After two critically-acclaimed opera releases, Wainwright returns to his pop roots with Unfollow the Rules.
“Every time I release an album, my brain flourishes into a bouquet of insanity,” says Rufus Wainwright with a laugh. “Oftentimes, the different flowers include fame and wealth and rave reviews. And by the time it comes out, I’m usually not so much disappointed, but it’s a rude awakening, in terms of how it matches my imagination, because I always think big.”
Wainwright is calling from his home in Los Angeles as he’s about to release Unfollow the Rules, his latest studio album, on July 10.
He probably won’t be disappointed with the way this album is received, given that it’s highly anticipated, as it’s coming after a long break since his last pop album (2012’s Out of the Game). Wainwright didn’t walk away from music during the intervening years, though – he merely switched to an opera career.
“Devils & Angels (Hatred)” is the new video from Rufus Wainwright off his latest LP Unfollow the Rules
“I was fortunate enough to be able to take a hiatus from the pop world and really pursue my passion for opera. I don’t think I conquered the classical world, but I did make a dent. But after a few years, I started to really miss my day job,” Wainwright says. This break, he adds, helped him find “a newfound appreciation for the pop world and for songwriting. Absence definitely does make the heart grow fonder.”
Wainwright says he decided to step away from pop music after he’d begun to feel like he was “on a bit of a hamster wheel with records. There was always a strategy and a game plan that had to go into every album I made. It became a bit of a day job.” Once he no longer felt under pressure from a record label or anyone else, though, he says the songs for Unfollow the Rules came quickly. “Songwriting very much became a beautiful thing that I love to do, as an exploration of my inner feelings, without the thought of how to release it or if it related to what was going on in this day and age.”
Besides changing his approach to music, Wainwright has also undergone other significant changes since his last pop album: he’s become a husband and father, which he says have impacted his outlook and his writing. Having a child, in particular, has required him to “learn that you take second place [as a parent], and you really have to be able to step back and do all that you can to facilitate what’s needed for this next generation. For performing artists, that’s really tough to do, and so I think that’s a very big difference with this period [of my life].”
Photo by Tony Hauser
But Wainwright adds that as momentous as marriage and parenthood are, things have always been rather eventful for him. “My life was always jam-packed with events, whether it was my relationship with my mother and her sad demise from cancer, or my fraught relationship with my father that’s gone up and down over the years. Or being gay. I’ve always lived a very full life, and ravenously searched out every opportunity that this planet has to offer, for better or for worse.”
All of Wainwright’s life experiences inform his lyric writing. “I don’t consider myself a genius in that department, [but] I think I write very good lyrics at times. I do feel that it’s an art form that is under threat at the moment, in terms of what you hear on the radio and in the mainstream. There’s not a lot of attention paid to the words. That distresses me. So I felt really strongly that the lyrics on this album should be particularly solid and meaningful and resound in a certain way. I worked really hard on that.”
In truth, Wainwright was likely always destined to display significant songwriting abilities, given his background. He was born to folk music legends Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, and his sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, are also highly successful musicians. It is, inarguably, a true musical dynasty. Wainwright readily admits that this has helped him – but also forced him to work harder at his craft.
“Look, on one hand, the ladder was presented to me as a child,” Wainwright says of his family background, “but I very much chose to climb it. And certainly, I’m very grateful for all the opportunities that I had, and I do think that I am from a privileged position on many fronts, in terms of getting ahead in the world in general. But it leads to higher expectations and also, having been surrounded by so many brilliant musicians, you have to carve out your own identity. You have to differentiate yourself from what’s around you. And I did that.”
One key to finding his own unique musical voice, Wainwright says, was that “I’ve always been incredibly honest and true about what I’m doing. There is never been a manipulation of the situation in order to appease the gods of the present. Every artistic move, every look, every sentence that I would say in interviews, it was always exactly how I was feeling at that time. And it either fit with what was going on in the world or was completely alien. I think at the end of the day, people appreciated that truth, in a lot of ways.”
His devoted fan base has faithfully followed Wainwright starting with his 1998 self-titled debut album and the six pop records that followed, and they continued to support him during his foray into classical music with his next two albums (Prima Donna in 2015 and Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets in 2016). Wainwright also found massive success with his moving cover of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah” for the Shrek soundtrack in 2001.
Reviews for Unfollow the Rules indicate that it, too, will likely add to Wainwright’s list of successes – though he says he’s learned to temper his expectations this time.
“I am very at peace with whatever happens with this record, whether it explodes or it silently disappears. I think I’m confident enough in the material to love it for what it is and let it have a life of its own.”