In the run-up to the release of his new Unfollow the Rules (QRO review), Rufus Wainwright talked with QRO. In the conversation, the singer/songwriter/opera-writer discussed the new album, the recent accompanying livestream Unfollow the Rules: The Paramour Session (QRO review), previous #Quarantunes home videos, making music during all of this, social justice, stepping away, coming back, his dedicated female fans The Rufettes, Haribo gummy bears, and more…
QRO: How are you holding up with everything that is going on?
Rufus Wainwright: Oh, you know, we’re all in the same boat here, so I find it necessary to really count my blessings, and be positive about what’s in store. You know, like, focus on social justice, and have time to compose, exercising, and spending time with my kid. That’s how I’m choosing to go along with this.
Also focusing, of course, on getting rid of this present government. [laughs] I think it’s plain for everybody that nothing will really change unless we have a new government. And when I say, “government,” I mean, like, the whole lot: The Senate and the Presidency.
QRO: How are things in Laurel Canyon?
RW: There was a real effort, months ago, to flatten the curve, and both L.A. and San Francisco were very diligent. I don’t know what happened, but obviously they didn’t accomplish what they needed to go on.
But, whatever. I think, if anything, this is just an illustration of the fact that humanity has to take care of humanity, in the sense that we’re all connected, and without big swathes of people, across the planet, helping each other out, it’s not going to be feasible.
QRO: And how’s the rest of your family doing?
RW: No complaints. Thankfully, unlike certain friends of mine, we’ve been spared illnesses so far, knock on wood. So, I’m grateful for that.
But you know, it’s funny. We’re all artists, most of us in the family. I have to say, this is a great time to really write, to really compose, to really go deep, creatively. I don’t think that can be minimalized, how fortunate that we are as artists to have that moment.
Right before the pandemic, I was touring all over the world, doing shows here & there, making money and all this stuff, but I just started to lose a little bit of the thread of the act of creation, of doing that for that sake. So, yeah, it’s nice to return to the basics, a little bit.
This is just an illustration of the fact that humanity has to take care of humanity.
QRO: How was making Unfollow the Rules?
RW: Well, it was a long process. I mean, it took about three years to make the album. I didn’t work continually on that; there were months where I had to go out and do other things.
What was great was that I had a fantastic producer, Mitchell Froom. He worked really hard to maintain a sense of continuity, and a sense of quality, and a sense of, I don’t know, intensity, during a very long time. In the end, I think the album feels very fresh, it feels very immediate, which is thankfully so. It’s not convoluted, which I like.
QRO: While an awesome title in general, it’s not exactly well-timed for right now, is it?…
RW: Well, there’s an argument there, though.
I think before the Black Lives Matter protests, I actually was a little worried about putting out an album with that title, at that moment.
But then once the protests started happening, kind of reexamination of society & America, it now makes sense again.
QRO: You had been doing so much other stuff before Rules, adapting Shakespeare’s sonnets, your own opera – what was it like, going back to a ‘regular album’?
RW: It was incredibly fulfilling. I highly recommend, any artist, be it writer, singer, whoever, to really step away from your discipline for a period of time, and get some perspective. And also regain some of the inspiration. Rediscover why you did it in the first place.
QRO: Does doing all those other different things make each one feel fresher when you ‘return’ to it?
RW: It always feels good to come back. I’m actually very excited, after a while now, to return to the opera world. And I feel very fortunate to have that mechanism in my life.
QRO: Are you itching for it to be finally be out, after the release being delayed due to the coronavirus?
RW: You know, I am. But it’s a little odd, not jumping on the road, and doing shows. That I’m not happy about. [laughs]
I miss seeing my fans, I miss the wonderful places I used to go visit, I miss just making music every day with my band. That’s the most tragic part of this predicament.
And it’s quite tragic, because I’ve lost a lot of money, a lot of my crew are out of work. There’s nothing much too positive about that. That’s been unfortunate.
QRO: How do the Rufettes feel about “This One’s For the Ladies (Who Lunge)”?
RW: I did a livestream not too long ago, and there was a lot of comments while it was happening. I looked at them again, and it seems like I passed. They kept their arrows in their quivers, [laughs] and are still ‘on team’. They got the joke.
QRO: And what’s with the digs at Lawrence, Kansas in “You Ain’t Big”?
RW: Well, it’s a dig, but it’s also a backhanded compliment.
I’ve played a lot of those states over the years. And it is always challenging, when I’m in the Bible Belt, or in the Rust Belt, and I’m playing some small town, it can be tough.
Every time, on these tours, when I would roll into Lawrence, because of the university there, it has a very liberal history, I could always kind of sigh, and breathe out, and release, and feel like I was in Amherst or something. [laughs] It has a very ‘oasis-like’ quality in the Mid-West.
QRO: Where did the idea of doing Unfollow The Rules: The Paramour Session livestream come from?
