Rufus Wainwright on his new music, his favorite streaming TV, and why he might be getting a dog

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Rufus Wainwright in Los Angeles, January 2020.
Rufus Wainwright in Los Angeles, January 2020. (Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for The Art of Elysium)
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Interview: Rufus Wainwright
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Rufus Wainwright, whose career spans almost 25 years, was scheduled to release his 10th studio, Unfollow the Rules, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He has since delayed the release and opted to drop a few singles to tide fans over until the new July 10 release date. He discussed the parameters of his new record and much more in a recent interview with Mac Wilson.

Mac Wilson: It's good to have you on the phone today in these strange times. Now you're in Laurel Canyon, correct?

Rufus Wainwright: That is correct. Yes. Yes.

So, what is the weather like out there today? I know it's cliché to touch base with the weather right off the bat, but yeah.

Yeah, no, it's been beautiful, typical Southern California weather for the last week or so. I mean, we've actually had a lot of rain at one point, so that even makes it kind of glorious now because everything's blooming and still kind of green. There's some fire danger at the moment. That could all change, of course. But at the moment: it's perfect California time.

Yeah. Ironically, we have a fire warning here and I don't know if that's for dry conditions or just windy. It's super windy today. But yeah, we have the fire warning today. So there are like no recreational fires in Minnesota, which is strange.

Oh, well, you know, that just added to the stack of issues I guess.

So I'm curious about the myriad wildfires that have happened in Southern California and beyond over the last several years. Have you personally been affected by that?

Well, to a degree. I certainly know people who've lost properties and stuff. I mean, a lot of our friends are in Malibu. I don't know Neil Young so well — he's an acquaintance — but his house burned down. So, it strikes here occasionally. But I think it's more just the idea of, like a mental mindset that sets in where, you know, you're just completely on edge because at any moment everything could just literally go up in flames. So yeah, I think it's affected me deeply actually having lived through a few years...that kind of worry. And, maybe also, in a strange way, it's a positive sense because I think the world, environmentally, is under a lot of pressure. And being and living in California, you have a real sense of that and that and that has to be addressed.

It's so interesting that you say that with the mentality of, you know, cataclysms — like fire — being a threat where, as you say, at any moment, you need to flee your home and then that the current situation that we're in with the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea is that you need to stay in. You're sort of balancing the dangers. Like you said, it's just another on the long litany of worries.

Yeah, I know. But it's not. I guess I'm an optimist at heart. And, I do feel that we've certainly dug ourselves into quite a deep hole, and therefore, it's just going to take that much more energy and that much more struggle to get out of it. But at the end of the day, we will do what it takes.

So, Rufus, we've been phoning up various musicians to check in during this crisis. So off the bat, I'll say, how are you doing?

I'm very grateful for everything that I have. I mean, on the negative side, I've had to push the release of my album, Unfollow The Rules, to July 10. It was originally going to be out last week. But, we kept putting out tracks every day on Instagram and I'm working on other projects so there's a lot I can do in the meantime....and also in preparation. I also have a very nice home in the Hollywood Hills and I'm with my wonderful husband and beautiful daughter and, and our health is very good. We've known people who have been, you know, badly affected by this disease. A couple of friends have died and so we're familiar with where it can go. But all in all, I think I'm just incredibly grateful for all that I have and, and I also feel very remorseful for how it's gonna pan out for really the majority of the population because most people are going to lose their jobs or serious setbacks in their prospects. And so it's gonna be a rough, rough road but I think I'm gonna be okay.

And it's good to hear that and it's very heartening to hear the story of the balanced, mixed emotions that we all have. And I'm like this so I get that too. Before we chat about the new record and all of the complications they're in with pushing it back. I'm curious, does your daughter...if she's like my kids right now, is she playing a lot of video games?

It's funny because she's nine years old and there was a debate at one point when she got a computer and I always leaned on sort of the 12-year-old mark, which I know is probably a little later than most parents, but I was really kind of gunning for that. But you know, as soon as this occurred, this whole pandemic, you know, all of that went out the window. She has two computers now. One for school and one for us. And also we share custody with her mother. So, she goes back and forth. So, anyway, she has two computers and you know, she's communicating with her friends. She's not into video games, so much so. So we're kind of spared that. But yes, technology is definitely full-fledged into our child's life, which is a necessity.

Did you ever play computer games or video games growing up?

Well, to be honest, I wasn't allowed to. My mother was very strict actually with screens in general. You know, we were only allowed half an hour of television, and that was it. And we couldn't play, like no other friends of mine had like, you know, Atari and VIC-20s. Remember those? But it was also another era. I mean that we didn't, people didn't rely on them as much as I do now obviously.

