Rufus Wainwright – Unfollowing the Rules Since 1998

Written by | Entertainment, Music

Rufus Wainwright has been un-following the rules since the openly gay multi-hyphenate released his first studio album in ’98, a genre-bending debut album which earned a slew of accolades and awards from mainstream and queer organizations alike.  Which makes the title for his eighth studio album “Unfollow the Rules” particularly apropos.  Turns out the title came from an off-the-cuff proclamation by his nine-year-old daughter Viva who said “Daddy, sometimes I wanna unfollow the rules.”  In an era where “following” has become part of the social media landscape, the title seems to pose a bigger question as to why we’ve become a culture of followers.  I had a chance to sit down with his Rufus-ness (virtually, COVID-style) and discuss his new album, his creative process, life, death, and Liza.  But first, a quick retrospective is in order…

Hailing from a musical dynasty of folk singers, it seems he was destined for this life from the womb.  For a bit of trivia, check out one of his earliest performances as a 13-year-old looking like a seasoned veteran, performing a song he wrote called “I’m a Runnin’” for a Canadian movie called Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller.

It’s difficult to quantify Wainwright’s impact as an openly gay singer/songwriter who courageously and unapologetically owned his sexuality from the start, never looked back and never sold out.  He’s described his decision to come out professionally to his record label to inoculate himself from blowback.  It was a pre-emptive strike and it placed himself in the driver’s seat, freeing himself of the need to be coy or avoid overtly gay content.  If there was ever an argument to be made for queer exceptionalism, Rufus is a worthy contender.

For those unfamiliar with his extensive body of work, some highlights from his 20-plus year career are in order.  Right out of the gate, Sir Elton John famously heralded Wainwright as one of the greatest songwriters on the planet.  Talk about setting an impossibly high bar.  Two operas and eight albums later including taking a stab at setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music, Rufus seems to be living up to it.

I’ve chosen five songs from his extensive catalogue that exemplify the essence of Rufus.  Cementing his image as fearless provocateur, “Gay Messiah” posits Jesus as a gay porn star, complete with explicit lyrics.  “Going to a Town” shows his willingness to take on sacred cows like blind allegiance to one’s country and his love/hate relationship with America.  “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” showcases his distinctive sound and tongue-in-cheek wit.  His rollicking ode to River Phoenix, “Matinee Idol” demonstrated his knack for taking pop icons and deconstructing them with panache.  But the quintessential Rufus has to be “Get Happy” from his tour de force homage to Judy Garland wherein he recreated her entire show at Carnegie Hall and replicates Garland’s signature pants-less ensemble, wearing only a blazer, a hat and heels, backed by a bevy of tuxedoed chorus boys.

With his new album, “Unfollow the Rules” which was recently released on July 10th in the midst of a global pandemic and massive civil unrest, Wainwright describes his work on the album as some of his best, and I’d have to agree wholeheartedly.  After an immersive foray into the world of opera in which Wainwright wrote and produced not one, but two full scale operas, Rufus experienced a creative resurgence as a singer/songwriter, coming back to his roots and finding inspiration in his hometown of Los Angeles and specifically Laurel Canyon, steeped as it is in a rich musical history of its own, where he lives with his husband of 13 years Jörn Weisbrodt.

Three years in the making, the album represents a full circle moment for Wainwright.  The album is a throwback to the concept records of decades past which were created around a unifying theme rather than the scattershot approach of modern-day streaming.  He describes the album reflecting three distinct parts, the first part is decidedly buoyant, embracing his return to California and “taking on the mantle of the great songwriters who preceded me.”  The second part is a return to form with lush orchestral productions typified in the song “Romantical Man.”  And the third part gives voice to the darker elements which typify his operatic sensibilities, the somber final act.  Rufus wryly describes the album as a trap which lures you in, romances you and then swallows you whole like a Venus flytrap.

Channeling the Hatred/A Song for the Trump Era

One of my favorites from the new album is “Devils and Angels (Hatred)” which was written during a particularly dark period where Rufus was consumed with anger.  Though it was conceived in a pre-Trumpian universe, Trump was on Rufus’ mind when he recorded it.  Interestingly enough, this interview took place before the murder of George Floyd and the massive protests which followed.

