Rufus Wainwright on “Unfollow the Rules,” the Pandemic, and How Opera Music Saved His Life - How Love Is Essential | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Rufus Wainwright on “Unfollow the Rules,” the Pandemic, and How Opera Music Saved His Life

How Love Is Essential

May 04, 2020 Rufus Wainwright
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Rufus Wainwright needs no introduction. He is the golden-voiced singer we’ve all had on our iPods, playlists, and mix CDs. But despite his wide-ranging and glinting reputation, there is also much many don’t know about the acclaimed singer/songwriter. For example, Wainwright is an accomplished opera composer. And he wrote a record based on Shakespeare sonnets. Wainwright, along with his husband, is also a father, sharing custody of a lovely daughter with Lorca Cohen, who is herself the daughter of famed musician, Leonard Cohen. But beyond the famous limbs of the family tree, Wainwright is a kind conversationalist, generous and thoughtful in his responses.

Wainwright’s forthcoming LP, Unfollow the Rules, is a lush display of musical mastery. There’s the divine, resonant “Damsel In Distress,” the forlorn “Early Morning Madness,” and the dreamy “Trouble In Paradise.” Woven together, these songs showcase Wainwright’s life in composition as the artist is blessed with a voice box that must be shaped like the Liberty Bell. Unfollow the Rules was due out April 24 via BMG, but has been pushed back to July 10 due to the pandemic. We talked with Wainwright and asked him about his elegant new album, how his musical family helped to shape his artistry, and what he looks to for inspiration for his timeless songs.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): You grew up in a big musical family. What part of this do you think shaped you most significantly?

Rufus Wainwright: Yes, I grew up in a musical family, which I’m not alone in that situation. I know a lot of people who’ve had musical families. But what I will say probably shaped me the most was that my mother—or, our mother, I should say, with my sister, Martha—she was incredibly hands-on and dedicated to educating us, musically. She really wanted us to take on the family tradition and continue it. So, we had a taskmistress, shall we say, as a mother and that really defined the situation.

Did you ever get any sense why she wanted to pass on the family business?

I think she inherently knew that we had talent. Even as very small children, she would sort of test us out. She would sing with us and play instruments with us and she had a great ear. So, she could tell immediately if we were able to do it or not. Once she garnered that, it was like full steam ahead for her. I don’t know, it brought her a lot of joy on one hand and I think it brought her a lot of glory on the other because she could dote on her children and show them off.

Your voice, particularly when you sustain it with your vibrato, is so elegant and beautiful. When did you realize you had this ability?

Well, that I can’t tell you! Because, as I said before, my mom started with us when we were really young. So, I’ve always been singing. I think, though, what I can look back on and remember and pinpoint is that, you know, this was probably in the late ’70s or definitely in the early ’80s where it was a more loose period of time and people drank more and had more parties and were less disciplinarian with children and stuff, especially in the music business. So, my mom would have certain parties during which my sister and I would sing. I do have these early memories of being brought down at three in the morning from bed to sing, like, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for a bunch of drunken adults. And that being, like, the gong, or whatever, at the end of the evening, telling everybody to go home. So, being able to use my voice to tranquilize these inebriated adults, that was a good indication that things were working.

I came to first know you from hearing your version of “Hallelujah,” which is especially lovely. What made you want to record that song?

Well, yeah, I didn’t really want to record it. I was asked to because—many years ago DreamWorks Studios had animated this movie, Shrek. And I was a DreamWorks artist at that point on the record company side of things, when that existed. Anyway, there was this sort of deal struck between the animation studios and the record company where all the artists on the soundtrack would be DreamWorks artists. So, in the film, I’m not even in the film, I think they used the original John Cale version. But on the soundtrack album, I am singing the song, “Hallelujah.” I just went in there and sang it. Then somehow it really became a real anthem. I think both whether it was Jeff Buckley’s version, which was just before mine, or my version, and of course the [Leonard Cohen] song, itself. I got kind of wrapped up and really elevated in a kind of storm that occurred in that period. So, it was not thought out at all! But often times that’s the way things work. The minute you don’t care or don’t expect anything, that’s when it explodes.

