Home Music Music Lists

Rufus Wainwright: My Life in 15 Songs

The singer-songwriter looks back at his life in music, from “Foolish Love” and “Poses” through his inspired new album, Unfollow the Rules

Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Two years ago, when Rufus Wainwright celebrated the 20th anniversary of his debut with a series of tour-de-force concerts, performing the songs that kicked off his career helped him tap into a new creative wellspring. “In order to progress, at this point in my life, it’s good to take stock,” says Wainwright, 46. “See what worked, what didn’t, and how to move forward.”

That self-interrogation ended up yielding Unfollow the Rules, Wainwright’s inspired new album. Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Mitchell Froom, it’s Wainwright’s first unabashedly pop LP since 2012’s Out of the Game, and a reminder of how much fun he can have with a sky-high chorus and a full studio sound. He made the album last year, and it arrives at last on July 10th, after a three-month delay due to the COVID-19 shutdown. (Wainwright used the time off well, performing a series of intimate home concerts in L.A. for his own Instagram followers and for Rolling Stone’s “In My Room.”)

Before the pandemic hit, he came by Rolling Stone’s New York office to reflect on his life in music, as seen through a selection of his greatest songs. “We’re here today to peruse my artistic output,” he says, “and figure out what’s behind the parade.”

Taken together, these songs tell a story with enough drama and beauty for one of Wainwright’s beloved operas. They range from early conflicts with his two singer-songwriter parents, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III (who divorced when Rufus was three); through his own years as a downtown NYC star; through addiction, recovery, and profound loss; up to his present contentment with a marriage and family of his own. Through the years, he’s written songs about all the highs and lows, without ever pulling punches or playing down personal disappointments.

“That’s something I grew up with quite intensely,” Wainwright says of his autobiographical style. “I’d go to my mom’s shows and she’d sing a song about my dad, or vice versa, or a song about me or my sister. They were all imbued with love, all caring songs. Occasionally there were some cheap shots, but mostly they’re very heartfelt homages. It was a circular firing squad of beautiful music.”

Here are 15 of his sharpest shots.

Play video

Hell Gate Media/Shutterstock

“A Woman’s Face” (2016)

Robert Wilson, the theater director, is a big figure in both my life and my husband’s life. We had worked together on a production of Shakespeare’s sonnets for the Berlin Ensemble [in 2009], so I ended up writing all of these pieces of music to Shakespeare’s words. “A Woman’s Face” came to me very quickly in that process. People had warned me that working with Shakespeare is very challenging, and the sonnets especially are tricky. I just listened to what the words were telling me musically. I’ve spent so much time listening to great music — Wagner, Janáček, Messiaen, Mahler — and I was able to commune with those spirits, in a way. That sonnet is one of the great examples of Shakespeare’s insanely modern point of view. It’s about being in love with a boy who looks like a girl. He was so deeply engaged in gender-fluid ideas that seem shockingly new now, toying with it like a baby back in the Renaissance.

“Unfollow the Rules” (2020)

One day our daughter, Viva, walked into the room and said, “Daddy, sometimes I just want to unfollow the rules.” It’s very direct, it makes complete sense, but it also sounds like unfollowing people on Facebook. The song expresses my present state, which is one of reflection, observance, and a little bit of dissection. I’m going back in time and observing all of these decisions that I’ve made, and all of these relationships that I’m in now and in the past, having experienced death and disease, loss and incredible joy, and trying to figure out, what is it that I need to go forward? What do I need to keep? What do I need to discard? What is the essence of my existence?

It’s not an easy period, but it’s a rewarding one, mainly because I still have my health. After dealing with my mother’s death and seeing my father get older… I know that I have a little time before I have to worry about that, knock on wood. But it’s good to get your ducks in order.

For better or worse, I’ve decided to continue this tradition of autobiographical material. I always thought [songwriting] had to be deeply confessional, and I’m happy I went that route, because there’s a truth there. Now that we have a child, I’m concerned sometimes if I’m being a little too poignant, shall we say. But she seems to love it.