Rufus Wainwright

Photo by V. Tony Hauser

Rufus Wainwright gets back to pop, slams mainstream apathy

The singer-songwriter spoke to us about protest music, family concerts and how his forthcoming LP is an end and a beginning.

Unfollow the Rules is an end and a beginning for Rufus Wainwright. Produced by Mitchell Froom (Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel) at a succession of legendary Los Angeles studios, Wainwright’s ninth album is his first stab at pop music in 12 years, an emotionally complex and sometimes sonically decadent set of a dozen songs that book-ends his 1998 debut and perhaps points the way forward.

I spoke to Rufus Wainwright well before the COVID-19 pandemic came to North America. (He’s since become one of the many musicians streaming live performances from home since mid-March.) It was a snowy day in early February, the morning after he and his sister Martha and other family members performed a tribute to their late mother Kate McGarrigle in their hometown, at Place des Arts…

Rufus Wainwright: I’m enjoying the picture-postcard winter weather. It’s very charming for me ’cause we live in L.A. now. But I know that’s not the case when you’re in the middle of it. It reminds me that it can be quite beautiful.

Lorraine Carpenter: How was last night’s show?

RW: It was great. It was very heartfelt. There were certainly moments of brilliance, and in McGarrigle fashion, it was incredibly human as well. We’ve never liked things too polished on this side of the family. For the audience, it’s quite disarming in the sense that you’re kind of transported from a concert hall into a living room, with all the ups and downs that that entails.

LC: Outside of the reunion aspect of these events, what do these family shows — like the annual Christmas concerts — achieve for you?

RW: The Christmas shows have a very fundamental purpose in terms of raising money for cancer research and also for the Kate McGarrigle Foundation. We’ve created grants for artists struggling with cancer to record music, so that continues her legacy. It’s multifaceted, but it certainly feels good having Kate’s repertoire to lean on and her legacy and really the enduring spirit that she left behind that a lot of people still are affected by.

20th anniversary boy

LC: The new album is being presented as a book-end to your debut album — what does that mean exactly?

RW: As you get older, different esoteric subjects creep into your life, and one of them for me, oddly enough, is numerology. I mean I don’t follow it truly, but I do think that there are these anniversaries that pop up and you just notice strange coincidences involving numbers. The 20-year mark has been very effective as a goalpost of where I’ve been and reviewing that and therefore knowing where I wanna go in the future. 

While making this album, I also toured my first two albums as a 20th anniversary celebration, so my mindset was properly engaged in this concept of memorializing a period. By the same token, I’m 46 years old, I’m in very good health and I do feel I have this next chapter to inhabit. Part of referring to the past is so that you can kind of discard it and move on to the future, so that’s where we will be after this album cycle. I’d like to do something completely different, completely unexpected, something unusual and surprising, which I intend to come up with (laughs).

It really is a myth that when you start off your career and you’re young and vibrant and attractive and energized, that that’s when the profound things happen; that’s when you’re on fire and you can express this full blown songwriting capability. I’m now feeling that only at this point am I really getting into my stride as a songwriter, and as a singer especially. I’ve really worked hard on my voice over the last 20 years, to refine it, and I think that now I’m at my zenith. Certainly experiences like marriage and having children and death and aging and seeing the world experience hardship — those are the big experiences, that’s what really gives you depth and meaning.

The kids are boring

It’s funny, the other day there was the Grammys and I didn’t pay much attention to it only because it’s really not that interesting to me what 22-year-olds are going through. I find it rather dull. I don’t think that was always the case. With my parents’ generation, there was a difference in the sense that they were out demonstrating in the streets — and artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell. Even when I was a kid, you had Sinead O’Connor “Black Boys on Mopeds” or Prince doing “Sign O the Times” or even Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” — it’s an anthem for women’s lib.

In mainstream culture there’s an apathy in the material. Singers aren’t singing about the state of the planet and rappers aren’t rapping about the cops anymore, they’re writing about getting a Mercedes. A lot of the younger generation are engaged in other ways, thanks to people like Greta — but artistically, it’s a little thin. That’s what I’m waiting for.

LC: Especially considering that you’re living in the U.S., do you find that the constant negativity in American politics resonates in your songwriting?

RW: It does. About half a year ago, I released a song called “Sword of Damocles,” which was very much my response to what was going on in the government. It sort of shadowed the impeachment trial. On this album, the song “Hatred” could definitely be translated as a tool and a map for what we have in store, which is a serious war and a clash in society. (The album’s title track) “Unfollow the Rules,” in a lot of ways, is about getting deep into the perceived pathways of existence and really trying to figure out what that means and what it’s for.

Sacred music-spaces

LC: I read that the making of Unfollow the Rules was also something of a retracing of your steps from the first record.

RW: When I made my first record, I was given the keys to the castle in a lot of ways. I was able to work in these incredible studios for long periods of time with these great musicians and amazing engineers and so forth. And it wasn’t so much that I took it for granted, but I just didn’t know what was going on.

That was another era, when record companies were willing to dish out big budgets, but now we live in a very different period. I thought it would be great to revisit a lot of those same places, a lot of those same areas, a lot of those same musicians and some new ones, but with a more economical mindset and a sense of appreciation for the heritage of Los Angeles and its recording history.

When we were working at Sound City in the Valley, I mean that’s where Nevermind was made, that’s where Fleetwood Mac did Rumors. Later I went to OceanWest, where Pet Sounds was made. I mean all of that was a bit of a gimmick when it started out 20 years ago, but now it’s actually a profound, iconic, sacred space that I wanted to inhabit. Especially because that generation is going away, and they were amazing. ■

Unfollow the Rules by Rufus Wainwright will be released by BMG on July 10 (postponed from April 24).

Rufus Wainwright website.

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