Photo: Tony Hauser / Courtesy of Big Hassle

Paramour Session: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Rufus Wainwright

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright discusses performing during a pandemic, returning to California, and his latest live album, The Paramour Session.

Unfollow the Rules (The Paramour Session)
Rufus Wainwright
10 September 2021
Unfollow the Rules
Rufus Wainwright
10 July 2020

Unfollow the Rules, the title of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s most recent studio album, has taken on a new meaning, one that no one could have predicted during the album’s composition. It’s no longer simply a phrase his daughter came up with. It’s what he’s had to do over the past year and a half to keep producing music. On the title track, he sings, “Sometimes I feel like my brain turns to leaves,” which perhaps strikes more of a chord now than he originally intended.

The album was recorded in 2018 and 2019 and finally made available in July 2020 after COVID postponed its intended April release. For many of Wainwright’s fans, it had already been a long time coming. After putting out new music consistently since his critically acclaimed 1998 debut, he had taken a break from the realm of pop after 2012’s Out of the Game to rework his first opera, Prima Donna, and write a second, Hadrian. During that time, he also released 2016’s Take All My Loves, an album of musical adaptations of nine Shakespeare sonnets. Wainwright has a devoted fan base, but the Poses contingent was getting antsy. Unfollow the Rules was well-received across the board, earning positive reviews and a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Album.

In lieu of the slate of canceled tour dates for Unfollow the Rules, Wainwright, largely housebound like the rest of us, had to find a new way to do what he knows and loves best. Enter his Quarantunes series, which saw him playing his piano at home and streaming live to any number of his 116,000 Instagram followers. Fans excitedly tuned in while he played a different song every day from his extensive back catalog while clad in a bathrobe (maybe not a new one each day, but he’s forgiven).

As he finally embarks on a US tour, he’s also releasing a live companion album, The Paramour Session, recorded at the Paramour Mansion in Los Angeles in the summer of 2020. Now based in the Laurel Canyon area with his husband Jörn Weisbrodt and their daughter Viva, whom they share with Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca, Wainwright talked to PopMatters about adapting to the current climate as a musician, embracing middle age, and returning to California after 20 years with a family and a clear-eyed vision of how he’d like the next couple of decades to go.

I think the last time I saw you live would’ve been on the All These Poses anniversary tour in November of 2018. Obviously, the world was in an entirely different place, so I wanted to ask you how you’re feeling coming up on this tour.

I mean, whether it’s Afghanistan stuff, or abortion stuff, or fires and flooding, I feel like we’re in the midst of a really tumultuous period in American history. But with that being said, I’m excited to go out and be a part of the solution and be able to meet the issues where they come from. We live in LA, and a lot of my family is in New York, and I feel very fortunate about that. But I also have really been heartened when I go into the middle of the country and I get a sense of the situation there, and have conversations, and show my face in a place that, at least from the outside, seems implacable. So we’re hitting the streets.

Speaking to what you said about being part of the solution, I feel like you were one of the more accessible and interactive artists very early on in the pandemic. You were on Instagram Live playing for your followers. I can speak for myself and say that it was super helpful for me, being depressed and in bed in a bathrobe, being able to watch you at home at the piano playing songs I’ve been listening to for 20 years. It’s pretty rare to see musicians we love in that way. How much of that was for you, and how much was for the fans? 

I would say equal amounts of that whole situation should go to my husband, Jörn, to his prodding. He was brought up in Germany, and I think for him, the idea of sitting around doing nothing is not what they do over there. So when the pandemic hit, he was the one who said, “Why don’t we sing some songs, sing a song a day,” so I went along with it. I have two sides to my background. My mother was Catholic, and my father is from a Protestant background. I usually luxuriate in my Irish heritage, romanticism, and dreams, and stuff. Still, sometimes it’s good to get the Protestant work ethic out there, especially in the midst of a global crisis. But yes, my husband was the cheerleader on that. If I was alone, I don’t know if it would’ve happened. I would’ve thought about it! [laughs]

Photo: Tony Hauser / Courtesy of Big Hassle

I’ve been listening to The Paramour Session, which turned out beautifully: the set of stripped-down songs from Unfollow the Rules with just you, a piano, a guitar, and a string quartet. I saw that you also all were in robes and kimonos, so that carried over, which I love. Can you talk a little about how that session came to be and what drew you to the Paramour Mansion?

