Back In The Game: Clash Meets Rufus Wainwright

Back In The Game: Clash Meets Rufus Wainwright

A return to pop from one of the finest voices in music...

It’s early morning in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles and Rufus Wainwright is reflecting on life in lockdown.

“I can’t complain,” he says, contentedly. “I have a beautiful home, I have lots of music to practice and work on, I have a wonderful family around me – my husband and our daughter – and so I’m very grateful for what I have. And I have a new puppy! We called him Puccini. He's great.”

This is the voice of Rufus as settled family man, a lifetime away from the poetic insouciance of his youth and the extravagances of his early recording career; that was Rufus the callow young man partaking of life’s rich temptations like a modern-day Holden Caulfield, the troubled protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher In The Rye’. It is the Rufus that has just delivered an album, ‘Unfollow The Rules’, that feels like where each of his previous records were leading towards, a towering career high yet one that embraces every facet of his earlier works. That is has coincided with a migration to Laurel Canyon – a location steeped in rock music history – and a settling into domestic bliss is no mere coincidence.

“I made the conscious decision that I was going to become a man,” he explains with a characteristically infectious laugh, somewhere on the axis between nervous and self-deprecating. “I mean that in the fullest sense of the word: being a father, being a husband, really taking care of my health, and trying to be an active citizen.

“It’s not easy,” he admits. "It’s really the antithesis of a lot of what you’re supposed to do in the pop world now, but it’s not unprecedented.” Without suggesting he has joined their ranks, exactly, Rufus points to the likes of John Lennon’s final album, Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Future’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘From Here To Eternity’ – records that possessed an authority and maturity that were recorded after many years on the job and which felt like stylistic epiphanies. This is where each had discovered who they wanted to be, how they wanted to sound and what statement they were trying to make. “There’s this sudden burst in a man’s life at a certain point where he decides either to grow up or he doesn’t,” continues Rufus. "I chose the former. This album is my expression of that.”

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Before we go any further, we need to address the fact that this is Rufus’s first ‘pop’ album in eight years, arriving after a spell where it felt like we’d lost him for good to artier concerns. After releasing ‘Release The Stars’ in 2007, Rufus pivoted toward the opera music that had fired his imagination for so long with ‘Prima Donna’, an ambitious spectacle about the day in the life of an singer preparing her comeback, which he premiered in 2009; he followed that in 2018 with another opera (‘Hadrian’) and in parallel threw himself into a highly theatrical re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, finally released in 2016 as ‘Take All My Loves’.

When I spoke to Rufus upon the release of his Sonnets project, he was at pains to point out that “pop will always be my bread and butter”, but it felt like a remote possibility as he found himself (mostly) accepted by the highbrow artistic cognoscenti. ‘Out Of The Game’, released in 2012, seemed to suggest that he was more or less finished with the music form that had granted him his success.

“That classical arm of my career has been a true kind of battle, in the best of ways,” he reflects. “I didn’t conquer it necessarily, but I certainly left a mark. I mean, for the best part of ten years I took on the classical world, for what it’s worth, and really decided to go for it 100%.”

The inference is that he had to commit to that path completely, and couldn’t share that with pop, either for fear of not being accepted or because an association with pop might reduce the value of his endeavours in the highly austere world of classical music. Just as he'd said that he hadn’t left pop for good, he’s keen to assert that he hasn’t given up on classical music, indicating that there are other projects in development; he also points to classical music’s resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic, part of what he says is a “search for deeper meaning” as people reappraise the value of culture.

“In the period where I was away in the classical world, I was able to really re-evaluate my feelings toward pop music,” he says. "I really started to miss it, and to understand all the advantages that I really took for granted early on, whether it’s having complete creative control, or being able to luxuriate in my own personal kind of journey. In classical music it’s often about collaboration and following a certain standard and matching yourself up against titans.”

Not for nothing does the title track of his new album include an acknowledgement that he is “no Hercules”, no invincible figure able to conquer anything placed in his path; it isn’t an admission of defeat, as such, just a cathartic appreciation of one’s limitations; one’s fallibility; one’s essential vulnerability. (Elsewhere, on ‘Romantical Man’, he delivers a not even remotely veiled riposte to the critics who poured unnecessary scorn on his two operas for being too melodic, a cheap shot aimed at someone they didn’t feel belonged in their world.)

"I wrote a lot of songs in that period as a form of protection,” he reveals. “It was like a form of solace. So, when I came to make this record I was fully engaged and really excited about where I was. You can easily get lost in the treadmill of the music business, so I’m thankful that I got out of it for two seconds.”

