Over the course of his nearly three-decade career, Rufus Wainwright has evolved into one of the most sophisticated songwriters of his generation, as well as a singularly versatile performer. From the Tin Pan Alley inflections of his early work, to a live recreation of Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall, to the two operas he has composed, Wainwright has proven to possess an eclectic breadth of skills quite unlike anyone else’s. His latest and tenth studio album, Unfollow the Rules, builds upon the complex vocalization and lush arrangements that have defined his catalog, but with a new wisdom and depth that speak to his forty-seven years on Earth.
Wainwright comes from a family of musicians: his mother was the late Kate McGarrigle, his father is Loudon Wainwright III, and his sister is Martha Wainwright, who, in addition to her own solo career, frequently appears on his albums. Wainwright married his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, in 2012, and their daughter, Viva, was conceived with Lorca Cohen, daughter of legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.
An ardent listener of Wainwright’s from the beginning (I interviewed him for my college newspaper almost twenty years ago) I approached this new album with a giddiness that would be familiar to anyone who has connected with his work throughout the years. I spoke with Wainwright over Zoom on two separate occasions in July, a time of intense reflection and uncertainty amid the pandemic and the protests occurring across the country. As expected, he was earnest and eloquent, his responses echoing the copious wit found within his lyrics.
Rufus Wainwright Hello.
Rakesh Satyal Hello! So where are you now?
RW I’m in Los Angeles.
RS How have you been dealing with the pandemic?
RW I can’t complain, we’ve been in good health. We have a nice home, and the weather’s been great. But the pandemic is depressing. We worked pretty hard in California at containing the virus for a couple of months early on, but that doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect. But onward!
RS That ambivalence makes me think of your song “California.” Do you still feel that way about the state?
RW I’ve always had a kind of love/hate relationship with this place. Some of the most wonderful things have come out of here, and some of the lamest things as well. So it’s a double-edged sword. But regardless of what happens in California—fires, earthquakes, or anything else—I always feel welcome, as I did many, many years ago when I first arrived here.
RS People seem to have a great deal of nostalgia for the early aughts right now. You were such a big part of the New York scene at that time, and your journey of addiction and recovery is tied to that time period. Thinking back twenty years ago to what New York was and what was going on—is that something you directly engage with in your work now?
RW Very much so. I am not a Hindu in any way—
RS That makes one of us. (laughter)
RW But I do subscribe to this concept that a human being is composed of many beings, or many souls. We are not this kind of monolithic structure. The older I get, the more I look back and see all these different branches from this tree that I’ve created, and I can meander for a little while among the old Rufus forms. And New York, sadly, just physically, that world isn’t there anymore. New York is nowhere and nothing like it was when I lived there. But I am a dreamer and I often dream of the dreams I’ve already lived. (laughter)
RS Is that idea of inhabiting different forms and different people the reason there has been more layering of vocals in your work over time?
RW When I began my career as a songwriter, I wouldn’t say I arrived fully formed, but I was definitely on a very tense track and worked hard to create something solid and durable. I don’t think my voice was necessarily all there yet. I was still discovering my instrument. It’s really only now, after performing the Judy Garland concert at Carnegie, after doing opera and the Shakespeare sonnets, that I feel like my voice has finally matured to where it should be. A lot of that has to do with just having lived, having experienced death and tragedy and love and excitement. Once you’re past a certain age, the voice is imbued with something that adds much deeper colors to the work.
RS I think your new album, Unfollow the Rules, has the most impressive vocal work you’ve ever done.
RW Oh, that’s very sweet. I’m less tortured in terms of my singing, meaning I work as hard as before, but there’s now a facility to my voice that can tap into the various feelings I have, whether it’s happiness or sadness.
RS In the opening track, “Trouble in Paradise,” you sing “You see me there, my hair / A solid steel bob / But all you see is in fact just the armor,” and a recurring line is “there’s always trouble in paradise.” In the music video you perform the song in drag, as Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
RW Originally the song was written with Anna Wintour in mind. It was from a musical I was going to do with my friends Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, two fashion designers from Amsterdam. The musical didn’t happen, but the song remained. Anyway, time went on, and it’s ironic that Anna Wintour is in the news quite a bit now. I think she’s having a comeuppance. But I won’t get too much into that.
