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Rufus Wainwright: No Rules to Follow

Releasing his first album of original material since 2012, Rufus Wainwright discusses performing from home, maturity, and his return to pop music.

When Rufus Wainwright released his seventh album, Out of The Game, in 2012, most fans would likely have expected it wouldn’t be too long before the acclaimed baroque pop artist returned with another record. Fast forward to 2020, and it turned out that the previous record’s title seemed to serve as an unexpected announcement of the coming eight years.

One of his most commercially successful albums to date, it was set to be one of Wainwright’s last records of “traditional” pop music for close to a decade, with the artist embarking on something of a self-imposed exile from the genre.

Months after its release, Wainwright married husband Jörn Weisbrodt, and then in 2015, his next release was a recording of his 2009 opera Prima Donna. Seven months later, he followed it up with Take All My Love, a collaborative record which featured interpretations of nine Shakespearian sonnets.

In 2018, the musical chameleon set his sights to the world of opera once again, with his latest compositions – Hadrian – premiering by the Canadian Opera Company.

Following these years out of the game in the traditional sense, Wainwright officially re-emerged into the pop world in 2019 with “Trouble in Paradise”, the opening track from his new record, Unfollow the Rules. Originally set to be released in April, the current COVID-19 pandemic not only pushed back the album, but inspired Wainwright to interact with his dedicated fans by way of a daily “Quarantunes” series from his home.

A return to his traditional sound, Unfollow the Rules sees the 46-year-old going against the grain as he takes stock of his maturity, the place he occupies in the world of music, and the “aspects of [his] life which have made [him] a seasoned male artist”.

With the record officially out today, Rolling Stone Australia spoke to Wainwright from his home to discuss quarantine and the release of his first album of original material in eight years.

I feel I should begin by asking how you’ve been coping with everything that’s been going on in the world?
I am, by nature, an optimist so I’ve been really counting my blessings and focusing on areas that needed attention before the pandemic. Things like practicing my piano, drawing, and writing more things, and orchestrating stuff. So I’ve been working a lot, and I would say that it’s a great period to rest up and get ready for the election, of course. Y’know, it’s a huge year here, and we have to get rid of Donald Trump. So I think it’s all meant to be, for better and for worse.

When everything began a few months back, you were one of the first artists to really connect with fans through this time with your daily “Quarantunes” series. What inspired these daily performances?
It was just a total natural transition. I mean, every morning I get up, put on my robe, and play my piano for a couple of hours, and my husband – starting about a year ago – began to capture these little moments and post them and people enjoyed it. Then when the quarantine was in place and everybody had to be home, it was like a no-brainer. Like, “Let’s just do this every day and be part of the solution”, I guess. Nobody was solving any problems upstairs [laughs], so it was just a way of doing what we could do to help out.

I assume it would’ve helped tide fans over who were waiting for new music, as well?
Yeah… I don’t know, it was a good idea on many, many fronts, and one of the main ones being that I really got to go over my repertoire and practice some pieces that needed some dusting, shall we say. I’m happy that I did that.

Unfollow the Rules is finally out this week as well, months after it was first set for release. Are you feeling excited to finally get it out in the world?
I’m very excited, I mean, I’m incredibly proud of all the musicians I worked with to both make the album and to promote it – because I have a wonderful band who eventually you’ll get to hear, and see when we go back on the road. But we’ve been doing streams and radio and stuff like that. Also my husband, who is my manager as well, he’s been working very hard to just get the word out and garner the support needed to have an effect. I mean, I’m a little worried – without touring – if the record will do as well as it would’ve done. But on the other hand, I don’t know, there’s something in the air concerning this album.

That’s the thing though, with nothing for a lot of people to focus their attention on, an album like this comes just at the right time.
The original release date was in April and there was a real debate about just that. Like, “Should we just put this out regardless since people will need it?” But I think we made the right decision in waiting a while, because the infrastructure at that point in April was not sufficient to really guarantee anything. Whereas now, there is some kind of rhythm in terms of helping get things out there. But it is time now, to me.

Have you found yourself looking back at it and thinking of things you could’ve done differently? Or have you not revisited it since the whole production process wrapped up?
No, I very rarely – in fact, never – go back to my albums and critique them in that way; I like to move forward. The only project I’ve ever really looked back at, and tried to improve on in the future, is the Judy Garland concert, which I do kind of every ten years. But that’s the only one, otherwise once I’ve finished it, it’s perfect [laughs].

The album’s also quite special because it’s your first album of original material since 2012. You’ve obviously been busy in recent years, but what was it that made you decide it was time to go ‘back to the basics’?
I’d had a pretty amazing sabbatical from the pop world, and had the chance to go out and really dive into the opera world, and deepen my understanding of that universe. Luckily, I made some kind of dent because I have other commissions that now I can work on again, and they’re planning on doing my first opera in Sweden in September. So it was a successful venture. I didn’t conquer the classical world by any means, but it was a good thread to start. Lo and behold though, I think the other really amazing positive side of that is that I re-fell in love with my “day job”. Having that distance and perspective, I was able to appreciate how special my life is in terms of being a songwriter, a touring musician, and someone who really gets to express themselves all over the world, to all types of people, and get paid for it.

When you did decide to get back into the world of pop after so many years away, was it at all daunting to get back into that sort of sound again?
Not with the help of Mitchell Froom, my producer. I work a tonne on my albums, and any producer I’ve worked with could attest that I’m a constant figure in the studio, and I’m very engaged and creatively involved. But that being said, I’ve also leaned heavily on my producers; I really do expect them to deliver the product and really ferry me through the process. Mitchell has been the best at that so far. I never got worried about the outcomes of things, and he paid very close attention to the budget, which was incredible, and the album still sounds very lavish and expensive, even though it was only a fraction of the cost of some of my other work. There’s something nice in that – it gives the whole thing a very lean quality, which is very appropriate right now only.

It also gives the album much more of an intimate quality as well.
Yeah, that’s right.

In the album’s announcement, you were quoted as saying you wanted this album to “symbolise is a coming together of all the aspects of my life which have made me a seasoned male artist”. Do you feel a responsibility to become more mature in your work as you get older, or is it more of a mindset you now have access to?
Well, it just happens. You get older, and hopefully you mature well. But judging by President Trump, that’s not always the case. So I suppose I should pat myself on the back a little bit for having tried to direct the ship in a decent direction. But that being said, I don’t know, I was always very cognisant – and this is also something I owe to the opera world – that as you get older, you should get wiser, and you should get deeper, and have more weight – not only around the waistline [laughs]. So that was always my intention when I began the process, was to play the long game, and that seems to have paid off.

You’ve also noted that artists such as Leonard Cohen, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Simon all hit their stride in their ‘40s. Are these all artists who you’ve admired over the years?
Yeah, some of them I’ve known, some of them I sadly never met. But yeah, there’s a phenomenon that occurs, especially with male artists in their 40s, they kind of hook into this positive masculine energy, ready for that last big battle [laughs].

Rufus Wainwright’s Unfollow the Rules is officially released today.