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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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“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.