I'm gonna bring that back to my own kids and say well Rufus Wainwright, I was talking to him today and he was allowed one-half hour of TV, so don't complain when I tell you to get off after three hours. So yeah, that's good to have in mind. So, Rufus, you said that you pushed back the release of your albu — and by coincidence, last Friday I was chatting with the band the Killers, I was chatting with Brandon and Ronnie. It was on the day that they delayed their album. They announced it on the day that you were supposed to release your album. They said that they were released. But, they were listening to what they called your new EP. And I'm like, "I didn't know that Rufus was turning it into an EP." Then I looked up the back story behind it. But you've got friends who are in largely the same boat who are supporting you at the same time.

Well, they've always been such a wonderful kind of — how can I say — this sexy shadow in my life, kind of wandering the distance and occasionally that I meet up with. And they're, you know, they're just such lovely guys and music fans and I'm very touched to hear that they're listening and stuff. So yeah, and then there are other people who released their album, I mean certainly you know, Fiona Apple is having a lot of success with her release that she's decided to go ahead with. I think for me, it was very important for my public to have a physical product because we worked very hard on the artwork for the record and especially in this day and age where vinyl is once again taking center stage, in terms of a music product. We concentrated heavily on that concept. So we wanted the full package to be available when it comes out.

So by my research, it looks like you've pushed it back to July 10. We've been spinning "Trouble in Paradise," we started playing that over the winter. And that's one that's been stuck in my head and I've enjoyed spinning that one over a while. So can you tell us a little bit about where that track began? One thing that jumps out to me is the drum part in the beginning that really draws me in and hooks me. Was at the genesis of it or where did that begin?

Yeah, well, I mean, the song itself was not necessarily kind of a throbbing, driven spectacle, you know? It was more kind of romantic when I first wrote it. But then, you know, once we got into the studio, I think I knew that it would be the opening track because I felt like it was a good sort of sentiment to, to put forward and to put in front of this record, just this kind of a Hollywood vision of beauty with, you know, the darkness in the corner. And so I know that would kind of be the first track and I wanted it to really grab the listener. So I sort of ripped off Queen a bit and like the "We will Rock You" concept and also Joan Jett, you know with "put another dime the jukebox, baby." So, it's sort of my homage to rock and roll, I guess at the very outset, at least with the song.

And then with one of the most recent songs that you've released, it is sort of the opposite of rock and roll: "Alone Time." That's a newish one that you just unveiled a couple of days ago. And that's sort of the antithesis of what you'd think of with a Queen or a Joan Jett. You have said in interviews that the meaning of that song means something different than it did even a few weeks ago. And as you've sent it out into the world, it's meant to be listened to with a new set of ears. So, for folks that don't know the story behind alone time...Can you talk about how the meaning of that tune has evolved?

Yeah, I wrote it many years ago now. Maybe about five years ago. It was for projects. A movie, actually. I don't know exactly what story you're referring to, because there are several connections to the song but, I'm just gonna say I really wrote it for that and then we recorded it and it was actually the first song that I recorded for the new record. There's an ironic kind of symbolism in it in that I'm singing "Alone Time" but there's you know, there's like a chorus of about 100 Rufuses is in the background joining me, so yeah.

When it came time to push the album to July 10, you know, we still wanted to release something on the day that the album was supposed to be released. So we thought "Alone Time" would be perfect, now with what's going on with the pandemic and this, you know, serious introversion that is occurring for everyone on the planet where you have to look inward, you know, "Alone Time" is very, very apropos. [In this pandemic] people have to die alone, they have to be kind of be in a strange room with strangers with covered faces from masks and stuff and without their family and not even able to talk to someone on the phone. And so, that must be really, really just the most challenging thing obviously, and for everybody in a family included. So, the song is kind of dedicated to those victims who have really had to go be alone at the end of their days, due to this terrible disease.

Rufus, as you say, we're trying to confront the duality of this pandemic, where it's a very lethal and horrible time in the world that affects many, many of us. And at the same time, we need to turn inwards and try to get through the best way that we can. So, are there any activities that you have taken up in your home in the meantime, that maybe you wouldn't have seen yourself getting into before?

Well, it isn't yet for sure. It may or may not happen, but we might get a dog which I've never...I mean, I had a dog many, many years ago, briefly, but I'm not necessarily a dog person. But we might be getting one and one of the main reasons that, you know, we have a nine-year-old daughter, Viva, and there has there have been doctors who have said, or psychologists or psychiatrists, that, you know, there's something to be said for kind of replacing this dark period with an event that's very positive for a child. Which is, you know, I don't think anything more positive than getting a dog for a kid, arguably so. So we're debating that and so there's that. I'm also really getting into movies. I mean in the sense like, I've become obsessed with the Criterion Collection. Do you know that?

