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

What was most important for you to do with Unfollow the Rules as an album, at this point in your life and career?

I wanted to offer my fans a real Rufus record. I felt that, over the years, I had taken them on many interesting journeys that I think they appreciated very much — whether it’s opera or Songs for Lulu or Judy Garland. But I was sensing a slight impatience from my core fans, who were like, “We wouldn’t mind just taking a break for a while and hearing some good old Rufus-type material.” So I felt the need to bring that back. 

And in returning to California — we had to return there mainly to be closer to our daughter because we share custody. So that was the main thrust of it. But then, in coming back 20 years after I started my career there, I had a real sense of perspective of what had occurred and also how big it was, at the outset, how successful. Even though I never made lots of money or anything, and I wasn’t on the charts, but critically and by the industry itself, I was very much championed. So it was nice to realize that 20 years later, and that it’s still bankable, and I’m able to kick up some dust and make some noise and play the Greek.

You mentioned James Taylor earlier. I’m sorry if this is a sore subject, but you were nominated for a Grammy. It was only your second nomination, which is a little suspect to me, but that’s fine. You lost to James Taylor. Are you at peace with that? Whose approval means the most to you, and why?

Well, I will not deny that the elusive Grammy has become a bit of a proverbial carrot that I will probably chase until I catch one. And that’s par for the course. My father [Loudon Wainwright III] went through the same thing. He was nominated three times before he won a Grammy. So it’s just a tradition, at this point, and that’s okay. 

The one thing I’ve always hated is false modesty. The number of times I hear artists say, “Oh, I don’t care about awards. It doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s all about the music. It’s all about being real.” I’m like, “That’s total bullshit.” [laughs] There’s a difference between being honest, like, “I’d love a Grammy,” and being ferociously only into the Grammys, which I am not either. But I admit my failings in that department.

I don’t know that I would go that far, but I think it’s fair to say that you would not mind a Grammy.

I wouldn’t mind a Grammy.

On Unfollow the Rules and especially on The Paramour Session, to me, your singing is the most impressive it’s been. There’s always been an effortless quality to your natural vocal talent, but lately, it feels more finely tuned and like you’re fully in control of it, whereas early in your career, your voice felt like the driving force. Is that something you worked toward, or is it just decades of performance?

I would credit the majority of that fact to my love of opera. I’ve always emulated and also studied the opera world. And in terms of singing, all of the great singers hit their stride in their 40s and 50s. That’s when you can actually perform the big role and have the gravitas to do it. I’ve always shadowed an operatic sensibility with my voice, where I just played the long game, and now I’m at the height of my powers. And sadly, it will fade at some point, but I don’t know — it’s fun to ride it when you know what you’re doing. [laughs]

Photo: Courtesy of Big Hassle

It feels like you’ve fully harnessed it. I want to ask about the song “Early Morning Madness”. I might be creating parallels where there aren’t any, but it sounds like a more sinister version of “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”. It has that parallel piano rhythm.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve noticed that, actually — that it is very much a kind of reflection of that.

It has the lines “Gotta get some rest, I guess / Gotta take some time to be well.” Whereas with “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, it’s your cravings and indulgences. Is this newer version the one where the artist has resentfully embraced a sort of sobriety and is trying to be okay with things being boring and normal while being a little bit frustrated?

I’ve been very well behaved for very many years now. I am struck by the fact that, as I get older, especially in the early morning — and I’m talking four, five in the morning — there are these panic attacks, which I’m seized with. What’s going on with the world, what’s going on in my life, what’s that all about. And especially with COVID, of course, where if you have a little dry cough at five in the morning, you think that by the evening, you’ll be on a ventilator. So even though the song itself is referring to substances and stuff, it is also a testament that you’re never out of the woods. As human beings, we will always be tortured [laughs] and you have to ride with it sometimes and express it, and not let it take you down.

The concept of life as a game is something you’ve returned to a number of times. There’s that line in “Poses”, which I love: “Life is a game, and true love is a trophy.” It comes up again in Unfollow the Rules a couple of times, like in the chorus of “Peaceful Afternoon”: “It’s all a part of the game.” Is that something you think about a lot?

Yes. I am often heartened by being able to step back and see the forest for the trees and realize that, essentially, this is a kind of wonderful mural, a wonderful jigsaw puzzle, a wonderful symphony that we’re each a part of. And that, to the observer, can create a beautiful narrative that is good, innately. There are darker sides to humanity, of course, and I in no way want to minimize the tragedies of life. But, in general, life is a pretty beautiful thing if you are able to step back and take it in all of its fullness and appreciate it for what it is. And it’s really important to do that because there are times when you can’t. So I try to do that whenever I can.

