An exclusive chat with the second generation songwriting great on his excellent new album and parenting in the Year of Coronavirus
During a year as fraught with trauma as 2020, it’s comforting to reflect back on simpler times.
Luckily, musical polyglot Rufus Wainwright’s new album, Unfollow The Rules, provides just such an opportunity. Developed as an “answer record” of sorts to his critically-acclaimed 1998 debut, Rufus revisits the times, locations, and styles that first made the world fall in love with the Canadian songwriter’s wily charms.
Rufus was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his schedule as a “homeschooling COVID dad” to talk about the new record, his audience’s expectations, and the recovery of music and theater post-pandemic.
I’ve been a fan since the debut – I was running a record store at the time when it came out and it was very refreshing. Unfollow The Rules has a really similar vibe to it. I know that folks have called it kind of a spiritual successor of sorts to your debut, but it’s more rhythmic and also more orchestrated. Did you conceive it specifically as a response to that album or did you realize that as it was evolving?
I think for me all the kind of outer circumstances of my life were screaming, “You have come full circle!” This year, before COVID, I did a 20 20th anniversary tour of my first record and my second record. So I was, you know, immersed in that material. Also, I now live in Hollywood where I used to live before when I made that record. I ended up going to a lot of the same studios and using a lot of same musicians. It very quickly became evident that there was some sort of link occurring here. At a certain point Mitchell Froom, the producer, and I definitely kept it as a sort of talisman through the process where this is the same young doe-eyed, innocent songwriter 20 years later, who’s very different, but also still the same.
What did Mitchell bring to the process that was different than say Jon Brion or Mark Ronson who you’ve previously worked with?
(Laughs) To compare Jon Brion and Mitchell Froom is quite the comparison in my world. I admire Jon Brion profusely – he’s one of the world’s great talents, and I’ve loved his work for so long. That being said, working with him was, how can say this, it was very fraught musically. It worked great, but in other areas it was very difficult. He was a real diva at that period.
You’re not the first person to tell me that.
Yeah. And I had never made an album before, so I was so kind of innocent and naive that I just thought, “Oh, I guess this is the way you’re supposed to be treated, you know?” So I just kinda took it. Anyway, fast forward to Mitchell Froom, who is the most conscientious, upright, and caring producer who, you know, wants both the album to be great and the artist not be plunged into debt for 20 years (laughs). So he pays attention to budgets and time and works with it with just such a positive attitude. It was just great working with him.
Wonderful. He’s done such great work – I’m a fan of his stuff with Crowded House, and I think he’s actually in the band now.
Yeah! And Randy Newman and all of that. He was the perfect match for this project. And if you’re gonna bring it back to the first record, it’s nice to have a happy ending to the process (laughs). Once again, I admire Jon Brion so much, but, wow – that was quite the epic process. We worked on it for about three years.
This is also the first album of original stuff that you’ve done since your daughter was born. Did parenthood impact the way you approached the record?
I mean, I had written some things from my last pop record – the song “Montauk”, which is on Out Of The Game, so she was in the mix at that point as well. But yeah, this one is now far more developed, and I would say that being a dad at this moment is one of the great challenges in the sense that with COVID and having the kids at home all the time and trying to make sense of this disturbing situation we’re in in America. I feel very fortunate to have our daughter, because sometimes it is the kid that starts to teach the adults about how to soldier on and be tough. They always exude a certain resilience.
You’ve always managed to make the political personal and I have to imagine seeing all of this through a nine-year-old’s eyes is both challenging and rewarding.
Yeah, it is. It’s just a blessing to have her around during this dark time. And, also it makes life very simple for us, you know – it’s about what’s best for her. That takes the cake.
Similarly, you’re sober again and I have to imagine that not having addiction as an adversary in your writing process has changed how you write creatively.
I don’t know. Whenever I write, I try not to make too much of a distinction, whether I’m drinking or not drinking. When I really get down to the piano and start to do that thing, I like to sort of blank out and then just go into another world. That being said having drugs and alcohol out of my life at the moment certainly improves my ethic and the time that I spend on the writing, you know. I think the other thing too, is that I start to investigate other areas of human existence. So it’s better on the whole, but really whenever I’ve written, no matter what state I’m in, I seem to be able to kind of pull it together. That’s probably why I don’t drink actually, because I know how to pull it together in the end.
VIDEO: Rufus Wainwright performs “Alone Time” on The Late Show with James Corden
That’s as good as any other reasons not to! Because your art jumps around stylistically, do you find that your audience has certain expectations of you or do they go wherever your music takes you?
Well, I think they’re willing to go wherever I want to take them. And I have taken them to some very strange places over the years (laughs). And also some very fascinating ones, you know, between Judy Garland and my family. But I did actually feel over the last few years that there was this real longing from my fan base to return to my own songwriting and my own kind of pop sensibilities. There was a need to get back to that. They were very, very polite and also pleasantly weary (laughs). So I would probably say they were asking for me to go back home to something more comfortable.
You’ve done a lot of work in and around theater. What are your thoughts about the future of Broadway or live theater in general? It’s tough not to be pessimistic right now.
Yeah. I actually do have a lot of hope in that realm, in the sense that theater people have always been under the gun – the arts are a tricky game. And so though it’s harder now and there’s things getting wiped out left and right, we are (as artists and as theater people) siney, shall we say. We’re so driven to perform, regardless of the circumstances that something will arise eventually and there will be kind of a rebirth. So, I’m not so worried about it. If anything, the world of the theater and especially Broadway was getting a little too corporate and a little too kind of fat in the sense that tickets are so expensive and there’s these commercial Broadway shows that seem to be becoming a type of marketing exercise. I think there’s an argument to be made for more of a leanness to that world at the moment. So I’m going to go with that.
Yeah. I agree completely. If I have to hear one more jukebox musical of someone’s hits…it’s not terribly satisfying.
No. And if it’s less people who are going to come to the theater, I think those people who come will be more engaged because it’s what they really want to do – it’s not some kind of alternative to a movie or whatever. And it’ll be hopefully less expensive. I also think that the theater has to interpret what’s happening right now. And there’s certainly a lot going on politically and environmentally and socially. So, there’s a lot of fodder at the moment for great theater. I think it could be actually a very exciting time.
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