Photo by Tony Hauser
Beginnings And Endings With Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright has come home. In the past, the singer/songwriter's taste for decadence has taken him to creative extremes. There was a GRAMMY-nominated Judy Garland tribute concert, staged at Carnegie Hall (and then again at five different historic venues across the world). Two operas, 2009's Prima Donna, and 2018’s Hadrian. And even a brief role in the 2005 film The Aviator (alongside his sister Martha and father Loudon).
But for an artist who named not just one but two albums after the idea of longing, he's now found himself shockingly at peace, not only with the state of his career but also in leaning into life as a husband and father in the Laurel Canyon enclave he calls home. Sure, he's also quick to call himself an old-school artist in the days of rapidly shrinking production budgets. But music is an art that he takes seriously, even if the idea of legacy is something that he’s willing to poke fun at. ("I'm sorry!" he yelps, when I reveal references in his self-titled debut served as my gateway drug to Puccini.)
It's that mental headspace, one mixed with realistic expectations, undeniable decadence, and yes—a sense of humor—that marks his 10th studio album, Unfollow the Rules, his first mainstream release since 2012's Out of the Game. Sure, there's a hint of nostalgia to his baroque piano pop, and lyrics that reference both the diaphanous nature of existence and dirty dishes. But know that Wainwright is already looking ahead, and despite his deep bench of work over the last 20 years, this only marks the end of the end of act one.
Ahead of the release of his new album (out now via BMG), Wainwright spoke with GRAMMY.com about the symbolic nature of returning to Los Angeles, closing the book and the potential for a future en français.
Other than your daily robe recitals, what’s the vibe around your house right now?
We [he and husband Jörn Weisbrodt] share custody of our daughter, our nine-year-old daughter. So, we have a week of kids-centric times and then a week of us-centric time. So, it's actually a nice a nice mixture for us. We're very fortunate.
You lived in L.A. back in the 1990s. What's it like for you coming back at a completely different point in your life?
I made my first albums in Los Angeles, and before that I hung around a lot in New York and didn't really gain a steady footing on the East Coast in terms of what I was trying to do artistically. It was really when I came to L.A. that I found my groove and what I was doing was really understood by the establishment. Because I fell into a tradition of songwriting and record production that is a little more, how shall we say, psychedelic and unusual, and less hard edge than New York. So it worked out really well from the outset, and then I ended up moving back to New York and taking over that city. I had great time there and I still keep an apartment there. But, over the years I've always returned to L.A. and I have a lot of friends here. And this is where my career began. And now that I'm back, I really do consider it my number one spot. I'm very fortunate.
You've talked about moving into your second act. How have you defined that idea?
I started out in a period that even back then was on its way out. In the sense, I was one of the last real kind of major label-signed unusual artists. So, there was a lot of attention, and a lot of money and a lot of time lavished to create what I wanted to do. And, and I think in the end of the day, it was worth the effort. You know, I made great music. But that being said, it's a kind of a sensibility that does not exist anymore, mainly because the record business has changed dramatically. But now in returning to L.A., I'm sort of harkening back to that moment. I wouldn't say that this is a second act, I would say it's the end of the first act. Meaning that this is a bookend to my first record. And now I'm ready to start the second act with something completely new and different.
I love the way you've unpacked this. I feel like a lot of times in pop culture, artists get saddled with the midlife crisis card, which feels unfair.
What very helpful for me is that I'm a big opera fan. I've written two operas. And I intend on writing another one. In terms of working in that world, you become very aware quickly, that it's only in your 40s that you really flourish, especially as an opera singer. There's a whole slew of credible roles that you can't really sing if you're in your 30s, because you just don't have the weight and the gravity and tenacity that someone in their 40s has. So, I tried to translate a bit of that to my popular work as a musician.
Do you feel like you specifically brought some of that ethos back to Unfollow the Rules?
Unwittingly for sure. I never try to have the intention of bringing pop to opera, or opera to pop. I feel that the two very different polls. When you're in one, you gotta respect it fully. That being said, I think that naturally things travel with me and to the other genres. This stuff does rub off for sure. I do feel that it's been very valuable for both my pop singing and my opera work to make this journey because you know, the human, the human soul can't help but learn. Especially in this day and age—you have to just go crazy.
Did you give yourself any guidelines or goalposts other than sit down and write?
There were some guidelines in the sense that I wanted to make an old-school kind of L.A. album with session players, strings and beautiful studios and so forth. But we had a fraction of the budget that I had many, many years ago. So, there was much more attention paid on economics. And so, we couldn't be anywhere near as lavish which in a strange way, was a great help to us. Mitchell Froom, the producer, spearheaded this concept and because we didn't have so much time and so much money, we had it had to be great right away. There was a sense of urgency that I think translates into the music.
Is there a nervousness that comes with feeling like you have to nail it?
Recording for me has always been—and this is something that I'm now can comfortably professes—a very natural fit. I have the ability in the studio to kind of let go and see where the music wants to take me. I have been in situations where the track isn't working or there's certain frustrating elements, but in the end, I always seem to enjoy the challenge when that occurs.
Where did this provocative title come from?
My daughter Viva came up with that phrase. One day she walked in and said, "Daddy, I just want to unfollow the rules" and then walked out. She dropped it kind of like a mic. It became a song, and when we were producing the record, I kept asking people different ideas, and shopping different titles, and that one just kept coming around. And so, we decided to go with it in the end. For me, it's a double-edged meaning in the sense that, on a more profound level, it's not about destroying the rules. I'm not an iconoclast. It's about turning around and going backwards and reexamining the path that you took prior to where you are today, and then deciding what you want to do. But then the other side of that, it's a very 21st century expression to unfollow. Now, whether it's Facebook or Instagram, just kind of press a button and everything disappears, which as we know is not what happens.
How much of the track was "For the Ladies" influenced by your female fans?
I always feel like I'm five years old. [Laughs.] So, I lose perspective. Now I've got younger fans than me who I think are like, my mom. And it's not because they look like my mom, but I just always feel like a child. It's like an artistic problem. But it's definitely kind of devoted to female fans who are so enamored of me in so many ways, whether they're like my mother, my sister, my, my grandmother or a real member of the family. They're just 100% devoted and become quite crazy, which of course I adore, and they've been really supportive my career for the whole time.
I know you said you're not an iconoclast, but what a cool position to be in where you mean so much to so many different groups of people.
I try to write different fields and different perspectives. And that's very rare now. Often times you'll listen to a new album and everything's kind of related. This is this similar thread that runs through it. I find slightly dull a lot of the time, because I like every song to be its own kind of universe. And in turn, I think that's given me a very wide variety in my fan base.
If Unfollow the Rules ends an era for you, do you have an inkling of what might be down the road?
There's a lot of projects I'm starting to conceive of. One thing I've always wanted to do is make a French record. And when I say a French record, I don't mean like me singing Edith Piaf songs. But doing something very avant-garde and crazy, and something that 14 year olds would enjoy. I'll suddenly become the French Billie Eilish.