Rufus Wainwright got a dog.
He’s not necessarily a dog person, but his 9-year-old daughter, Viva, wanted one, and the shelter-in-place order in Los Angeles was approaching two months, and, well, welcome to the family, Puccini the Australian shepherd.
The name was a given, what with Wainwright’s lifelong adoration for the opera, and his previous decade writing two operas of his own. Puccini will learn to love the opera, too.
“That’s a requirement in this house,” Wainwright said in a mid-May call from his home in Laurel Canyon.
The quarantine, which has postponed the release of Unfollow the Rules, Rufus Wainwright’s first pop music album in a decade by more than two months, is affecting the acclaimed singer-songwriter in several ways. He’s lost several friends to COVID-19, and he’s now not only a father but a teacher to his daughter. Throughout the ordeal he’s managed to share himself with fans by—until recently—sharing home performances, as well as reading and drawing. He went to art school and the lockdown has provided more opportunities to get back into illustrating. In fact, when he finally gets around to releasing the new album on July 10, it will now include additional illustrated elements that he’ll be releasing around the same time.
On this afternoon, the buzz in his home comes across the Zoom line.
With his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt talking in the background, Wainwright, 46, apologized for keeping the video off because his house was a mess and he’d just finished exercising. It takes a minute for him to find a quiet place—presumably free of daughters and puppies—upstairs. He and Weisbrodt share custody of Viva with her mother Lorca Cohen (Leonard Cohen’s daughter), and like any father, Wainwright is living in the wide world of distance learning.
“Part of it is also monitoring that set-up, which is pretty iffy, in my opinion,” he said. “Online schooling for a 9-year-old is a serious challenge for everybody involved.”
Nonetheless, Wainwright says spending quality time with his daughter has been one of the most positive aspects of pandemic.
“I wouldn’t want to have a 15-year-old or 16-year-old, necessarily, banging around the house at this point, but I think a 9-year-old is really magical,” he said.
Wainwright moved back to L.A. so he could raise his daughter. The move ended up sparking his new album, which he calls a bookend to the first act of his music career. While he was born in New York and raised in Montreal by his artist parents, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, alongside sister Martha Wainwright, he “failed miserably” at trying to launch a music career in New York.
“I went there in my early 20s, and what I wanted to offer was not at all what the people were demanding, in terms of being a gay, opera-loving dandy-ish piano-playing romantic boy,” he said. “It was an anathema to the New York scene.”
His life changed after he signed to DreamWorks Records and moved to Los Angeles, where he was finally embraced by the music industry, which supported him on his early records, 1998’s self-titled debut and 2001’s Poses.
“I definitely got this feeling that a full circle had been completed, and that this was the end of an era for me, and therefore, the beginning of a new one,” he said.
He recorded Unfollow the Rules at some of the same studios that he used for the debut album, alongside some of the same session musicians. He calls Los Angeles the epicenter of his music’s world, and the new album has several nods to Southern California icons.
Single “Damsel In Distress” is structured on the style of Joni Mitchell, whom Wainwright and his husband had gotten to know. On numerous songs, he layers his voice to create a harmony. While it’s something he’s done for years, it’s very much an homage to Brian Wilson, he said.
Since moving to Laurel Canyon, the couple has dug into the area’s history. After reading a biography of silent film actress Louise Brooks, Wainwright discovered that the home she lived in in the 1920s is right outside his bedroom window. He looks out each day to envision what life was like back then.
Elsewhere on the album, Wainwright takes on Stephen Sondheim with “This One’s for the Ladies (That Lunge)”—a take on Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch;” the drug addiction that could have killed him when he was younger on “Early Morning Madness” (about waking up hungover); a content married life on “Peaceful Afternoon;” and “Trouble in Paradise” was originally written for a musical he was working on with Dutch fashion designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, which never got off the ground.
“What happened to that musical? What happened to the 20 musicals that I was writing, or the 50 films that I was going to do the soundtrack for?” Wainwright said. “I’ve done a lot of theatrical works. Two operas and I did Shakespeare sonnets, and I’ve had lots of music in movies. But I will say that really getting something produced in earnest is one of the hardest things on earth to do. And it’s going to get even harder, sadly, now with the pandemic.”