You’re obviously very close with the Cohen family. Leonard is such a revered figure in music. There are no gods among us, but if there were, Leonard Cohen would be one of them…

[Laughs] Demigod, for sure!

May I ask, how did you become close with the Cohens?

We’re all from Montreal. I didn’t know them in Montreal, at all. I mean, I had met Leonard’s daughter once when I was a teenager in Montreal. But it really was when I came to Los Angeles to make my first album that, you know, I needed some friends and there was someone else—my friend Melissa, who used to be in the band Hole, she was playing with Courtney Love, and she knew Lorca, Leonard’s daughter, and she introduced us. We just immediately bonded the minute we met and became very close very fast. And that lasted. Finally, here we are today. I met Leonard during that period. What was nice—I knew he was great and I appreciated his work. I wasn’t that familiar with it because I’d become seriously obsessed with opera. That was my main squeeze. That’s really most of the music that I would listen to. So, songwriters didn’t really do it for me. It’s not that I didn’t like them; I just didn’t know their music. And I think, in a weird way, Leonard appreciated that. He didn’t feel like I was out to get anything from him. I think that’s been often the case with me and certain famous people. I wasn’t this sort of rabid sycophantic figure, though I certainly appreciated what they did, which you have to do. But I was just stuck in my opera world, which made me really unusual.

Yes! You wrote an opera! What about opera do you love so much that pushed you to dive into that genre?

I’ve written two operas! You know, I don’t know? It’s the music that saved my life when I was very, very young. And I say that in a real way. Because I came out of the closet at 13, at least to myself. I didn’t tell anybody in my family that I was, you know, having sex with men at that age. It was also 1987 and AIDS was decimating the gay male population in North America, so I really thought I was going to die for about 10 years and I very much could have. And somehow opera spoke to that intense fear and also the need for redemption, I should say, that exists in the history of that music. So, I don’t know. I just related to it on a fundamental level. Finally, I think I knew pretty early on, too, that I didn’t necessarily have the discipline to, you know, just lock myself in a conservatory for years and study, you know, Bach fugues and stuff. But I really wanted to go out and be inspired as an artist and live a very Bohemian lifestyle. So, I made the choice not to study opera, academically. But then later on, I really felt the need to revisit that world and give it back something because of all it had given to me previously. So, that’s when I started my opera.

Have you ever seen the movie, Philadelphia?

Yes, yes.

The scene where Tom Hanks is listening to the opera towards the end is jumping into my mind. I wonder if that’s an important scene for you?

Yeah, I remember that scene. And I remember actually feeling somewhat vindicated because I knew a lot about Maria Callas, I knew that aria; I knew that version and everything. So, it was encouraging, shall we say.

You’ve experienced some difficult times in your life. We don’t need to get into the specifics of those, necessarily. But how does having gone through low points influence the musical choices you make today?

Look, I think everybody has dramatic, fascinating, very deep lives, really, when you look at it. I think a lot about, especially today—the real, I don’t want to say victims, but the real soldiers in a lot of ways in this pandemic are people who work in grocery stores and delivery men and bus drivers and, of course, health workers. But that’s like one opera after another going on every day! So, I think, yes, I’ve had some crazy things happen to me and I’ve been able to, sort of, express them in a unique way. But life in general is pretty rough and I—I don’t know—I try to keep it in that perspective, I guess.

You wrote an album based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. What about the Bard’s poetry moved you to undergo this effort?

Well, I mean, Shakespeare is still the greatest and will probably remain so. I don’t think there’s any kind of artist in any sphere, really, who can top what he accomplished, honestly. I think I would receive few arguments concerning that statement. So, you know, the anniversary of his death came up—it was the 450th, I believe—there was a lot of talk about doing stuff in a lot of different worlds, whether it was the theater world or the opera world. So, I happened to have a lot of sonnets that I had to compose music for because I had done a Robert Wilson production earlier on. So, it just made sense to make a record of those eventually and this was a good opportunity. So, I was starting to do that and it was just good timing.