All of these sundry thoughts lead to a certain reflective quality in many of the twelve songs that comprise ‘Unfollow The Rules’, but it is a quality that is also optimistic, hopeful and rarely regretful.

"I think I’m now far enough away from my extreme youth that I can admire it very lovingly without feeling like I’m being robbed of it,” he laughs, from the comfortable vantage point of his mid-forties. “There are a lot of trajectories that I’ve always been influenced by, because of my love of opera and classical music, that tend to blossom much later in life. For instance, in the classical world, an opera singer really hits their stride in their forties; that’s when they can sing all the big roles, and they have the sort of gravitas and life experience to add that perspective to their performances.

“I’ve always admired that concept,” he continues. “Also, great composers write their greatest music, for the most part, the moment before they die! It’s like this never-ending artistic ride that they’re trying to hook on to, and I think I’ve always followed that idea, philosophically. In the pop world it’s almost the complete opposite – you start with this explosion and either quickly or slowly disintegrate. I did feel in the pop world like I went through something of a dip after 'Want Two’. I felt like I wasn’t necessarily appreciated by the mainstream, almost like I was old news. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, well I’m going to go away and then you’re going to miss me!’ And now I’m back.”

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On ‘California’, a track from his second album (2001’s ‘Poses’), Rufus offered a caustic look at the state he is now happy to call home. Though it was one of the more light-hearted songs on the album, it was written at a time when New York and its sundry temptations were the only things that interested him, and its sentiment was abundantly clear: compared to Manhattan, California was a land of falsehoods and false prophets, Rufus borrowing a phrase from Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ where he described the place as “Munchkin Land”.

Ironic then that, like the aforementioned Holden Caulfield who escapes to California to shake off his Big Apple demons, Rufus should find himself slotting so readily into the languid, laidback Laurel Canyon lifestyle. It doesn’t just mean his pace has dropped significantly; it has also added a certain classic rock sound to some of the songs on ‘Unfollow The Rules’, particularly ‘Damsel In Distress’ and 'You Ain’t Big’.

"I’m starting to – how can I say this? – I think I'm starting to inherit my legacy,” says Rufus with a slight note of capriciousness. “Before I was a romantic kind of dandy opera fan, I was born into a Laurel Canyon tradition. My parents lived at the Chateau Marmont when I was a child for a while. They made records in California. They hung out with Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt. In fact, Linda Ronstadt recorded my mother’s music early on and was really one of the staples of my financial existence as a child.” This is the musical lineage that Wainwright belongs to, being the son of Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle, just one of many sundry siblings, aunts, cousins that suggest that prodigious musical talent is genetic.

"So, even though I didn’t grow up, per se, in California, we were heavily connected to the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter movement,” he adds. “I think, in a lot of ways, this is me accepting this tradition that I sprang from as a baby. My husband and I are friends with a lot of those legendary figures that remain. I’m very, very grateful and honoured and excited about how things have turned for me at this point. It’s a good place to perch at the moment, here on the Canyon.”

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Rufus describes ‘Unfollow The Rules’ as an album concerned with “life, love, loss and London”. Three of those are thematic staples in Rufus’s music; thus far, London has never featured directly in Rufus’s lyrics, yet here it can be heard on ‘Damsel In Distress’ and again on ‘Romantical Man’. They are erudite, nostalgic songs, both containing the kind of off-the-beaten-track location devices that suggest a local’s knowledge of our fair capital; as romantically deferential toward London as Taylor Swift’s ‘London Boy’ only without the breezy, nauseating cheesiness.

For Rufus, London was another opportunity for appreciation of his past. “My father lived in London for ten years,” he explains, rewinding his personal clock to just after his parents had separated. "I would visit him every year and spend some time there. Some of my most formative memories as a nine, ten, eleven and twelve-year-old were in London, and it’s been a lifelong love affair for me. I would go on tour with him to things like the Cambridge Folk Festival, and that was really important for me as I was growing up.” Both of Rufus’s ‘Want’ albums from 2003 and 2004 were recorded in London, even though their subject matter again pointed squarely across the pond to New York.

Looking back on formative experiences in Laurel Canyon and London aren’t the only nostalgic elements of ‘Unfollow The Rules’; it is possible to identify a certain reverence toward his own body of work in the songs here, without ever sounding like a pastiche or suite of cover versions of himself. Rufus credits that delicate balance to the album’s producer, Mitchell Froom, a studio veteran who here assumes the role that Van Dyke Parks and Marius de Vries once played in realising the young Rufus’s creative whims.