Wainwright has spent much of the past decade away from the pop music world, concentrating on his first love—opera. He composed his first opera, “Prima Donna,” in 2009 and it was performed in London, New York, Paris, Buenos Aires and Hong Kong. His second, “Hadrian,” based on the relationship between Hadrian and a lover, premiered in 2018 in Toronto.
In 2016, he released an album of nine Shakespearean sonnets set to music. Although he wouldn’t share specifics, he said he’s also now working on a ballet project: “Rufus is going to the ballet very soon.”
He said he left the pop world behind because he had grown bored of it and the industry, which consisted of repetitive album cycles. But eventually, he was ready to return to his bread and butter.
“Having been away and also worked in the classical music world, which is incredibly brutal and very, very demanding and kind of poisonous at times, it gave me a new appreciation of the pop world and really made me kind of fall back in love with where I came from, which was the songwriting realm,” he said. “I think that this album kind of has … a freshness to it that I think rubs off.”
Wainwright’s daughter came up with the title for Unfollow the Rules one day by declaring, as kids sometimes do, that she wanted to unfollow the rules, and although he asked his friends for ideas, he could never get away from it. The title isn’t about the desire to cast rules aside but to examine the need for them, he has said.
The artist said his daughter was a full participant in the creation process, and she has a beautiful singing voice, though neither he, his husband or Viva’s mother wants to push her into show business. He himself was pushed, though he acknowledges that he was more than willing to “jump through the hoops for the treats” when he was a child. His mother caught his and his sister’s talents early on and coached the two.
“I think [Viva] has the talent if she chooses to pursue that,” he said. “I still believe that it’s one of the great worlds to inhabit. I have this real distinct memory of my mother, Kate, writing songs with her sister in the house in Montreal. I must have been around 6 or 7, and my mother was so elated because they had come up with some great chorus or something. She turned to me and she said, ‘You know Rufus; they’re right. There is no business like show business!’ It’s funny because that’s my daughter’s favorite song at the moment. And I think that that’s totally true, so I’m all for it.”
Unfollow the Rules was initially planned for release in April, but shelter-in-place orders created production delays. After deliberating the options, Wainwright pushed the release out to July 10. There was an argument made for getting a digital release to people at a time of need for comfort. But in the end, he and the label decided that that it was better to wait for the physical release.
“We felt that the tactile experience was very important for the products and that we had to wait until the listener could actually get the vinyl or the CD and read along with the music and lyrics,” he said. “It was created in that spirit.”
So instead, Rufus Wainwright turned to his at-home “Robe Recitals” performances, streamed by his husband. He’s also written a couple of new songs and was planning to release at least one of them as a standalone single because it fits the world’s current events. He was considering whether to record it with other musicians.
He feels strongly that artists need to be writing about what’s going on rather than avoiding it, even if it’s challenging.
“I think any creative person who doesn’t use this time to work and to kind of try to process what’s happening is not really an artist, to be honest,” he said. “The world needs to understand what’s happening. People, I think, are craving a kind of release, but also sort of a sort of poetic frame to view this in. When I say poetic, I don’t mean like fuzzy and nice. I mean something that they can meditate on.”
It infuriates Wainwright when he hears people ask about the return of live sports. He said that theater will help people translate and come to terms with the experience, both emotionally and philosophically.
“It’s not going to be baseball— I think theater should be out front of this situation,” he said.
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Hello everyone! Welcome to Day 49 of #Quarantunes, our #MusicalEverydays #RobeRecitals series! Today is #MusicalMonday, and I have a special song chosen for today! This is an Irving Berlin song I learned from an album of Josephine Baker material, it’s a special en Français version of Moon Over Miami! I hope you enjoy it! And remember, these robe recitals began as secretly documenting my daily practicing before evolving into the virtual concert series you know today! Are all we all counting the days until #UnfollowTheRules comes out? I sure am, we are 66 days away! In the meantime, stay safe, #StayHome, be sure to stream #AloneTime, and we’ll see you tomorrow for our next #SongADay ❤️🎶
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.