Rufus Wainwright learning to unfollow the rules as ninth studio album released

Aged 46, long-serving songwriter, libertine and general trouble-maker Rufus Wainwright is settling down. Alex Green finds out more.

Rufus Wainwright. Picture by: Tony Hauser
Rufus Wainwright. Picture by: Tony Hauser

Between 1973 and early 1975, John Lennon split with Yoko Ono, took up with his assistant May Pang and embarked on a period of intense creativity and outrageous behaviour.

He produced three albums and lived between Los Angeles and New York City, dabbling in alcohol, and other things, alongside a cohort of mischief-makers like Harry Nilsson.

Lennon later described this time as his “lost weekend”.

Rufus Wainwright, now 46 and a father, has embarked on his fair share of lost weekends across two decades in music, living the life of a rough-and-ready troubadour in New York and further afield.

Like Lennon, he emerged a different person, slowly solidifying into one of America’s pre-eminent songwriters along the way.

“I’ve lived the lost weekend - I’ve done the lost year as well,” he laughs in his lilting voice from his home in Los Angeles.

“With John Lennon it’s a whole lot more tragic because he died right when he was at peace with the world.

“But it’s more this concept of not trying so hard to impress everybody all the time, of just being willing to just add to the beauty of the planet and leave it at that.

“When you start off you have this aggressive attitude, you have to want to bust people up.

“You want to shake the cage - and that’s important.

“But eventually you just want to find the key to the cage and actually open it.”

The Canadian-American - the son of folk artists Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle - appears to have left that world behind.

His upcoming ninth album of original material, Unfollow The Rules, is a paean to fatherhood and responsibility, inspired by the music of Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen and John Lennon.

“These were all people who in their 40s or late 30s really became themselves. Prior to that they had a questioning period of trying to create, to transform, and eventually they hatched as these mature singing birds, or eagles! I’ve also thought of myself as a man in that predicament. I’ve definitely hit a point where my powers are more – how can I say this – complex in terms of what I have to offer. It’s not just about feral youth and trying to smash the world.

“It’s actually about trying to figure out the situation, which is a little more tricky.”

Yes, life has changed in the Wainwright household.

Now based in Los Angeles with his husband, German art director Jorn Weisbrodt, and nine-year-old daughter, Viva, life is different.

Los Angeles was the city which launched his career, where he recorded his eponymous 1998 debut, where he steeled himself before setting out to conquer New York, London and Paris.

At home, he works on opera (he has written two) as well as his more conventional pop outings.

And since lockdown he has taken to performing tracks from his extensive back catalogue, in a dressing gown, on Instagram.

He calls them “Robe Recitals” or “Quarantunes” and dedicates them to friends, including Marianne Faithfull, who was recently released from hospital after a coronavirus diagnosis.

“I have found this period incredibly fruitful,” he admits.

“Partially because of how frightening it is.

“There’s a definite kind of apocalyptic sensibility that I hope passes, but nevertheless there’s this kind of very dramatic ambience.

“When you watch the news or when you think about what’s really happening, especially in America with the politics as well, it’s definitely invigorated my creative sensibilities.

“Fortunately, I thrive off chaos.”

Unfollow The Rules was born from Wainwright’s forays into the world of opera – a genre that has been at the fore of his baroque-pop and elegant songwriting for decades. “When I initially went running to the world of opera and theatre I thought it would be this creative gold mine for me and that I would feel really appreciated and valued as an artist.

“What really happened is that it was I was just struck immediately by the brutality of the opera world.

“It’s very dry, it’s very cold, it’s very difficult – so what happened is that I ended up writing a lot of songs because songwriting became a refuge for me.

“So over that 10-year period I generated a lot of material, because it was one of the only areas – being alone at the piano or the guitar – where I felt safe or free.”

This was compounded by the death of his mother in January 2010, aged 63, after a years-long battle with cancer, and his marriage two years later.

“I just had to translate it,” he says matter-of-factly.

Unfollow The Rules is an appropriate title for a man acknowledging and reinterpreting domestic life in middle-age.

But it was his daughter who came up with it.

“One day she walked in and exclaimed that she wanted to unfollow the rules, and I knew immediately that it was a hook,” he recalls with delight.

Viva’s mother is Lorca Cohen, the daughter of Leonard Cohen, meaning the blood of two musical dynasties runs through her veins (Weisbrodt is “deputy dad”).

“There’s a duality to the expression,” he explains.

“One being that we unfollow the rules – we don’t destroy the rules.

“We turn around and go back and re-examine the path that we’ve been on for a long time – it’s more about examination.

“But then the other meaning of course is very 21st century, that you can unfollow someone on Facebook or Instagram.

“With the press of a button the past just disappears, which we all know is quite a dream.”Before coronavirus struck, Wainwright was about to embark on a tour in support of the album, through spring into summer, taking in London, Europe and Glastonbury.

Of course, these have been postponed or cancelled outright.

But Wainwright predicts a wider shift in the way people consume live performance.

“Gigs will have to be much smaller and maybe there won’t be as much money,” he offers. “I grew up in a folk world with my parents, and there was this thing where most of the great evenings were in coffee houses – where you’d be singing in front of 50 or 60 people. “That was a very intense and important artistic experience and maybe...

“I don’t think we’ll all be going to play coffee houses necessarily but I do feel like it has to have that kind of intensity.”

“That value where the common experience is really all encompassing - and where it’s worth risking your life for.”

Unfollow The Rules is out today.

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