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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

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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.

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“Foolish Love” (1998)

For most people, “Foolish Love” is their first encounter with me, the first song on my first record. That slow opening section is very much a “Welcome to the world of Rufus.” I think it was effective in terms of capturing people’s attention. Even before the record was made, when I was signed to DreamWorks Records by Lenny Waronker, that song was helpful in garnering that prize. After the deal, I was in L.A., and I had to get an attorney. I went to all these attorneys’ offices, and every time, I’d play that song for them, and it always worked.

It’s a good example of the tightrope that I was prepared to walk: this path that’s very modern on the one hand, and very old-fashioned on the other, that I still stumble along. I’ve immersed myself in a wide variety of American material [recently], and one of the artists who has most stuck out for me is Randy Newman — him and Harry Nilsson. When I went to L.A., I was following in their footsteps without even knowing it. The more I look back, the more I realize that I’m an heir to their sensibility.

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“Baby” (1998)

“Baby” is particularly dear to me. It’s the first incarnation of a style of music that sets me aside from everyone — whether it’s Randy Newman or David Bowie or Sufjan Stevens — which is my passion for opera. There’s a sense of drama, a sense of taking a real journey through this unpredictable world that is Wainwright Land. It’s also the most brilliant moment that I had with Van Dyke Parks, who did the incredible string arrangement on that piece. Recording the strings at Capitol Records in L.A. in the Nineties was a real Hollywood moment. I have very fond memories of recording that song.

The other thing about “Baby” is that it talks a lot about drug addiction — not mine, at that point, but someone I cared very deeply for who was struggling with heroin addiction. I was never that into heroin. I mean, I did it, but I was more an uppers kind of person. That’s a thread that comes in and out of my repertoire.

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“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” (2001)

Now we’re onto my addiction. After I made my first record in L.A. and lived in Hollywood for a while, I returned to New York. I had tried to make it in Manhattan previously and failed miserably. My aesthetic was really off in terms of what was going on, which was Jeff Buckley and grunge — this heterosexual, nihilistic, rock-based sensibility, whereas I was this opera-loving dandy gay boy who played the piano. So it fell flat downtown.

Then my first record garnered quite a bit of success, thanks to Rolling Stone, which was very supportive of me. I came back to New York utterly triumphant, and all the naysayers and monsters bowed down. I duly acquiesced and got an apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, where I started writing my next record and immersed myself in New York culture. I was 25, 26, 27 — Saturn return, you know.

“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” is another song about walking a tightrope, but it’s more between having a grand time and losing yourself in the gutter. It really did come from an event where I was incredibly hungover and I got up late in the afternoon. I remember it now: You’re thirsty, you’re hungry, you see chocolate milk and you must have it at all costs. I remember seeing a bottle of it at the store and buying it and gulping it down and immediately feeling sick to my stomach, and grabbing a cigarette and then feeling even worse. It symbolized a lot for me.

That song is the last gasp of decadent behavior and drugs and alcohol, when there’s still a playful quality to it all. I still sing it, so it must have been fun.

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“Poses” (2001)

“Poses” is where I’m facing the hard truth of my decadent behavior, realizing that I’m completely lost and somewhat in danger. It’s like I’m on a lake in the winter, and the ice is getting thinner and thinner, and I can sort of see the fish below the further I walk out towards the middle. “Poses” is when I started to realize the gravity of the situation.

I didn’t write that song about myself. There was a friend of mine, sort of an acquaintance. Someone I was romantically obsessed with, this impossible love. He was pretty much a prostitute, and a drug addict, and gorgeous. I wrote the song about him, but it’s fascinating how little it really is about him at all, and how much it is about myself.

The drugs had started to get harder. My drug of choice was crystal meth. I discovered this deep hole I could crawl into if I wanted to. After I wrote that song, I went on tour, and I had to go to rehab and get my act together. I’m thankful that even though I was doing a lot of drugs and drinking a ton and partying a lot, I always kept it separate from my performing. I can’t play piano when I’m high or drunk or stoned, thankfully. So there was a border that had to be there, but those two worlds were getting closer, and they were getting ready to collide. And I decided to try and not ruin everything.

