On new album Unfollow The Rules, music luminaries of Laurel Canyon, the 2020 presidential election, and ladies who lunge
In the time of BC – Before Coronavirus – Rufus Wainwright had scheduled his first new album in eight years for release in April 2020, to be showcased with two intimate London shows at the Islington Assembly Hall, and a follow-up tour. This interview was carried out in London ahead of the original release date, and then held over when the album was shuffled forward to July, a necessity as supply chains and much else slowed or stopped altogether. Wainwright, in common with many musicians, has done his best to make the most of the appalling C-19 situation, continuing his series of Robe Recitals from his Laurel Canyon house – dressed in his bathrobe – and broadcasting them through his social media profiles. The series led to a half-hour concert, this time with Wainwright dressed for the day, for the Royal Albert Hall’s Royal Albert Home series. Amid all the anxiety and life-changing events around us, such live connections between artists and fans have been a rare joy in this most unsettling period.
Now, with the album Unfollow The Rules at last released, matters lyrical and musical can again take centre stage. Returning to Los Angeles, the city and recording studios where he made his debut self-titled album two decades ago, Wainwright’s latest work is his first original artist album since 2012’s Out Of The Game. Given his forays into opera over the last decade or so with his work Prima Donna – “I’m parking the opera for a moment, with every intention of returning there again when the meter needs to be filled” – this new work is, perhaps surprisingly, at once accessible and rooted in time and place. “It’s the crossroads in terms of now going on to a new road,” he muses. “It’s the end of an era, leading into a new one.” For Wainwright it also represents the coming together of all the aspects of his life which, at this moment, have made him the seasoned artist he is. It’s an artistry rooted in his roles as both husband and father.
His nine-year-old daughter Viva came up with the album title, which he considers useful advice for re-examining the world. “It’s all been very… interesting!” he says, musing on fatherhood. “I mean that in the sense I never thought I would have a child, it wasn’t really part of my plan. Once my mother’s health declined and my friend Lorca (Cohen, daughter of Leonard Cohen) wanted to have a kid, there were the correct ingredients to spur that on, and it kind of happened. And I’ve discovered that it’s an incredible honour, joy and privilege to be around this child’s life, and it’s the best left turn that I’ve ever made. That’s when I made the new album, in that new and very beautiful environment. There’s something about that age from around age five to eight where things come out of their mouths that are so wild. Unfollow The Rules is a perfect example, they just put certain words together that no poet could come close to in their imaginings.”
In the album’s promotional material he has discussed where he thinks it places him in the pantheon of legends, especially those other seasoned artists with whom he might compare himself, and with whose works his might sit alongside. “My aim is to emulate the greats of yore whose second acts produced their finest work – Leonard Cohen when he made The Future, when Frank Sinatra became Sinatra in his 40s, when Paul Simon put out Graceland. Pop music isn’t always about your waistline. Many songwriters improve with age. I’m flying the flag for staying alive!” In case this all seems just a little self-aggrandizing, he’s keen to explain the basics a little. “I don’t compare myself to them artistically, in the sense that I don’t consider myself equal and I think I’m very different, they’re all very different from each other too – and they’ve certainly made a lot more money than I have, so they’re different in that sense. But I think that the condition I’m in at the moment is akin to what happened to them eventually, and hopefully the same will occur to me.”
Indeed at his age, Wainwright has the experience across multiple music disciplines to realise his ideas, he knows what does and does not work, and has a pretty good idea of what he wants to do. “This album took 10 years to be created technically,” he recalls. “It was songs from this exodus I was on within the opera world and doing the Shakespeare sonnets, and all of my time spent working with conductors and singers and opera houses and directors, which is really taxing artistically but also really fulfilling when it works out. It’s hard work! I am able to write songs as a sort of an antidote, and also as a bit of a secret kind of kick in the ribs to them, saying ‘I’m also a pop star by the way’,” he laughs, “and I will be able to leave this theatre, and sing for people under the age of 30 occasionally!”
He finds the bounty of experience has given him the tools to work faster, too. “You know immediately what’s working and what isn’t, you don’t have the luxury of time to fritter away anymore, you have to pick up the kid at school at a certain point, and you have to get your beauty rest, so time becomes more precise and distilled, and you have to take advantage of that,” he reasons. “Necessity is the mother of invention. With this album there’s a direct quality or insistence that it emanates because everything has to be there, there’s no choice, I couldn’t philosophise, I had to just do it. That gives it a realness.”
That realness extends to the album’s subject matter. While his earlier works have variously referenced literary and classical figures, and his most recent recorded work was his spin on Shakespeare’s sonnets featuring such household names as the late Carrie Fisher, Helena Bonham-Carter, William Shatner and Florence Welch, Unfollow The Rules finds space for songs like Peaceful Afternoon, on which he croons to his husband Jörn Weisbrodt: “It’s coming on to 13 years together babe, I pray that it’s a lucky number.” And he finds humour in the everyday: “Between sex and death and trying to keep the kitchen clean…” Is he struggling to find a cleaner? “Well, we have one once every two weeks, but I have a German husband, so have no real need of a cleaner,” he laughs. “I am decidedly Irish in my house skills, so keeping the kitchen clean is very symbolic of our marriage, and that’s kind of my job – he does everything else.” The contentment with domestic bliss is palpable, especially in the line “I pray that your face is the last I see/ On a peaceful afternoon /Leaving the living room.”
