Rufus Wainwright chats about his new album ‘Unfollow the Rules’

In February, Rufus Wainwright visited Perth to perform at the Perth International Arts Festival. It would be the first chance his fans would get to hear many of the tracks from his new album Unfollow the Rules.

Wainwright chatted to OUTinPerth about the new recording, and acknowledged that for some fans it has been a long wait. His last album Out of the Game was released eight years ago, it’s the longest break between records in the musician’s career.

Since that last album came out a lot has changed for Wainwright. He got married to husband Jörn Weisbrodt, and focused his artistic energies on making opera.

His first opera Prima Donna made its debut in 2009 and has subsequently been performed by several companies. Wainwright spent years creating his new work Hadrian, an opera about the 2nd century Roman emperor, and he put a series of Shakespeare’s sonnets to music. For almost a decade, writing four minute long pop songs has not been on his agenda.

“Some of my fans have been really generous and patient,” Wainwright said, “but they’ve also been excited about the journey I’ve taken them on to get here, and then I’m off writing some operas and the sonnets, in general they’ve always like that aspect of me, but I would bargain to say that probably they were a little annoyed about last year, and this new album is something they’re excited about.”

The Canadian musician has always taken unexpected turns in her career. His self-titled debut album in 1998 was a critics favourite and his follow up record Poses, released in 2001 saw his fan base grow quickly. Throughout the 2000’s he released a string of acclaimed records including Want One and Want Two, Release the Stars, and All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.

He also released his live recording of Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall where he completely recreated Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 performance. Wainwright is an artist focused on creativity, expression and quality, rather than finding a hit tune for the charts. Now Wainwright is returning to the world of contemporary music, and Unfollow the Rules delivers a stack of news songs, new tales and new conversations from Wainwright.

Relaxing in his hotel lobby, a passerby might not notice a major music star was sitting in the corner, if it wasn’t for the mirrored sunglasses the singer has donned, they given his a superstar edge, but Wainwright is friendly and eager to talk about his new record, the topics it’s songs cover and why its been such a long time he made a pop album.

“I’ve never been able to fashion a kind of factory like mechanism to churn out the hits.” Wainwright said, “It’s always going to take me whatever amount of time is needed.”

The new record is filled with songs about romance and love, but as a gay man in his late forties Wainwright is speaking from his own viewpoint and he agrees that there’s not a great canon of gay love songs, especially about people in long term relationships. Wainwright feels the lost generation of gay men affected by the AIDS pandemic is one of the big reasons for the cultural abyss.

“It’s quite tragic in a lot of ways, certainly for someone of my generation, people who were little bit older than me, a lot of them are dead. People who would have been fifty or sixty today, a lot of them sadly were killed by AIDS so you lose, the numbers work out in a bad way. It’s a sorely missed set of ideas.”

A lost generation, and dearth of examples of long term relationships, means many gay men in their forties and fifties are treading new ground in their personal lives.

“My husband and I have been together for about 15 years, we’re getting up there. Arguably there’s nothing harder than maintaining a relationship in general, for anyone, for heterosexuals, for homosexuals, that journey together that is one one hand the most fulfilling things, and on the other – the most treacherous. I’ve always been attracted to the complicated situations in life. I don’t like it to be easy or soft, I need it to be full one, and that’s what a relationship is.” Wainwright said.

Heading into the studio to make the long awaited album, Wainwright says he had a list of things he wanted to achieve.

“I’d been away from the mainstream for such a long time, off writing opera and such, so I had a large repertoire to draw from. I think there was almost 50 songs that I’d written over a seven year people. So I could pick and choose, and with the help of producer Mitchell Froom we were able to fashion a really solid menu of what my life has been like for the last few years, and what it was like now.

“Songs should really be about the test of time, so I had some that had been sticking around for quite some time. Having the time away meant that there was some forethought to what this about.”

Previously Wainwright has worked with some of the world’s most acclaimed producers including Pierre Marchant, Jon Brion, Marius De Vries and Mark Ronson. For this album he found a new creative collaborator. Mitchell Froom is a musician in his own right, but is best known for creating acclaimed albums for everyone from Crowded House to Suzanne Vega, Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Roy Orbison.