The official announcement from your label, BMG, describes Unfollow the Rules as a bookend to your debut, which sort of implies a resolution or the end of something. Should we be concerned, or is there more on the horizon?

[laughs] I look at it like the beginning of something else. I’ve completed this section of the library, and I’m beginning to explore new territory, whether it’s the Broadway world, which is very important to me right now, and the West End in London. I’m doing a lot of theatrical stuff, none of which has been formally announced, but it will be. It’s definitely happening. I’m dedicated to that. 

I’d like to write another opera at some point. I also would love to do a French record. That’s very important to me. And then there’s continuing singing with my family and so forth. And I’ll make other Rufus Wainwright songwriting albums as well. But if you look at my first album and then Unfollow the Rules, there’s a lovely arc that exists. There’s a nice trajectory that I can firmly point to and be like, “That’s a fun trip if you wanna take it.”

You did a lot of the illustrations for the album and the corresponding videos. To me, they look like a mix of Peter Max and Edward Gorey. Is drawing something you’ve always done?

Yeah, I’ve done that for years. I drew incessantly as a child. I briefly went to art school as a college student, and then I designed some of my album covers. For this project, I brought back some of the illustrative components in full force. And that black-and-white style, I’ve always been attracted to it. I always just went there naturally, thinking, “One day, I’ll develop into more of a painter or an illustrator who uses different mediums.” But now, I think this is what I do. [laughs] I think this is my actual style now. I’m more accepting of it being the way I draw and taking the joy from it that I can and continuing to do it for the love of it, as opposed to worrying about the great artists — which I did worry about. Which one should, when they’re young.

What’s your relationship with the art of drag? You incorporate it into your work fairly often, and again, in the “Trouble in Paradise” video, you’re in drag. When do you turn to it? Are you playing characters, or is it an extension of yourself?

Interesting. I’ve done it a few times in a… how can I say this, a meta way. [laughs] In that video, I start out in drag, and then I become myself, like drag in reverse. I don’t know. Drag is so different now than when I was young. It has become a total industry and an art form for a lot of young gay men; I guess mainly through RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s a viable career. And I think there are great things about that, and there are also some bad things. When I was younger, there was a tragic quality to drag queens. There was this kind of Jean Genet element. It was kind of dark and sad, but there was a strength there, a kind of survival. Now, it’s gotten more commercial. Maybe because I’m older, I think of it as a more decadent thing. I don’t do it often. Every once in a while, she pops up. [laughs]

It feels like, with this most recent album, you’re becoming at peace with yourself as an adult and embracing the range of emotions and experiences in any given day. It’s not just wrapped with a bow; it’s kind of a roller coaster. So maybe with that sense of self in mind, I want to ask what you’re most proud of in your life as an artist and a human being who’s survived the last however many years.

My husband and I decided a few years ago to move back to California and be fathers to Viva, and it’s been an incredible journey. It’s going by so fast. And the returns are tenfold, at least. So, emphatically, I can say that our work together as fathers — I feel so lucky to be able to do that, especially coming from a generation that really didn’t have that concept at all for many, many years. Being a father is top of the pile.

I will also say taking care of my health. My mother died of cancer when she was 63, and I had an aunt who died recently, fairly young, who had health problems for many, many years. And to see people start to waver a little bit, I am so grateful to have good health at the moment, especially with COVID.

And I have to say, I am proud of my operatic exports. That has not been an easy mountain to scale. I was not accepted at all at the outset. Now there have been seven productions of my first opera, and we’re doing Hadrian again in the summer in Spain. I have very good relationships with some amazing singers, like Renée Fleming, and certain opera houses. I have real allies in that world. That took a lot of work and a lot of dedication, and it certainly didn’t make me any money. [laughs] Those are some things I’m happy with.

That is no small feat, to go from truly loving something to saying, “You know what, maybe I can do this.”

To being a part of it.

You’ve mentioned that you wrote Unfollow the Rules as an outlet for your frustrations during the production of your operas, as a break from opera. Musically, where are you most at home, if anywhere?

Now, I have to say, I’m in the Broadway world and also the Broadway musical film world. I have songs that I’m writing for movies and also songs for the theater. And, I don’t know, I’m a formidable force at this point, having gone through the opera gauntlet and survived the pop jungle. I have a lot of colors in my easel, and I feel really excited about what I have to offer to the theater — and, to be honest, the actual payoff if you have a big hit. It can be very lucrative, and it can hit society in a very fundamental way. If it does well, you’re moving the ball with the general public. So I’m excited to be in that strong environment at the moment. 

In addition to your fan base, people, in general, are primed for that because it’s been such a huge thing lately.

They’ve been asking me for years, and I’ve put it aside, but it’s time for it to happen.