“You have to pick up the kid at school at a certain point, and you have to get your beauty rest, so time becomes more precise and distilled… Necessity is the mother of invention” – Rufus Wainwright
It’s one of many characteristically exquisite lines on the album, and Wainwright derives particular satisfaction when he knows he’s created lyrics that work. “For me the most important aspects are the lyrics in the sense that the music kind of spouts out of me non-stop. I have this annoying condition where I think of everything in terms of musical moments, and it’s a great gift, but it can also be a bit tortuous, in terms of, can someone just turn down the volume for a second? But that being said, I then have to write the lyrics, and that’s a much more arduous, concentrated exercise, weighing a lot of elements that don’t necessarily come to me naturally. I’ve worked very hard on this record, in terms of the lyrics, and I am willing to say at this point that it’s my favourite so far in terms of that discipline, I think I’ve put in some good lines.”
Further such lines offer glimpses into his touring pop star life, lest things get a little too everyday, not least on the rather cheeky This One’s For The Ladies… That LUNGE! It seems that there’s a story to tell there. “I hope that’s a song that doesn’t insult a core element of my fanbase,” he begins carefully. “I have been blessed with the attentions of ladies of a certain age, who regard me as both their lover and their son – their grandson, in certain cases – and kinda go wild for me and follow me around, especially in England, and it’s been an amazing experience. My husband adores it because they’re not really a threat sexually, so it’s all very above the belt, but that being said, there have been incidences where their undying devotion is just a little… intense for an afternoon in Bexhill. And that’s when that song came to me, it’s a bit tongue in cheek, and I’m playing with them, but I think there’s also something very moving about that too. I have no qualms being loved by middle aged women.”
Wainwright’s idyll these days is very far removed from the domain of Sussex matriarchs. The Hollywood Hills district of Laurel Canyon, set between West Hollywood, Studio City and a stone’s throw from the plentiful ritz of Bel Air, is a decidedly great place for a musician, replete as it is with its own musical history. The iconic figure of Joni Mitchell heads a who’s who of ‘60s and ‘70s American rock, with the Canyon’s resident characters including such as Carole King, Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson and Frank Zappa. Yet it transpires that Wainwright was, until quite recently, not especially aware of Mitchell. “She was a figure who was kind of taboo in my house growing up,” he recalls. “My mom, who was Canadian, was a real purist in terms of folk music, she only really accepted those who maintained a stoic sensibility in terms of where folk music comes from. She was a Pete Seeger-ite, although she liked Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones too, but for her Joni Mitchell was an aberration. She was also very jealous of her success and her glamorous persona, so we really didn’t listen to her at all.”
It was only years later that her canon came to his attention when his husband Jörn became a serious Mitchell fanatic. “He brought me along on that journey, and it was a real discovery for me to really get into her material and sing it, and subsequently meet and hang out with her. Damsel In Distress is a reflection of that experience. I didn’t purposely write it as an homage to her – she’s not the damsel in distress! – but nonetheless the chord changes and the spirit it engenders is rooted in her tradition.” As for who the damsel of the song is, “It’s a bit of a private matter, a friend,” he says. “On this road especially when you hit your 40s you start to view the casualties in life in terms of friendships and also, sadly, in terms of real deaths. With this album, and Damsel In Distress is a good example, I’m starting to comment on the downside of human existence, having people in your life that you don’t necessarily get along with. I’ve been someone who has always gravitated towards the prickly and spiney – and spineless! – elements of life and, thankfully, I can write about it.”
As a fluent French speaker with joint Canadian-American citizenship and a German husband, Wainwright had a range of options available to him when deciding where he might base himself, so the story of why he opted for Los Angeles bears telling. It transpires the move was the result of some sage advice from an unexpected quarter. “I was on a very lavish ship with Chrissie Hynde (of The Pretenders) and we started talking about my life, and at the end of the conversation she said, ‘Rufus, you have a child that lives in Los Angeles, you need to move to LA, you have no choice!’ And subsequently I did that. I have help, in the sense that we can cover for each other when we have Viva. I don’t have her as much as her mother because I have to tour, and I need to carve out these moments when I can go off, and Lorca very generously works around my schedule to allow me to have quality time with her. It’s not easy in terms of figuring out the scheduling and stuff, but what can I say? I was brought up in the ‘70s, my parents were musicians, it was such a different universe back then, and I am now technically spending 75% more time on my child than was ever spent on me. You do the best you can.”
Back in 2007, the Release The Stars track Going To A Town featured the line “I’m so tired of you America”. But with Wainwright now calling Los Angeles home – and in the time of Donald Trump – has he reconciled himself to the USA for better or for worse? “It is worse,” he says. “But I strongly believe that a lot of the issues that have arisen and that we are coming to terms with have always been there. Even though it’s brutal at the moment, it is also a time when people are facing these mammoth questions, and to actually live there now is the time to do it, as we have to make a decision on this year, with this (presidential) election. And if Trump wins, I don’t think it’s only the end of America, I think it’s the end of the world as we know it, I really do, and now to be in America on the front lines of that…” he tails off, letting the enormity of everything that hinges on November’s result hang in the air.
“I think everybody should move to America, and move to the Mid West, the whole world should move to Wisconsin!” he rejoins, doing his best – again – to find a positive spin. But apart from such fanciful timelines somehow coming to pass, can he see any tangible positives, or indeed any way forward? “I think it’s a disaster that Trump won, but there’s also an argument that goes, if Hillary Clinton had won we wouldn’t be dealing with half the things we have to face at the moment, because they would be candy coated. I was a big supporter of Hillary, and I’m sad she lost, but this is so depressing and sick it’s also a great opportunity to get better fundamentally, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” Surely Wainwright speaks truth here, for taking any opportunity to do the best we can to make things better is all any of us can do, and it’s no coincidence that Unfollow The Rules confirms its creator has, rules or not, done his very best with his art.
Rufus Wainwright’s album Unfollow The Rules is out now through BMG. Tour dates and further information can be found at rufuswainwright.com