I try to imbue most of the songs I write with a versatile function and to be somewhat vague, so that they can take on meanings of their own in different periods. When we recorded “Trouble in Paradise,” there were a lot of wildfires in California and that came into play. I think one can argue that the Trump era is a kind of backlash to a false sensibility that we had during the Obama years, when we thought we were in paradise. Now we know that we weren’t.
RS When you mention Trump’s America, it makes me think of “You Ain’t Big.” I know there’s a music-business angle to that song, but you also name five red-state places. There is a kind of country-music, honky-tonk approach to how you address the moment we’re in and the divisions in our country currently.
RW I had written that song many years ago as a playful ditty about the strange fact that being big in the music business should—it has to—include being big in Middle America. But now, releasing the song amid the Black Lives Matter movement, the election coming up, and this fight for the soul of America, the song has taken on a darker, more cynical shade.
RS “Only the People That Love” has to be one of the most optimistic songs you’ve written, especially considering what’s happening and how many people are in despair right now. You sing: “Only the people that love may dream / In the world of the silent scream” and
Only the people that love may cry
And the world of eternal goodbye
Everyone else outta just die
Gotta love die, cause love dies.
RW It’s an optimistic song, but there’s a brutality to its idea that all those who don’t love should die. (laughter) Unfortunately, with the Republican Party at the moment, it’s just astounding how a group of people could facilitate such a monster and such monstrous behavior and such lack of responsibility. I believe one-hundred percent that love will save the day in the end. We have to grasp on to that and believe in it no matter what.
RS I assume that outlook has been informed a great deal by your family. You’ve mentioned you want to include a song about your husband and one about your daughter on every album.
RW Yes, yes.
RS For many of us, the idea of a same-sex marriage and family unit seemed impossible when we were growing up. Did that experience inform the way in which you wrote these songs?
RW For most of my youth—and even a big part of my adulthood—I never expected to have a child or be married and living together in a house, with a dog. So it’s really something that I am adapting to and coming to terms with and very much profiting from, after a few surrenders here and there. (laughter)
RS I think some people compartmentalize when they start a family. They believe they’ve grown up and became another person—as if they’re now living a separate life. But it seems important to you to link those lives, that in fact you’ve evolved into this family man.
RW I feel it would be a dangerous thing for me to say, “Oh, I’m a family man now, and my whole past is the past, and I’ve changed, and let’s not remember the way things were.” Because the minute you treat one of your past selves as finished, it will rebel. (laughter)
RS What did you learn from your family while growing up, and what are the lessons you want your daughter to be learning right now?
RW Well, sadly, my mother passed away. But my dad, who is very much alive, and with whom I have a… how can I say this? We have a diplomatic relationship. We really admire each other. We’re fans. We don’t spend a tremendous amount of time together, and our relationship can explode at times; it can get slightly fraught occasionally, so we have to be careful. Anyway, what I’ve found to be helpful as a father myself is that some of the frustrations I might encounter with my dad, I’m now able to translate into something I should look out for when I’m talking to my own kid. Instead of wanting him to be a different person, I can say, “Look, this makes me upset or uncomfortable. And I’m just going to note that, and I will keep that in mind in terms of how I treat Viva, my daughter.” I think it’s important for parents to remember how they felt when they were kids and try to reckon things through that process.
RS What are some of the things you don’t want to pass on to your daughter?
RW Oh, just things. My dad can be very matter-of-fact. He’s a real no-nonsense person. Real “American male,” you know. A typical WASP-y dad. Which is a troubling figure in general, especially in this day and age. He feels like he’s gotta “tell the truth about what’s going on.” Kids are so savvy now, it’s easy to forget that their brains aren’t fully formed. They still see in black-and-white terms. They can’t really comprehend certain subtleties right away. So it’s a matter of being more delicate and more compassionate with your children.
RS Does it feel that you now have an additional pair of eyes to write your songs with because you’re able to see the world also through your daughter’s eyes?