“On the one hand, Mitchell appreciates my history,” says Rufus. "He’s been a fan for a long time, and really admires what I do. On the other hand, his main objective in this project was to really decipher the songs and have them presented in the best way possible. A lot of that was about weeding out all the superfluous stuff, and then lending a certain kind of clarity to the songs. That was different to a lot of my past records – which I adore, of course I do – where I was able to just hang out in the studio and experiment endlessly because of bigger budgets, more time and a more relaxed industry.”

A case in point was his self-titled 1998 album, for which he secured a studio budget of a million dollars, an almost unheard-of sum for a new artist. "It was great fun but arguably sometimes I did get a little lost in the forest of that. But, with this record, Mitchell was really exacting and precise right off the bat. When something worked, we would quickly move onto another section, and looked for what worked there. There was no dilly-dallying, which was good for this record; it has a certain clarity and a certain fierceness to it which makes it sound new.”

Alongside seriously introspective moments like the title track, or the tender closer ‘Alone Time’, or the sweet ‘Only The People That Love’, ‘Unfollow The Rules’ incudes lighter moments. Chief among these is ‘Peaceful Afternoon’, a heartfelt love song to his husband Jörn Weisbrodt that celebrates their thirteen years together, as well as an admission that maybe our beloved Rufus can be a bit, shall we say, hard to live with. There’s also a swerve into deft, characteristic humour that highlights the various concerns and quotidian mundane domesticities of life that we all face – “sex and death and trying to keep the kitchen clean” – a lyric that the departed Leonard Cohen, the grandfather of Rufus and Jörn’s daughter, would have surely approved of. (Viva Cohen was conceived through sperm donation from Rufus; her mother is Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca.)

“Jörn requires a song about him on every album,” says Rufus drily in the direction of his husband, who is nearby in their home. “Initially there’s always a bit of apprehension to have to write about my husband, but it’s actually a fantastic exercise. It really makes you reflect on what’s in your life. There’s a truth to that, and a beauty, which is important to express.” Touchingly, he says that his daughter is his biggest fan, though he recognises that won’t be forever.

“I remember feeling the same way about my parents’ work as well,” he says. "With music and songwriting, you start to learn about your parents’ lives, their histories and their different periods. At the moment, yes, I’m her favourite musician, and I don’t know how long that will last. I don’t necessarily expect it to, or necessarily want it to. I want her to discover her own passions. But I’m very fortunate at the moment to have her as my number one fan. She’s really great.”

Two songs stand apart from the rest in the form of ‘This One’s For The Ladies (That Lunge!)’ and ‘Hatred’, both seemingly hewn from an Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice musical from the start of the 1980s, all grandiose prog-inflected electronics and a general sense of heightened theatrical drama. “They’re more whimsical,” agrees Rufus. "‘This One’s For The Ladies’ is kind of tongue-in-cheek. It’s a love letter to a portion of my fans but I’m also poking fun at them a little bit, so we’ll see how that goes! My MO was to profess my undying love, at the end of the day, but it’s an interesting relationship with that portion of my fanbase. ‘Hatred’ is an emotion that’s certainly prevalent at the moment, but I don’t think it’s a negative song; it’s uplifting, it’s truthful, but it’s not nihilistic. It’s more about suiting up for battle and getting ready for the situation at hand.”

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It’s somehow reassuring and comforting, at a time of unprecedented uncertainty, to have Rufus the singer-songwriter back with us again. He insists emphatically that this time around he’s come to terms with what it means to be a part of the pop world, and won’t be abandoning us again anytime soon. He has spent most of his lockdown mornings conducting interviews like this one, mostly from the comfort of his newly-completed library, usually resplendent in a dressing gown. The younger Rufus would have viewed this as louche and debauched, if indeed he ever actually was awake during the morning hours; the mature Rufus wears that gown with an air of proud domestic comfort.

One slightly oxymoronic consequence of the necessary interview circuit is that it affords less time to concentrate on music. “I try to sing and play every morning,” he says. “I don’t necessarily write every day, but more often than not an idea will come to me, at least once a week.” At this he gives me one final laugh, aware that it maybe doesn’t sound exactly prolific for someone whose aforementioned bread and butter is the art of writing songs.

“Obviously, you need that if you’re going to be a songwriter,” he adds, slightly more seriously. “I like to think that I’m like a well-oiled machine at this point. In fact, I have to go because I’m in the middle of writing a song and I don’t want to forget it."

Whether that was the truth or simply a dramatic and entirely Rufus Wainwright way of effectively ending an interview – an interview that had already reached the limit of its allotted time anyway – we’ll never know; for now we’ll just have to content ourselves with the myriad ruminations on life, love, loss, lady fans, Laurel Canyon and London that ‘Unfollow The Rules’ beautifully represents.

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'Unfollow The Rules' is out now.

Words: Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Tony Hauser

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