“Hatred to me is particularly important to this album.  This year is going to be intense, both with what’s happening with the pandemic and with the election.  Initially when I was working on this in the studio, I was more thinking of the election, of courseI wrote the song many years ago when I was in a pretty dramatic situation.”  Without going into detail, he acknowledges that he “was filled with a lot of hatred.  And I had to use that hatred.  I had to funnel it somewhere and turn it into something I could use to my advantage.  It really is about going into battle.  Or getting ready for this incredible war and oddly enough, embracing that and enjoying that process, in a kind of medieval way.  I think it’s a positive song.  It’s about being engaged.  It’s about action and fighting for what you believe in.  There will be violence and there will be blood, as they say.”

The song “Devils and Angels (Hatred)” has a wonderful sense of drama which lends itself to musical theater and Broadway, is that something you’ve considered?

“Yeah, I’ve always harbored an interest for that concept [Broadway].  I’ve written two operas.  And I’ve also done a very artistic theatre play with Robert Wilson for the Shakespeare sonnets.  But no, a Broadway musical is in the cards, though I have nothing to announce.  If I didn’t write a Broadway musical [at some point] it would be silly.”

Rufus Wainwright (photo by Kathy Hutchinson)

Early Morning Madness

While Wainwright wrote “Early Morning Madness” quite a while ago, this song also has a resonance with these dark times we’re living through.  As Rufus explains… “I had a rather fabled existence in the land of drugs and alcohol for many years, which I eventually had to come to terms with and shy away from.  But it was a long battle and there were some fits and starts, shall we say.  The song was initially about being hung over and getting through that exhaustion.  That song is haunting me more and more these days.  I have some real moments where I’m just up and the sun’s rising and I’m scared shitless.  What’s also interesting about that song, it’s almost like the dark, haunted sister of “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.”  I’m using the same motif.  But it’s much darker.  And like “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” which is sort of this joyous, exuberant voyage through unfettered youth and so forth, tinged with a bit of sadness, “Early Morning Madness” is more like this broken, suffering soul that is just wearily placing one foot in front of the other.

Making Peace with Death

We spoke about the song “Peaceful Afternoon” which is interesting on several levels, both for its content as well as the fact that it was written as part of an ongoing agreement between Rufus and his husband Jörn.

“We have an arrangement now where for every album I release, there must be one song about him.  So, it’s kind of a requirement, which can be a little grating.  But once I’ve written it, I’m always so thankful and grateful for the love that I have in my life and for him specifically.”

The beauty of this song is that it lulls you in with its sweet melody until you realize that it’s about Rufus’ own death.  I asked him to unpack that a bit and his attitude toward one’s mortality.  He spoke briefly about his mother’s death from cancer ten years ago.  Now a parent himself, age and experience has lent some perspective to life and death.

“I had experienced death a couple times before then, but nowhere near as intensely.  Now there’s friends who’ve died.  Even with COVID, I’ve lost a couple of people that I knew quite well.  So, death is sort of creeping in, ever more blatantly.  I’m a strong believer in accepting that fact and maybe even embracing it in a sense.  Being an opera lover, and a great lover of Mahler’s symphonies, death is ever-present.  But of course, now it’s more visceral and less romanticized.  I’m not reveling in it necessarily, I’m just sort of kindly allowing it to walk through our lives, as it will.”

Rufus’ Creative Process

We also talked about “Romantical Man” which he counts as one of his favorites on the album.  He delved into his creative process, by revealing, “Occasionally, if I’m on tour, I’ll wake up in the morning and I’ll have the whole day in front of me.  I’ll be somewhere I love, in this case it was London, and I have the whole day, and I’m like, you know what?  I’m just gonna walk across the city.  And a song will come at the end of that journey.  And I kind of get into a trance.  And that’s what happened with that song.  I walked for miles and miles, for hours and hours, and that was sort of my snapshot of that day in London.”

Do you take a recorder with you?  Or do you store it in your memory and then get back to your hotel room?

