As the year 2020 began, anticipation for Rufus Wainwright’s upcoming album was running high.
Unfollow the Rules would be Wainwright’s first album of new pop material in eight years. Fans had been clamoring for it since news of Wainwright recording with producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello) first surfaced in 2018.
The album cover for Unfollow the Rules.
Wainwright planned to hit the road to support the album, but a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the road: COVID.
“Yeah, we had a whole set of tour plans that were immediately canceled and I had to make a quick left turn and figure out another strategy,” Wainwright said by telephone from his home in Los Angeles.
“And we did that. We did the Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective shows, and I did a bunch of shows from my living room,” Wainwright said. He’s referring to the intimate weekly sets he performed for a Web audience, playing every song from his original material albums over the course of several weeks.
“We kept the fire burning. But yeah, it was a shift for sure,” Wainwright said.
Shifts are nothing new for Wainwright. After his last album of new pop tunes, 2012’s Out of the Game, he completed and premiered his second opera, Hadrian; reworked and revived his first opera, Prima Donna; and set several Shakespeare sonnets to music, which were collected on the album, Take All My Loves.
Rufus Wainwright performing on tour.
Finally returning to the touring circuit this year, Wainwright did a round of dates with a full band, and is now touring solo, accompanying himself on guitar and piano. His solo tour comes to the Straz Center’s Ferguson Hall on Friday, Oct. 7.
“My audience is very dedicated and game for whatever I present to them,” Wainwright said, “so I feel that if it’s songs that they’re familiar with or songs that they’re just learning, there’s an equal level of enthusiasm.”
He’s unsure if the prolonged wait between album release and tour meant his audience had absorbed the Unfollow the Rules material more deeply.
The lag had benefits for him, though.
“Having had time to practice with and really have [the songs] settle into my bones was good on my end,” he said. “Because I didn’t tour, I had a lot of time to play the piano and really dig into my practicing.”
Wainwright sees Unfollow the Rules as a bookend to his first album, 1998’s Rufus Wainwright. Wainwright was living quite a different life when his debut was made than he does now.
Wainwright made his debut with an impressive pedigree – his parents were contemporary folk royalty Loudon Wainwright III and Kare McGarrigle. Heleft Canada for Los Angeles on the largesse of then deep-pocketed DreamWorks Records. He spent $700,000 recording 56 songs (of which a dozen were used) for his debut album.
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” the lead-off track from second album Poses (2001), hinted at Wainwright’s taste for decadence, which was confirmed when he spiraled into crystal meth addiction. He checked into rehab after a week he described as “surreal” in which he appeared on the BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous, partied with one of President George W. Bush’s daughters and spent a cocaine-fueled evening with his mother and singer Marianne Faithfull.
Wainwright’s current life is much less harrowing. Outside of music his focus is on his family – husband Jörn Weisbrodt and daughter Viva, whose mother is Lorca Cohen, daughter of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. (Wainwright sings Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the Shrek soundtrack album. It’s become a regular part of his setlist.)
Rufus Wainwright with his husband Jörn Weisbrodt.
Inevitably, songs Wainwright wrote in his 20s take on a new meaning.
“There’s a myriad of emotions and perspectives that have formed around them, and I am pretty shocked at how their meaning has shifted over the years,” Wainwright said. “Especially when death comes into the picture and, of course, life with having a child.”
His perspective also is affected by his work outside the singer-songwriter realm, his operas and the album of sonnets as well as his re-creation of Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall shows. Is Broadway next?
Rufus Wainwright performing at his Judy Garland tribute concert in Carnegie Hall.
One of the great questions from my fans is, ‘Rufus, when are you going to write your Broadway musical?’” he said. “I’m focusing on that concept. I can’t divulge anything specific, but I will say that my energies have really shifted to the stage.”
The diversity of his career is due less to any master plan and more to Wainwright’s willingness to follow his muse.
“I do feel strongly that, artistically, you have to just follow the yellow brick road, shall we say, and hopefully get to the Emerald City,” Wainwright said. “I think there are certain big plans that I’ve had — I’ve always wanted to write operas. I want do some musicals. I love Shakespeare. But aside from that, I just keep working, basically.”