RW Definitely. I certainly used that method for this album. I mean, I stole the title of the record from her! “Unfollow the rules” was something my daughter said. So no matter what I say, the evidence is plain.
My daughter has such an incredible legacy, whether it’s on my side or Cora, her mother’s side—being Leonard Cohen’s granddaughter. The bar for her is fairly high, when you factor in the entire cast of characters. So if anything, I want her to admire me as much as all the other great songwriters in her life, who are pretty formidable. So far I’m her favorite but that might have something to do with me being her father. (laughter)
RS I want to go back to your vocal work on this album. You’ve actually expanded your range over time, which is not something that typically happens in pop music. Your lower register has deepened a bit, but your upper register is so palpable. Did writing an opera and hearing all these great voices influence the way you sing?
RW Hanging out with opera singers for years has rubbed off. Because of my great love for opera—which started a while ago—I essentially modeled my vocal trajectory on that of an opera singer. Even though I didn’t sing that material or learn that technique per se, I had that mindset. Of course, in opera it’s really in your late thirties and your forties when you hit your stride, when you sing the big roles—especially in grand opera with Verdi and Wagner and stuff.
My father is an amazing singer to this day, and my mother had a great voice until the end, so a part of it is also genetic. I’m very blessed. (laughter) And I don’t drink anymore. That helps. And when I don’t drink, I don’t smoke much either. I’m reaping the benefits.
RS Your sister’s background vocals on “Devils & Angels (Hatred)” are also so singular and memorable. How did you decide to use her on that song in particular?
RW Well, I pretty much use her in every record I do. For me, Martha’s presence is like bringing in the big guns, you know? That song packs a punch and it needed to be as vitriolic as possible, and nobody does that quite as well as Martha.
RS There’s a very meta line in “Romantical Man,” which is “And the classical critics can’t stand a melody / I only ask what brought you to the opera firstly.”
RW Yeah. (laughter)
RS Did writing an opera—and dealing with the critics you mention in the song—change the way you think about song structure?
RW I would actually say no. I’ve been a big opera fan for many, many years. So I’ve really investigated the similarities and differences between popular music and opera for a long time. In fact, arguably, that kind of dichotomy is the basis of my material. Lately I’ve been more interested in going back to popular songwriting. Moving to Laurel Canyon and thinking about Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Randy Newman and deepening my knowledge of what’s popular has been a new education for me.
RS Your song “This One’s for the Ladies (THAT LUNGE!)” has a pejorative angle to it. It’s about a mother leaving her family behind, and there’s a psychedelic tinge to the music that makes it sound like a fantasy. In the following track, “My Little You,” you switch from the mother to the child having their own agency. I know this is a bit about the passing of your mother and then having a daughter and the challenges that’s posed. Those experiences are a really emotional one-two punch to go through.
RW “Ladies (THAT LUNGE!)” came purely out of a fear-based awe of my life at that point. (laughter) I’d been on a long tour, and I was in this English seaside town, and I had these ravenous fans whom I adore and who had followed me all over the world. I was shocked that they still had all this energy while I was so spent. I wrote that song as a playful jab at them, and as an acknowledgment of their supreme power. So it’s an homage in the end, but a tongue-in-cheek one.
There is a version of “My Little You” with many more verses and a bridge and more of a journey, but I actually lost the demo—
RS Oh, my gosh.
RW Nobody knows where it is. So that song shrunk into a much smaller piece, which I think makes it more poignant. It’s really great for the album to have a moment that’s intimate and personal and touching, about a father and daughter, just with the piano. But one day, the larger version will be discovered somewhere.
RS Your music has been such a balm to listeners throughout the years, and the past few years have been incredibly difficult. I’m curious how you see the musician’s role in the future.
RW First and foremost, I think everybody has to go out and vote and do whatever they can to get rid of this government in the US—and there’s a few other countries that could use that same idea. For me personally, I’d like to put my music toward that cause as well. I’d love to continue working hard on lyrics. Especially since the death of Leonard Cohen, I’ve felt very strongly that there is this anemic quality to a lot of the lyrics out there. There are amazing producers, there’s amazing sound, there are people with incredible voices. But where are the lyrics? So I want to throw down that gauntlet and have people join the challenge and the tradition of Leonard’s legacy.