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“Oh What a World” (2003)

I wrote a lot of Want One in somewhat of a state. I recorded it sober, but some of those songs were from that previous period. Even though I was probably pretty fucked up when I wrote it, “Oh What a World” was about my life as a whole, and something that I still struggle with today — the way I’m constantly traveling, constantly on the move, running away or towards something. It’s a restlessness that my father has. When I wrote that song, I was on the Eurostar from London to Paris, and I did see these guys reading fashion magazines. It was like the whole train became a video, with the French countryside in the background, and certainly arriving in Paris at the end, which is always a dramatic and romantic finale to any train ride. The song came to me in a flash. I needed to record it sober, and it has a sort of crystal clarity to it, which I’m happy about.

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“Go or Go Ahead” (2003)

I mentioned my crystal meth propensity earlier. “Go or Go Ahead” is stone-cold about that battle. I wrote it at the end of a serious comedown in San Francisco. At the end of a very dramatic and worrisome drug episode, I was able to compose a great piece of music. I don’t recommend that, and I don’t know if it was necessary to go through that to get there, but that is what happened, nonetheless. That wasn’t the last time I had issues, and there weren’t other songs like that afterwards, so I think it was a one-shot deal. It’s about going to the limits of your physical and mental abilities with drugs and crashing into the darkness. Thankfully, I was able to come back.

For some reason, my music has often been compared to Jeff Buckley’s, where there’s a kind of lost quality. I knew him a little bit, and I admire him greatly, but I think we’re very different. For me, there’s always some silver lining. I don’t do that on purpose. It’s just part of my nature. The thing about “Go or Go Ahead” in the end is that I do survive that encounter. I’m doing that battle, and I don’t want to go under.

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“Dinner at Eight” (2003)

My dad and I have always had a very tempestuous relationship. We love each other dearly, and we’re so influenced by each other that it’s annoying to both of us, how powerful we are in each other’s lives. We’ve done a lot of work in the meantime to clear the air and focus on our relationship as fathers and sons, which we both are. It’s been a long process. But when my first record came out, the shit hit the fan between us. I was very cocky, very arrogant, which I had to be in order to survive in this business. I had to go out there and conquer, and I think he felt vulnerable and threatened by me.

There was one evening in Shelter Island, New York, of all places. It actually involved Rolling Stone magazine. We had done a photoshoot together and then an interview, and it just didn’t feel good. I was intent on annihilating him, in a sense, which I had some right to feel that way. And he was conflicted. On one hand he was proud of me, but he was afraid of me at the same time. We were these two balls of energy. If you look back at the picture, it’s so evident what’s going on. I had a few drinks afterwards, and I said to him, “Dad, how does it feel to have me bring you back into Rolling Stone?” And he was not happy about that, which is understandable. After that shoot, our relationship crumbled, and we didn’t speak for a long time, and I went and wrote “Dinner at Eight.”

Miraculously, I totally forgot the song. It erased itself from my memory. Then years later, when it came time to do Want One, it returned. I was like, “I think I wrote this song about my dad at one point…” And I demoed it, and everybody agreed that it was pretty spot-on, and it made it onto the record. To this day, it remains one of the more potent pieces that I’ve created. The opening lines say, “I’m going to take you down with one little stone” — this David and Goliath reference, where I’m essentially killing my father. But at the end of the song, it’s a love song. It’s really about trying to get through to him.

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“Gay Messiah” (2004)

I wrote “Gay Messiah” initially as a joke. It was a comic ditty in the tradition of my dad’s work. This comment on sexuality and religion, with all these double entendres. I would sing it accordingly, trying to get laughs from the audience with “baptized in cum” and stuff like that. I think some of the jokes went over people’s heads, which is usually the case with my work.

Then very soon after that, George Bush Jr. was re-elected as president. It was a dark period, and the song became more of a political rallying call about gay rights. It became a literal prayer for the Gay Messiah — very serious, nothing funny about it. Like, we really do need a savior to fall down from the clouds and deal with this. When Obama won, it became a joke again and returned to that light-hearted world. And now that Trump’s in office, it’s gone directly to prayer. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. We need the Gay Messiah yesterday.

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“Going to a Town” (2007)

I was living in New York during 9/11, and there was a moment a few months after that where there was a glimmer of hope. It looked as though the world was going to try to heal itself, and people were feeling sympathetic towards the United States, and maybe we could all learn from this experience and try to come out stronger and more compassionate. And then we invaded Iraq, which to this day is probably the worst foreign policy decision ever made in the United States. This was my response.