RW: It was my idea. I’ve known that space for years, and I felt that it was important to have some sort of live performance for the release of this record. Do it differently from just, let’s say, doing it in the studio, or in my living room, or something – I wanted something slightly more ‘Wainwright-ian’ and lavish, so the Paramour allowed me to do it.
And they were very generous. It wasn’t free or anything, but we made it work for everybody, which was great.
QRO: Was it difficult to practice & set up, given the social distancing and everything?
RW: It’s a massive space, and they have huge grounds.
So, we spent a lot of time outside. We always had masks on, except when I was singing, myself, but everybody else kept them on, all the time. We were very diligent. It wasn’t difficult at all.
When you have a mansion, acres of gardens, it’s doable… [laughs]
QRO: You explained that you couldn’t sing with a mask on, but did you ever feel guilty when you had no mask on, and everyone else did?
RW: Look, I’m the star… [laughs] I’m allowed a little moment of uniqueness here.
As a singer, you know, you kinda turn into a different animal. Look, if Donald Trump was singing all the time, I would kind of understand, why he doesn’t want to wear a mask. [laughs] When you sing, you become this other creature, and the mask thing just really doesn’t work.
But I’ve never heard Donald Trump sing. There’s no getting off that hook…
I highly recommend, any artist, be it writer, singer, whoever, to really step away from your discipline for a period of time, and get some perspective.
QRO: Were you nervous about the worldwide livestream? I noticed that it was timed for both the Americas (morning/afternoon) and Europe (evening)…
RW: I don’t really think about those things so much. I just show up & do my job. Eat & leave… [laughs]
QRO: I loved that place, The Paramour Estate – and the whole livestream was also an advertisement for it…
RW: You can rent rooms there, actually. If you ever want a kind of very unique vacation, you can rent a part of the estate.
And as I said before, it’s easy to social distance there. There’s no restaurant or anything; there’s no staff. But you can have the run of the place. So, it is available for rent – you know, all that can be yours… [laughs]
QRO: Why did you decide to give the ‘backstory’ to so many of the songs? Was the whole event an ‘introduction’ to the new record?
RW: I’ve always done that. I’ve always been very transparent about my writing process and my creative journey, and the influences that have really hooked me over the years. So, it’s part of my general narrative.
I’m just used to being honest, for better or for worse.
QRO: Have you thought about selling those Unfollow the Rules masks?
RW: Oh, all of that will be there. That’s all advertisements.
We have masks, we have some amazing t-shirts. Which I guess you can pick up now, on the website.
They’re very comfortable, by the way. They’re not the most, how can I say, ‘technologically advanced,’ 100% effective quality masks in the world, but they’re as good as a bandana, and that seems to be the general rule of thumb right now, is bandana-wearing.
I’m just used to being honest, for better or for worse.
QRO: Did The Paramour Session partly come out of making your #Quarantunes videos? At least the kimonos…
RW: Yeah, we continued that theme, with the bathrobes and stuff.
I guess I just have to work all the time. I have some sort of deficiency, where I just can’t stop creating, expressing myself, doing little shows here & there. So, I’m sorry… [laughs]
QRO: [laughs] I loved those #Quarantunes.
On a personal note, when I was in high school, I was in a band called “Quaranteen” – so any pun on “quarantine,” I love…
RW: Oh, great, there you go – that’s a good one.
QRO: We were talking about getting back together, now that our name is out there…
RW: Yeah, this is the time. Strike while the iron is hot…
QRO: And how do you know when to end something ongoing like that? A lot of artists have done weekly installments along those lines, but everyone has had to end before the quarantine has…
RW: I did it when I ran out of songs that I could do solo. And that happened to be the exact number of sixty, so it was exactly two months, which is kind of spooky & mystical in a way.
But there’s a whole other slew of material that I could have entered into, but it would have required accompaniment. It was about being alone, so that would kind of defeat the purpose.
I guess I just have to work all the time. I have some sort of deficiency, where I just can’t stop creating, expressing myself, doing little shows here & there. So, I’m sorry…
QRO: Also, have you been working on any new material during this extended lockdown?
RW: I write kind of all the time.
In fact, in the Paramour Session, there’s a new song that I sang called “Happy Easter”, which I wrote during quarantine.
And as I said before, thankfully, I have this operatic arm to my career. It does require a lot of time for me to sit down and compose – which I was worried about doing, knowing that I had an album to promote, and that I would have to carve out the sections from my tour. But I’m gonna become the next Wagner and Beethoven, combined, [laughs] considering how much time I have.
QRO: During this time, have you picked up and/or accelerated any bad habits? Like I went a long time without shaving…
RW: Oh god…
We have this ‘candy corner’ in our kitchen. [laughs] My husband’s German, and they have Haribo gummy bears – I think gummy bears are Enemy #1. Or I’m Enemy #1 to the gummy bears – I don’t know…
And also, there’s a terrible Instagram page called Girls Getting Hurt. Which is so bad, and so politically correct, but it’s hilarious. It’s just girls having these terrible accidents, which is a serious guilty pleasure, but whatever. Like girls who are doing selfies of themselves, falling into a pool or whatever…