RS Since you have this proximity to Leonard Cohen’s family and his work, how do you see his legacy as a songwriter?
RW Leonard was able to translate poetry into song. On the surface that might seem like a simplistic concept, but in truth it isn’t because poems are vastly different from lyrics. And what’s fascinating about his work is that he was able to marry the two very distinct genres of lyric writing and poetry into one entity, and then his music was able to frame it perfectly. I think, if anything, he’ll go down as one of the great craftsmen of songwriting that ever was. I mean, I love Bob Dylan, and I love Joni Mitchell. Did Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize?
RS That’s right.
RW I think it should have been Leonard. (laughter) He truly was a poet. There are very few songwriters who can fuse being poets and songwriters, and there aren’t many who’ve done it as well as he has. Him and Thomas Moore.
RS The dynamic duo. (laughter)
My husband and I went to this random piano bar on the east side of Manhattan and the pianist had his sheet of songs he could play. I went up to sing something, and I was wonderfully surprised that one of the songs he had on there was “Foolish Love.”
RW Oh, nice.
RS As I sang in this loud piano bar I realized how well-built a song it is. I’d like to hear how you construct and produce your music. You forge your songs very carefully, and then they become something else when you add all these production elements to them. But if you strip your songs down to their bare essentials, they still hold up.
RW I write the songs and then, when the time comes to produce them, there’s one of two things that can occur. Either I’m totally dead-set and visionary in my approach and have a complete, fully-formed idea of what the song will end up being. Or I have no idea. And then I’m completely lost, and I’m just sort of shooting in the dark.
The nitty gritty of recording, putting in harmonies, hiring musicians—I kind of block that out in a lot of ways. I don’t remember much of the production process per se; but it is this strange mystery that happens. “Foolish Love” was one song where I knew exactly what it needed to sound like, so that’s what we went out and got. I’m not sure how we got it, but we did.
RS When we think of your music, we think of your distinctive voice, but how does piano-playing factor into how you do your work?
RW The piano has always been a very tormented feature in my life. (laughter) On one hand, I adore playing piano more than anything else. On the other hand, it frightens me more than anything else because I have such respect for it. Many years ago, I did the All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu tour, which was just me alone at the piano. To this day, I consider that one of my greatest accomplishments—playing Carnegie Hall solo and getting through that concert.
I think I’m okay. I have a sense of musicality and so forth, and I have a good touch. I’m highly flawed as well. I use way too much pedal. And I’m probably too loud sometimes. So I’m not a perfect pianist. I will say that one of the main features of this whole experience with the pandemic has been the ability to really practice. I can actually get up in the morning and play for several hours and dig into some of those kinks that have developed over the years. So it’s been a great opportunity to try to face the piano again.
RS When people describe your music—which I’ve been doing since I was seventeen, when I bought your first record—they talk about the interdisciplinary nature of it and the fact that it’s kind of all-encompassing. How do you describe your music?
RW I would have to say that it’s kind of cinematic—in the sense that it’s meant to whisk you through a fully formed idea. I mean, I want it to be all-encompassing, as only a great film can be, where you’re totally engaged. I would also say that at the crux of my songwriting—and this is not uncommon with a lot of writers, especially classical writers—is this connection between folk music and lieder. You know, like in Franz Schubert or Gabriel Fauré, I want to have a very sophisticated concept and take the listener to these other places. But I also want to be rooted in the earth and be connected to the ancients somehow. So it’s… Yeah, it’s something like that.
RS You have a tendency to narrativize your life journey in your songs. You’ve gone through various distinct periods and have been in many different places, so it seems like you’re always moving and striving toward something.
RW I’ve, shall we say, journeyed through life in various forms, whether it’s as a composer, a singer, an occasional activist, a father, all of these different things. And I tend to engage holistically in that process as it’s occurring—I go all the way. What’s nice with this album is that it does frame or bookend a longer, more projected view. Starting with my first album in 1998, you can see this journey I’ve been on over the years, but there’s more context to it now. We’ll see what happens with the pandemic first, but I’m getting ready to take off again.