“I’ve always found a producer to be essential, I think its one of the most fascinating jobs in the world to be a music producer, because on one hand it’s so kind of mechanical, you have to book the musicians and know about technology and know about how studios work, but then you have to be almost more artistic, and more creative than the artist, and orchestrate this world that the songs inhabit, and people are going to gravitate to and want to enter. That’s a great gift.

“What’s interesting is that with a lot of people I’ve worked with, and I’m not going to name too many names, but a lot producers I’ve worked with have always been frustrated by the title, it sounds very technical, and they don’t get all the glory in the end, that the artist does, at least the intensity of it.”

Wainwright says Froom is very different to other producers he worked with in the past.

“Mitchell, one one hand he has all the chops to do the job, but he also has the best attitude about it, he’s aware of what his station is within the equation, and he relishes that. He doesn’t want to do press, he doesn’t want to perform, he really loves being a producer.”

Having taken the time away from making records to create operas has given Wainwright a new appreciation of simpler forms of composing and writing,describing the process of creating opera as intense.

“It’s one of these experiences that involves months of rehearsal, and then premieres, and then doing battles with critics, and conductors and opera houses, and you get to the point where you say to yourself ‘Why is God’s name am I fucking doing this at all!’ It’s completely ridiculous, there’s no money, there’s no appreciation, there’s all this backstabbing going on, it’s a very brutal world, but then miraculously a few months later you find yourself saying, ‘I want to do another one.’ It’s like a recurring disease that takes hold.” Wainwright said describing the process.

“What is nice is now that Prima Donna is a few years old and has been performed in a lot of places, and there’s going to be a new big production in Europe that has come about without my having to be involved. It starts to have a life of it’s own.”

“It’s like giving birth to a child and then raising them, it’s no small task.” Wainwright says of the undertaking.

With just hours to go before he performed in front of a Perth Festival audience, Wainwright says he still has a huge love for hitting the road and performing live. Nowadays his entourage includes his husband and on this occasion his daughter has come along as well. The family have spent a few days in Perth ahead of his show visiting Rottnest Island and heading to the beach.

In 2010 Wainwright’s mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, passed away after fighting cancer for several years. Wainwright says watching his mother perform before her passing has gave him a renewed love of performing.

“There’s a new appreciation. There are times in the past where I do get quite exhausted, and I get annoyed with the while rigmarole of it all, but when my mother Kate was very very sick we got to do some Christmas shows at the Royal Albert Hall and she’d also come out occasionally and sing with us.

“I was always struck by how powerful that transformation was for her, as someone suffering from a terminal illness to come out, and sing and emote and create, and then walk off stage and look twenty years younger for a couple of hours, and then drift back to where they sadly were meant to be. It just gave me a new found respect for performing and how mysterious and powerful that is.”

Looking to the future Wainwright said he felt unsure of where the world was heading.

“Living in America, or anywhere really, is pretty frightening right now. I will say that at least half the time on edge about what’s going on, and its because of Trump and the Republicans and the environment. There’s such a reckoning that is occurring right now and it does seep into my daily life.

“It’s a miserable fucking place to be, but on the other hand I think it’s where we have to be. I saw a great line on Facebook today, I don’t know who wrote it, but it said if you feel buried, and underground and dark, just think that now you are a seed.” Wainwright said breaking into laughter, “You’ll bloom into a flower.”

“I really feel we’re at that stage we’re at the bottom of the heap, and it could get worse, we have to be prepared for that, but none the less it’s about germinating and blooming once again, it’s an intense time.”

A few hours later Wainwright delivers a stellar show at the Perth Concert Hall, sharing many of the songs from his forthcoming record, and a selection of songs from his previous seventh albums. He closes the show with Going to a Town from his Release the Stars album. The song has been covered by Lily Allen, George Michael and Mandy Patinkin, and has become Wainwright’s signature song.

Hauntingly he sings of America as a town that’s already been burned down, a prophetic offering on the months ahead that would be filled with turmoil, riots, isolation and political arguments.

Unfollow The Rules was scheduled shortly after Wainwright’s trip to Australia, but as the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spread around the globe, the plans to release the album were put on hold. Now the sunshine is coming out, and new seeds are ready to bloom.

Unfollow the Rules is out on Friday.

Graeme Watson

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