Rufus Wainwright Opens Up About His New Album, His Creative Process, And His Love Of Opera

The appearance of this renowned artist on the music scene some 20 years ago marked the advent of a more romantic and flamboyant style. And his new album, 'Unfollow the Rules', is proof that his talent hasn't lost any of its brilliance.
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Photo by Tony Hauser

It's been eight years since Rufus Wainwright released his last album, 2012's Out of the Game. Eight years he spent working in other fields, most notably on his second opera and setting Shakespeare's sonnets to music. Not to mention marrying his partner, Jörn Weisbrodt, and raising his now nine-year-old daughter Viva.

Taking nearly a decade off to breathe fresh air and contemplate other skies is a gamble in these times when new music seems to flow ceaselessly and artists seems to be here today, gone tomorrow. But Wainwright's latest album, Unfollow the Rules, is proof that sometimes it pays to take time off from constant creation. 

Replete with sweeping strings, bold woodwinds, and lush backing vocals, against which Wainwright's rich tenor soars, the album brings together all the hallmarks of his music in a thrilling rollercoaster of emotions. 

To mark the release of Unfollow the Rules, we speak to Wainwright about this new album, his creative process, and how his love of opera influences his music. 

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Photo by Tony Hauser

Was it important to you to take time off before publishing another album?

This project is a little different from previous ones. Before, I followed a specific system: make an album, followed up by a tour, then return to the studio to produce another album, and so on. But with this record, I first had to find its emotional anchor, build the rest around that, and then figure out what was the best single for radio.

I was tired of the pace imposed by the industry. In recent years, I've written operas and adapted Shakespearan sonnets without ceasing to write new songs. I left it to my producer, Mitchell From, to decide which ones would form a coherent whole. I didn't want to get overly involved in his decisions. We wanted to continue the legend of Rufus Wainwright, with a singular sound that could represent my entire universe.

Without a doubt, coming back to Los Angeles, the place where my career first began, and the desire be a part of that dynasty of musicians living in California, such as Randy Newman, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, were among the factors that influenced my writing of these new songs.


From the perspective of 20 years later, what do you think of your beginnings?

After spending a few years in Montreal and Los Angeles, I moved to New York. It was a pretty disastrous period. What I was doing was miles apart from the aesthetics of that time, of the city back then with its heroin chic, grunge, and nihilistic side. And I was wearing bow ties and singing operatic arias! I didn't feel comfortable, and even if I wasn't willing to give up everything, I felt discouraged.

Then I arrived in Los Angeles, and it felt like the gates to heaven were opening. Everyone liked what I did, and I signed to a big record company, called Dreamworks. I felt more like myself amidst LA's musical history, as embodied by Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys, and Van Dyke Parks. And when I returned to New York with a record under my belt, they loved me. 


Where do you live today?

In Los Angeles. Like a flower, I need the sun! The landscape also inspires me, which is good. We spend a lot of time driving around in our car.


How has opera influenced your work as a songwriter?

I have become a kind of Robin Hood of music. I take from the rich in order to make them richer! I write opera because I love the art form and its dramatic scale. I love working with an orchestra and singers, and the idea of losing myself in a fantasy world. But when I come out of this experience, there I find pop music. These two worlds need each other more than they imagine. At this point, they know only a little of each other! Could opera be simpler and more accessible, and could pop music be more sophisticated, more romantic, and more flamboyant?


How do you connect these two experiences?

Writing an opera requires a bit more dexterity, you have to be able to take a step back and consider the work as a whole, and to be more collaborative. It's a Herculean task, but a very rewarding one. Writing pop, as far as I'm concerned, is about exploring my own selfish concerns, of delving into my ego, my heart and my mind, and expressing it without offending anyone. And convincing them to listen. I found it was good for my ego to work with other musicians, and to open up to other people. All these pop stars like Lady Gaga and Kanye West, they seem lost in the contemplation of themselves.


Do you feel that you have a civic duty to take a stand on political and social issues, or is your music sufficient on its own?

As an American, I absolutely cannot be indifferent to what my country does, whether it is regarding foreign or domestic politics, because even not voting has an impact. I'm kind of old-fashioned, I believe fundamentally in the power of an album, of these dozen songs, of this hour of music, which is about the length of a symphony, which offers an emotional journey and a sensitive experience, and from which we emerge changed in some way, more empathetic, and more attentive to the world. It is not a space where you only feel safe, you can also feel uncomfortable, since it allows you to let go completely.


Ever since you started out, your songs have spoken explicitly about your life. Do you imagine writing exclusively from this angle?

That's an issue that fascinates me. These days, I'm passionate about the work of Randy Newman. His songs have nothing to do with his life at all. Which has never seemed like a possibility to me before. I have always considered writing in the denominational mode, of realism. I have chosen this path, and I do not think I will stray from it. But it is true that writing opera has made me consider what was best for the characters and for the story. It was a good exercise.


What is your relationship with social media?

With the help of my husband, we manage my Instagram account. I find it a light medium, kind of harmless. I don't read all the comments, but there is no controversy and no debate. I am also on Facebook, which is for old people, but I am old! Reading posts that are written by eccentrics who use Facebook as an outlet is quite entertaining. But I stay as far away from Twitter as possible.


What is the starting point of your songs?

Taking a long walk across a city often gives me ideas for songs. Walking helps me to unlock inspiration when I think I'm running dry. But I also believe in work: every morning, I head to the piano. I also like the idea of someone ordering music from me, because it helps me get out of my comfort zone. I often dream about songs too, and when I wake up, I record the melodies on my phone. 


It's not just the industry that has experienced a revolution, now the public also has a totally different relationship with music. Is that of concern to you?

I am optimistic by nature, but success is always difficult to achieve. Many people aspire to become rich through music, but that is a dangerous illusion. If you don't, you'll likely go crazy. Such a materialistic approach bothers me a lot. As Patti Smith once talked about, what matters is your personal work, not what is on the radio.


Of all your experiences as a musician, which has meant the most to you?

My pop records. I know I will never be Wagner or Puccini, although maybe one day I will write something that will still be listened to a century in the future. After a long absence, I feel I've returned to the heart of my existence, and I am grateful to find a bed in which to lie down.




Rufus Wainwright: Unfollow the Rules (BMG)

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