naïve about the reality of the business. I totally fell prey to this cloud of seduction that the industry really fumigated me with in terms of spending so much money on the record, taking so much time making it, living in hotels, renting cars for years, and thinking—all that time—”Oh My God, I’ve made it. Live it up. This is going to be Easy Street, and I’m going to be a huge star.” Then my album came out, and I suddenly owed the record company almost a million dollars.

Welcome to Easy Street.

Right? Subsequently I had to tour, relentlessly, for twenty years to keep up. Now, I don’t regret that at all. It made me into a better musician, and fundamentally was a great opportunity. That being said, when I came back to this world again–LA, the music business—I was able to reexamine that concept, and be less lavish, because I didn’t have any money. I got to focus on the music and the crafts of songwriting and recording, and make it about that and not Hollywood. I do still love Hollywood though. I have not forsaken that concept. But, working with (Unfollow the Rules producer) Mitchell Froom especially, took away a lot of the bullshit. This new album has the same sort of grandeur of my first record, and the same excitement, but it is clearer and more direct. [It’s] more about the actual work.

You are still an anomaly. Your sound, save for its traditions—and your traditions in particular—still seems to come out of a void. There are things that I noticed on Unfollow The Rules that point to concessions. It is more acoustic guitar-driven than, say, piano. Less character driven. Melodically, I hear the influence of Jimmy Webb, of Sondheim, of George Harrison, and of Loudon Wainwright. How has influence changed for you? How have you intercepted old and new signals in the air?

When I first came onto the scene—and this gives you another picture of the bookending between albums—I was very anti-rock ‘n’ roll. I was an opera fan. I was a dandy. I wore that very illusively on my sleeve. And yet, I was compared to many of the same people I might not have acknowledged—Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson. At the time, I was like, “No, no, they’re old men. I’m the new young cool guy.” And of course, it’s like, wow, I was being compared to the greatest songwriters that ever lived. Thankfully, I was very innocent and kept going. Now, thankfully I have more of an appreciation of the generations that come before me. Mainly because my mother died, and with that, I experienced the loss of a great songwriter. Also, through my husband, I discovered Joni Mitchell for the first time.

“When I first came onto the scene, I was very anti-rock ‘n’ roll. I was an opera fan. I was a dandy. I wore that very illusively on my sleeve. And yet, I was compared to many of the same people I might not have acknowledged—Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson. At the time, I was like, ‘No, no, they’re old men. I’m the new young cool guy.’ And of course, it’s like, wow, I was being compared to the greatest songwriters that ever lived.”

Stop. What? Why?

It’s true, I was never allowed to listen to her as a child, as my mother didn’t approve of Joni. The problem was two-fold. One is reasonable, and the other is unreasonable. Start with the reasonable: my mother was a very staunch traditionalist, in terms of folk music. They liked Pete Seeger and subscribed to the very hardcore sensibility where folk music comes from farmers and field recordings, and what Joni did was an aberration to her when it came  to poetic licenses. And I respect that, in a way. She was part of a group that was very true to their traditions. That was that. On the other hand, my mother was incredibly jealous of Joni’s success and her wealth and her mainstream appeal. So on one hand it was warranted—stick to her guns—and the other was just her being frustrated about another artist.

Wow. I stopped your line of thought in talking about your place in history and from history.

Thinking of outside influences, sadly this is apt to discuss with the coronavirus about, these writers are older and more frail. There is a delicacy there. And this is time to celebrate them. This record does that a little bit. I’m kind of surrendering to that more.

I might as well get all of your parents out of the way at one time. I spoke to your father not long ago as he is touring around his memoirs thing. Without being prompted, he mentioned that your relationship with him—and his relationship to you—is better than ever. How do you feel about that, and how does “You Ain’t Big” from the new album use him as a touchtone—a first for you, really?

I think that my dad and I, through a lot of work and a lot of hardship have accepted the facts that we are who we are, and that we are never going to change, and that it is necessary for us to appreciate the other for that. And that we try to make an effort to enjoy each other when and how we can. We’re both older. We’re in a much better place, and it takes a while to get there. And I do feel—whether it’s “Peaceful Afternoon” or “You Ain’t Big” – there is, how do I say this, a genetic time bomb that all people go through where they not become their parents, but inhabit their parents more. Thankfully, my dad is a handsome, talented, credible singer for the age that he is—his voice does not quit—and in a lot of ways I am grateful, genetically, to be associated with him. He’s done very well in terms of taking care of himself and keeping his fires burning.

What’s with the roll call of states on “You Ain’t Big”—it’s very trucker country?

That’s just an observation I had, while watching that recent spate of films about Elton and Freddie Mercury, that you could be the biggest stars on the planet, but that you are nothing unless you make it in the middle of America. You’re not a world-class star. In the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, if you weren’t big in Nebraska, you weren’t big in the world. I can play in those towns, by the way. I can pull 500 to 600 a gig in North Dakota. I’m very proud of it.

I can state, with confidence, that “Peaceful Afternoon” was written for or about your husband. You have written forcefully and originally about broken romances in the past. What is the biggest challenge in writing about a relationship that has lasted?

It’s a challenge to have a relationship. And a gift. I have always tried, in all of my songs, to mine the territory and come up with something precious. I really do try to do that. I’m not blowing my own horn, but that has always been the object of my work. Examining a breakup? That’s pretty easy to find the tools and scramble with those emotions. But, with a relationship that you have worked on and really gone through—to make it sound authentic, you really need to dig deep. It’s down there. And I’m thankful for the challenge, because with that, it is more rewarding in the end.

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