Interview: Rufus Wainwright Grows Up – ‘I’m Just Translating My Human Experience’
Rufus Wainwright is a either a musical contradiction or a true Renaissance man (probably both). He has received critical acclaim as a classical musician; he is (was?) a man about town who cut his teeth in the New York social and party scene in the ’90s and early 2000s, becoming known for his particularly decadent behaviors; and he is a pop artist who is nevertheless venerated for his unabashedly intense, emotionally raw lyrical musings.
Over time, he went from being a fixture of New York City nightlife, to performing sold out shows at Carnegie Hall. Eight years ago he took a break from pop, but he never went away. He actually wrote two groundbreaking operas, including Prima Donna, which had its opening at the prestigious Manchester International Festival.
To date, he’s released seven critically acclaimed albums across an unimaginable range of genres.
Today, a “40-something-year-old” Rufus is returning to his pop roots with new album Unfollow the Rules (out via BMG), which features lush symphonic soundscapes accompanied by that ever ethereally melancholic voice. He lyrically considers life’s lessons to date, as he prepares to embark on the next phase of this thing we call adulthood.
He currently resides in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles with his husband, German art director Jörn Weisbrodt and shares the custody of his daughter, Viva, with her mother Lorca Cohen. Inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and the musically inspirational place he calls home, Unfollow The Rules captures him at a true crossroads. Ready to tackle new challenges, yet compelled to confront his past, he’s taking stock of two decades of running riot with rules, making sense of how he has matured as a musician, and celebrating the contented family man he has become. In fact, the album is a near perfect expression of the uncertain times we are now going through.
We caught up for a chat with him, to try to better understand what it all means.
Your new album is called Unfollow The Rules. Was the title inspired by the events of 2020?
I stole it from my daughter, who is nine years old. One day she just asked me if I could unfollow the rules. I knew immediately that it would make a great song title. And then later, people thought it sounded good for the name of the record. It was a very organic process. Ironically, it does fit with a lot with what’s going on today, especially in terms of the civil disobedience in the United States, which revolves around police brutality and racial issues. So yeah, it’s all meant to be.
There are illustrations for every song, which are drawn by you. Given that most people consume music through digital platforms, how integral is the artwork to the album, and how does it effect the listener experience?
I went to art school briefly after music school, both of which I never finished. And even though I’m mostly known for music, art remained a hobby that I was drawn to—literally. A little bit of thanks to COVID-19 for this album, I’ve really been allowed to express that side of my creative being fully, and it seems to have had a good effect on both my life and the eyes of others. I’m just kind of going with it at the moment—I don’t know what it means, but there seems to be some sort of correlation. I still don’t want to define it too much.
Your lyrics take the listener into deep reflection, and there are clearly elements that are autobiographical. How do you feel these struggles relate to your audience?
I always write about exactly what’s going on in my life. Every single one of my songs, except maybe a couple, are literally referring to events that have occurred. So I’m just translating my human experience, and I don’t consider myself any better or worse than anybody else. So, maybe I’m just able to be a kind of mirror to what everybody goes through, since most people don’t have that ability to express themselves as much as they’d probably like to.
The album is split into three acts: 1) a mix of your present and past, 2) a psychedelic narrative about vulnerability, letting go in order to begin a new journey, and 3) ending with a bit of anger—a dark and somber finale. Can you take us through the acts and their meaning?
Presently, my husband and I and our daughter live in Laurel Canyon, in LA. This is a place that I spent much time in many years ago when I started my career. So, in a lot of ways, I’ve come full circle. I think the concept is that I’ve come back to California, there’s a beautiful romance to that, it’s very idyllic, very seductive, very warm and welcoming. Then you scratch the surface and things get a little weirder and more complicated, as life does, and there’s a sort of psychedelic quality that begins to arise. You get a little lost in the maze. Then finally, the 3rd act comes and it’s completely dark. And no matter what, you’ve ended up in the subterranean department and you have to go through pain. And right at the end, there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and you make it out—barely alive.
In the song “Peaceful Afternoon” you clearly address your husband. The lyric goes, “Between sex and death and trying to keep the kitchen clean.” What are you wanting to say there?
My husband and I are celebrating our eight wedding anniversary, and we’ve been together for about fifteen years. This is definitely a long-term relationship and anybody knows who’s in one of those that it’s a wonderful experience, but can also be very difficult. Acknowledging that fact—like anything beautiful and interesting, you have to work at it.
Referring to the second act of the album, psychedelic drugs were long stigmatized and dismissed by the mainstream medical community, but are now being studied as potentially effective therapies for people suffering from PTSD. Have you had a psychedelic journey and do you believe that there could be benefits to targeted use?
I had many psychedelic experiences when I was younger, and I cherish them to this day. I think with certain people, psychedelics could be the answer. Personally, I don’t see myself going down that path at the moment. Drugs are drugs—they can either help or hurt you. So just be careful.
You’ve been open about your past and your addiction to crystal meth, which is a significant recreational drug among young gay men. As a gay man myself, I see what it has done to friends of mine. What helped you overcome this and did you have a support system?
As I said before, drugs are drugs and just be careful. I must say that, categorically, crystal meth is completely bad. There’s no positive side to it. It’s a terrible, terrible substance and has ruined so many people’s lives. My suggestion with that is to not try it and to not go there. That being said, if someone is trapped in that world, there are people that can help. There’s the program, religion, family and friends who love you. But my main lesson is to stay as far away from crystal meth as possible. It’s not worth it.
Coming back to the music, you’ve written operas, but also produced pop albums. What do you think about the evolution of pop music to what it is today? Do you listen to Billie Eilish, Charlie XCX, Selena Gomez…
I always say I’m a pop artist, but in truth I’m the furthest thing away from being a pop artist. I was very fortunate in my early career to have a big record company behind me and that did a lot for me. But when you really stand back and look at what I do, it’s miles away from what’s on the radio. I admire a lot of what’s going on today, and what has [gone on] in the past in the pop world. But I kind of look at it like I might look at a toy in a store that I’m a little too old for.