The town that I’m speaking about in “Going to a Town” is Berlin. I had met my husband there, and I made a lot of Release the Stars there, in this crazy radio studio that had been the crown jewel of the GDR, the communist government. It’s this huge Stalinistic building. It was haunted, but a great place to create. The song is about going to a city that had already been destroyed and had learned its lesson about the horrors that humanity can inflict. I felt like the U.S. had no sense of the damage they were about to cause. People reacted very strongly to this song. I would sing it often and get boos.

I love America. I was born here, and brought up in Canada, thankfully, which I’m very proud of as well. And I live here now. I still believe in the United States. I still have hope for the future. But part of that process is being able to be critical of the United States. That’s such an old battle that has been fought in this country for so long.

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“Tiergarten” (2007)

“Tiergarten” is a song about Jörn [Weisbrodt], my husband, and it takes place in that beautiful park at the center of Berlin. We’ve been together now for about 15 years. I was pretty dead-set against settling down for a long time. Not so much because I didn’t want to. It just felt like an impossibility in the way that I was leading my life, with the amount of travel and the amount of attention that I had to focus on myself. Suddenly I was in this relationship with someone who could handle it.

I met Jörn when he came to a show of mine in Berlin. He’s this incredibly strapping, handsome man, very smart, very funny, very beautiful. But what mainly got us together was that we both have this passion for opera. We were able to speak the same language. We didn’t hook up that night or anything, which is interesting. Oftentimes, with sexually promiscuous people, as I was, you need another angle to focus on before you jump into the sack. So we were able to do that and have a great time afterwards.

The Tiergarten became a metaphor for the forest of life. You have to brave all the elements and find your way through the dark to get from one end of the park to the next. It’s a fantastic experience, but it’s also challenging. It’s a little bit based on the end of The Magic Flute, when the two lovers have to take this journey together through the fire and water. That’s as true as it’s ever been. It just kept working, and now we’re dads.

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“Montauk” (2012)

Long Island became our playground in the summers. We have a house out there, Jörn and I. Before that, I had spent a lot of time there with my mom, Kate. Sadly, she was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer called sarcoma, and she passed away. But we did spend some amazing summers out in Montauk together, which coincided with my meeting my husband. We ended up buying a house, then we had a child, Viva [with Wainwright’s longtime friend Lorca Cohen]. The song became a beacon for Viva’s entry into this wild set of characters that she’s been born into on my side — I mean, her mother’s side is pretty interesting, too! But the song is about the anticipation of having this child come and grace us with her presence. The sad reality is that she never got a chance to meet my mother, who loved Montauk as well. I was imagining my daughter’s first arrival to the house in Montauk, and us going down to the beach and looking at the ocean and seeing Kate out in the distance greeting us.

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“Candles” (2012)

All throughout my mother’s illness, which I knew was terminal, I had to tour quite a bit. During that time, I found it very helpful and spiritually enriching to go to churches and light candles. I’m not a religious person — I wasn’t even praying to any particular deity or saint — but I would go to the Virgin Mary and light candles at that station. When I finished the tour, I went back to Montreal to be with my mother on her final hurrah, and I was with her when she died. Right after that, I went to this church on the corner and there were no candles. So I walked down the street and found another church — there’s a lot of churches in Montreal — and they, too, had run out of candles. I went to bed, woke up the next day, walked to another church in the French section of Montreal. They did have candles, but they were electric candles, the kind where you push a little button. That really wasn’t going to do it for me. I took that as a message from my mother saying, “I’m okay. You don’t have to worry about me. Live your life, I’m on my journey.”

Two weeks later, I was in Paris, France, and I was walking by Notre Dame Cathedral, and I decided to step in. There was this amazing scene in the middle of the day. The sun was pouring in through the stained-glass windows, there was incense blowing, there was a choir singing, and there were candles everywhere. It struck me: “Oh, of course, this is where I should light the candle for Kate. She wanted a better venue.” She didn’t want the corner church, she wanted the cathedral in Paris!

It connects to another event, many years earlier, when I came out to my mother in Paris. I was about 18. I really put her feet to the fire, in terms of her attitude towards my sexuality. She ended up going to Notre Dame Cathedral the next day, dressed as a penitent Catholic woman, which she wasn’t. She suddenly reverted into this old Irish woman, and she claims that she prayed and received a message from God: “Rufus is like anybody else. You’ve got to love him.” All these years later, I light the candle, and I too have this moment, where I pray and ask for some kind of message. Right as I was walking out, it hit me: “Rufus, the only way you’re going to get through this is to be grateful.” Even thinking about it gets me choked up. I took that as a definitive command. To this day, I have to live by it.

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“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.