I’ve known about the Paramour for years. In fact, anyone who wants to live there can, at the moment, if they have about $40 million. It’s actually on the market. But it’s an amazing spot. Whether it’s the interior or the garden, it’s one of the great LA white elephants that thankfully still exists. I’ve always loved going there. When it became apparent that the tour would be canceled and the album would be released, and there wouldn’t be anything concrete to hang my hat on, we really wanted to do something, so we came up with the idea of filming this show at the Paramour.

In retrospect, it was kind of a gutsy move. Arguably, we may have been breaking a couple of laws here and there. It was at the height of the pandemic, and people weren’t really supposed to be leaving their homes much. But also, at the same time, the Black Lives Matter protests were going on, so we were certainly in the majority in terms of getting out there. But having this fear of COVID and everybody in our double masks, wearing rubber gloves in the heat of LA, which later became fire, and then the protests going on outside. There was a real sense of drama and occasion that I think the recordings capture, giving it this kind of intensity that I think many people can relate to.

That’s a good assessment. It’s a very quiet kind of intensity; it’s stripped-down, but it still felt very purposeful. 

Yeah, and I think for me, too, it was the first time I was really able to sing in quote-unquote public and express the fear and anxiety and also the transcendence that a musician can when they’re in the midst of a crisis. Which, sadly, was something that our society was not very good at championing. Everyone would always talk about when is the next sports event or when are we going to open bars and restaurants? The theaters and the music and the concert halls — that’s where the crux of these matters is really digested and sort of explained. Maybe they tend to avoid that because it happens regardless, as I can attest to. [laughing] We keep performing.

You have two unreleased songs on The Paramour Session. At least one of them sounds like it was written recently, but were they both written over the past year?

“Treat a Lady” was written a long time ago. That’s a song I wrote for a friend of mine, Kick Kennedy [Jr.], from the famed family. And then the Easter song was a couple of Easters ago.

The only other non-Unfollow the Rules song is “Going to a Town”, which feels appropriate due to the renewed relevance — or maybe it’s always relevant. Am I correct in assuming that’s why it’s there?

Yes. Yeah, that song is perennial at this point. [laughs] It used to be that at the end of every presidency. There was maybe a reason to sing it, but now, it’s a popular favorite, unfortunately.

You talk in the documentary Unmaking Unfollow the Rules about how you made the record with a return to California in mind because you had gone through it in the music business, and you took a break to spend time with opera. I’m kind of obsessed with the fact that not only did you stake your claim, but you ended up in Laurel Canyon, especially after your mother [folk singer Kate McGarrigle] forbade you to listen to Joni Mitchell, which is just a fantastic house rule. It’s hilarious. Did you surprise yourself by settling your family there?

I did, in a lot of ways. I can’t stress enough how many deep and powerful names I experienced musically growing up, coming from a folk background. There was a real intense worship of traditional folk music, like the field recordings from the Library of Congress, and my mother was very much a part of that staunch collective. So people like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were very much pooh-poohed growing up. 

With that being said, I had a lot of success early on in Los Angeles with my first albums, so I had something to return to. But then I also realized it’s ironic, because on the one hand, my mother had this staunch sensibility, but also, her greatest hits were recorded by Linda Ronstadt, who is firmly from Laurel Canyon and that tradition. So it’s always been a bit of a double-edged sword. I think that’s what makes Laurel Canyon so interesting and so vibrant. Even to this day, in a way. It’s a little country town in the middle of a metropolis. There are very wealthy people there, but there are also real crazy people in the hills. If you go down to Sunset Boulevard, you see the homeless people, and you’re not sequestered in Beverly Hills. It’s a definite chakra. I gravitated towards where the energy was.