I imagine that would be daunting?

It’s pretty easy, actually, in a sense if you just let Shakespeare do all the work. Just listen and you’ll be fine.

How did you think about writing Unfollow the Rules? Were there specific moods or ideas or themes you wanted to investigate or express?

The one sort of theory that I was going with was just this return to California. I had made my early albums here in LA in a very illustrious fashion because I was signed by a major label, which was back when they still had money and there was still this legendary concept of being signed by a major label and becoming a star that kind of existed still. So, I was in that world. And then my albums came out and the music business collapsed and I had to go out and work really hard and keep my reputation afloat and I succeeded, thankfully, in doing that through blood, sweat and tears. So, this was my return back to California.

My husband and I have a daughter who lives here who we share custody with her mother. So, we came here really to be with her but it also coincided with the 20th anniversary of my first album coming out and just this idea of revisiting a lot of the rooms and the musical legends that I had an opportunity to work with. So, we just set it up in that way. And thankfully because I had been away for a long time in opera land, I had written a ton of songs over the last 10 years. I just had so much material and then I was able to give that to Mitchell Froom, the great producer, who then chose the repertoire and we just made the record.

So, there was no theme, per se, but oddly enough, the record, actually, one could make the case that it’s completely thematic in terms of what’s going on today. It’s weird how many songs are prescient at the moment, whether it’s “Alone Time” or “Early Morning Madness” or “Trouble in Paradise,” there’s definitely a doomsday quality to the material that makes a lot of sense right now, sadly. But I think there’s also a lot of hope on the record, too.

I particularly love the song, “Early Morning Madness.” Could you take me behind the curtain for the writing that one?

That song I wrote many years ago. It was basically just about being hung-over. It’s really no more complicated than that. So, it’s about that feeling that one gets when they’re hung-over, when they kind of wake up in a cold sweat and they’re just nauseous and realize they don’t remember what happened the night before, and stuff like that. That being said, you know, I don’t drink anymore myself now and I will confess that I still wake up in a cold sweat not knowing what happened the night before! Sometimes, you know, life still offers you—there’s a moment or window, I should say, at dawn where you’re the clearest you are in the whole day and sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s a scary thing.

You have this tremendously classic feel to your music. Do you enjoy keeping to a more timeless side of the street?

I feel very honored to have been given this opportunity, having been brought up in this family and been allowed to continue the tradition. It also takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication and a lot of effort, so I deserve it. I’ve had to struggle to keep it. But that being said, I don’t know—I mean, I’m torn at times. Because on one hand, I have such admiration for older songwriters, even a lot more now than I used to. People like Randy Newman or John Prine, who sadly died, or Burt Bacharach. All these people, I just adore their work. And yet on the same token, I don’t want to lose touch with what’s new and what’s interesting and what’s coming up. So, I try to juggle it a little bit. In fact, my next album, I think I’d like it to be very much decidedly unclassic, something more unusual and, like, weird that’s happening with teenagers in France, or something. I don’t know. [Laughs]

Final question for you. You’re a father, husband, friend, and artist. That’s a lot to care for. What does the idea of love mean to you today?

That’s a good way to end it. Love is a good way to end it! [Laughs] On so many levels. You know, I would say, I don’t know—I think love really is trust, at the end of the day, you know? Where you can depend on the other person or the other people or, you know, the government or whoever to be there for you at your hour of need. And this right now is an hour of need that everybody’s going through and I think the love is showing, for those who have it. It’s also showing for those who don’t have it. And I hate to say that because certainly I don’t want to blame a whole segment of the population but I do feel that anyone who is still lost in the Trump mindset and who’s ignoring the pain that people are going through concerning this virus, they’re not in touch with their love, shall we say. They’re not. But those who have it will eventually—it might take them a little bit of time—but we need love in order to survive.

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May 23rd 2020

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