“It dependsUsually I’ll record it on my phone or something.  But really, I think the most valuable exercise is getting into the trance and becoming unconscious in a way of your surroundings and really getting lost in your imagination.  So, you kind of stop recording and you sort of just start, you know, singing really.”

And will that happen in a hotel room, or just when you’re out?

“No.  It requires a walk.  Walking is necessary for writing songs because it gives you the rhythm.  You end up sort of dancing a little.  I mean, it’s crazy.  You look like a crazy person.”

The fun thing about a Rufus Wainwright song is that he’ll throw in an obscure reference which might take you off-guard and require a quick search of the internet.  This happens in “Romantical Man” and his reference to an 18th century actress named Sarah Siddons who was considered one of the great tragediennes of her time, known for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth as well as challenging gender norms by taking on the role of Hamlet on numerous occasions.  I asked if this is someone he was already familiar with…

“No.  What happened is, I was on the walk and I passed this statue that really struck me.  And there was a grave, so I took my phone out.  It was the grave of Sarah Siddons, who I’d never heard of.  And once you really dig into that story, it’s pretty fascinating in terms of both her life.”  Siddons went on to experience a sort of posthumous fame courtesy of the Bette Davis movie All About Eve.  “Anyway, it’s just kind of a funny thing which led to a bunch of ideas.”

And now she’s been re-immortalized in your song.

“Yes, yes…”

A Nod to Sondheim

“The Ladies Who Lunge” appears to be a nod to Sondheim, at least in terms of the title.

“Yeah, very much so.  Melodically, it’s not like that, but the title is referring to the Sondheim number for sure.  That was the latest addition to the album.  That was something I was kind of noodling around with in the studio with Mitchell.  And we just did it in a day.  Well I did my part in a day.  He ended up putting on some of his most complicated keyboard parts that he’s ever done for hours in the background.

The unusual sound, which almost reminds you of a Fellini score because it had that kind of bouncy, springy quality, is nice because it gets you out of the whole Laurel Canyon, studio session player, warm fuzzy sound.  It suddenly becomes very plastic-y which is nice.  It’s like a little break, you know?”

His “Duet” with Streisand

Being a big fan of Streisand, I couldn’t resist bringing up Wainwright’s presence at a Hillary Clinton Fundraiser in 2016 where Streisand performed “Happy Days are here Again.”  From the audience, Rufus seized the opportunity to engage in his own duet (unbeknownst to Streisand) recreating the famous duet between Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand of “Happy Days Are Here Again” with Rufus singing Judy’s part “Get Happy.”  I was curious whether Streisand got wind of this or if he heard from “her people.”

Rufus responded good-naturedly with his characteristic flair for irony and dry wit.  “Well, I know that I posted it at one point, my … “our duet” – that didn’t happen.  But… yeah, that was a crazy fundraiser.  That was when Hillary coined her infamous “basket of deplorables” line which was ultimately used against her.  But I had requested to sing that [duet] with her [Streisand].  We never heard back, so I was a little angry, so I sang it from the audience.”

So, you made overtures prior to that fundraiser?

“Yes, I have made overtures and we’ll see.  I’m going to be doing a lot of work for Joe Biden and I’m sure that she will as well.  So, our paths will cross again.”

Last but not Liza

With time running out, I asked about his rumored tussle with Liza Minnelli.  While Judy’s daughter Lorna Luft appreciated Rufus’ homage to her mother in the spirit it was intended, Liza, well… not so much.  Instead of letting it go, he wrote a song called “Me and Liza,” having some fun with the rumored feud.  I asked if he’s buried the hatchet, metaphorically.

“I buried the hatchet years ago, but I don’t think it was reciprocated.”  Careful to avoid reopening the wound, Rufus said, “I wish her all the best.  I know that she’s – she has a lot to contend with, and I respect her immensely.  But I don’t think it will be rectified at all.”

Is it true that your father also wrote a song about her?  Apparently, they were childhood chums… with benefits.  There’s a lyric about “pre-pubescent play.”

“Yes.  Two generations of Liza-ness.”


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Last modified: August 4, 2020