Do you have the streaming channel that goes with it?

The Criterion Channel! I've been really watching great films, you know, really digging into the cinema once more, and the history of cinema because there's only so many Netflix shenanigans you can put up with, and Hulu and everything which I love all of that as well. But, it's kind of fun to go into the deep end of cinema.

One of the nice things that I think about Criterion is that they treat any movie as though, deep inside it can be a great movie. Like they'll feature something like Armageddon, which you wouldn't think of as a masterpiece, but they kind of take a really straight-faced approach to it. It makes you think about it in a new way.

No, totally. No, it's wonderfully curated. So I'm getting into that and working out as much as I can because it's very easy to just hang around in your robe all day and eat chocolate.

So as you've been adjusting to essentially working from home and as you said, playing songs on Instagram every day, how much of an adjustment was it to basically get your home ready to work from home? Is it something where you were able to step into it fairly easily? Or were you like: we need to buy a desk chair.

We were, we were very fortunate. I mean, we did purchase like a better microphone for the phone to have some, like, slightly better quality sound. I had actually been doing practice every morning and my husband Jorn would often surprise me by secretly recording me kind of while I was in this you know, trance of music. Those became you know, the robe recitals which started far before this pandemic had begun. Then once the pandemic hit, it just made sense to really continue that theme and just do a song a day and so I was kind of set up for it, oddly enough.

So as we're looking ahead to, at some point, when all of this subsides, you'll get back out on the road again. What sort of show do you have put together? Have you assembled exactly what you want the speed show to look like? What can we expect when you get back out?

I mean, I have an incredible band, who I feel terrible about having to let go for the meantime. We had a whole bunch of shows set up all over the world and those are not looking like they're going to happen but I will subsequently, you know, get them back when I can. I really felt for this album, Unfollow the Rules, that essentially, because it's a return to California and a return to my roots, musically, you know, from in terms of when I started my career 20 years ago. I was really focused on the songwriting and really focused on the kind of musicianship of all involved. I really wanted this tour to be somewhat streamed, slimmed down in the sense [that] it's really about the music and about me as an artist and kind of devoid of some of the more, you know, theatrical shenanigans, which I adore, and which will return. But for this project, I wanted it to be very, very kind of, you know, basic, essentially just about the songs.

Rufus, you mentioned that you wanted to sort of bring things back to where you were when you started off your career, bringing it back to sort of as a bookend for your first album that you recorded in the 1990s. There was a podcast that I listened to a while ago, where, I mean, there was a lot that went into it, but one of the points that was made is that the period of the late 1990s from like 1996 to 2000 probably peak record label, peak recording industry music, and that was right when you got into it. You were saying that it was like you had been handed the keys to the castle for your first record?

Retrospectively, it was a very good time. I don't think it was very long. You know, lasted maybe five or six years.

It was a bubble.

And arguably, it was the last bubble in the sense that...it's funny because I went to an event in Los Angeles before all this happened, before the pandemic thing, we went and it was celebrating you know, rock n' roll or whatever, and it was all people like Krist Novoselic from Nirvana. And then they had Marilyn Manson. And they had Courtney Love and all these people, and I realized that even though a lot of that music wasn't necessarily my vibe, it was nonetheless my period. I hung out with all those people. And, you know, we'd all go to each other's shows and stuff. And, and it kind of dawned on me seeing them all now 20 years later, that that was the end of rock and roll. That was the last sort of explosion where rock was at the forefront of popular culture. And, I missed that period because it was about the music. It was about not being so commercial, about being real in terms of who we were as an individual. There were a lot more women; in the sense that they weren't as dolled up as before. They were allowed to be imperfect. And so, it was a good period.

And as this period of pandemic is going on, do you foresee folks basically retreating to their homes and totally shaking up the style of music as it is? Or do you see it more as folks pressing the pause button and then jumping back into it as they were before? If you had to guess what would you say?

Well, God if I had to guess. Okay, well, my main point is that I would like to fight for going forward is that lyrics need to be better. There are some interesting sounds, there's some interesting production, there are certainly concepts out there that grab your attention, but when you really boil it down the lyrics aren't great right now for popular music. And I will say that with this pandemic period in our midst, I mean that is a perfect time to really focus on something wholeheartedly and without distractions. And I do think in a weird way writing is just perfectly conducive to that situation. I'm an optimist, so I trust that there's going to be some great artistic work that comes out of this. But where I think it's really needed is in the lyrical writing of the words. In the last few years, we've lost people like Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. There are still some great ones around, like Joni Mitchell like that. That's a real legacy that I think we need to focus on for the next period and this is a good time to work on that.


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