Out and proud performer Rufus Wainwright has always been and continues to be the thinking man's musician. His songs run deep with sometimes heavy lyrics covering topics such as family relationships, politics and religion.
For those not familiar with Wainwright, he was born in New York, the son of two folk singers, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III. He came out of the closet as a teenager and performed in the film Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller at age 14.
His self-titled first studio album debuted in 1998. The work brought him a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music Album and Juno Award ( a Canadian honor ) for Best Alternative Album. His follow-up record, Poses, earned him the same trophies in 2001; in 2009, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
In 2012, his Mark Ronson-produced record Out of the Game came out; that same year, Wainwright married German art administrator Jorn Weisbrodt. His first child, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, was born in 2011, conceived with his childhood friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard Cohen.
With his latest work, Unfollow the Rules, he continues on a path down a different road that leads him across the country on the new single "You Ain't Big."
Windy City Times: Happy early birthday!
Rufus Wainwright: Wait a few weeks since I am in my late forties. Let me enjoy 46 while it's still here.
WCT: I just turned 50 this year. Do you have plans for that big year?
RW: Well, hopefully by then we will be in a safe and constructive society with more options. I celebrated my 40th in Spain at the opera house Teatro Real, in Madrid, so I am thinking another opera house, maybe in Italy. If we do need to social distance, we can always do it in gondolas!
WCT: You have a track on the new album called "Unfollow the Rules," but why did that become the overall title for the project?
RW: It happened very organically. One day, our daughter Viva exclaimed that she wanted to unfollow the rules and I immediately jotted it down as a great idea for a lyric. That lyric became a song and the song the title of the album.
It has been an interesting journey the past few months. Initially the album was coming out in April and we had to push it to July 10 because of the pandemic. The idea of unfollowing the rules is not exactly kosher back then and I was apprehensive on how that would translate. Now that the Black Lives Matter protests have happened and we are in an election year, there is a sense of real evaluation and recalibration. It's a revolution in a lot of ways. Once again the title is appropriate and timely.
WCT: Have you been to all the places you sing about in the song "You Ain't Big?"
RW: You are the first person to ask me that question. I don't think I've been to Wichita.
WCT: Is there a place you would like to travel to, but haven't yet?
RW: I've never been to Africa. I have been to Morocco, which is technically part of the continent, so maybe East Africa.
WCT: Playing off another track on Unfollow the Rules, is your husband a "Romantical Man?" What's the last romantic thing he's done for you?
RW: Our plans to go to Europe were dashed with what is going on. We thankfully have an Airstream trailer, so we went up the coast recently. Even just playing with the dog and walking to see the sunset together, after a lovely meal we have made for our daughter, is very romantic.
WCT: What's your dog's name?
RW: Puccini, and he's a miniature Australian shepherd.
WCT: Your voice soars on "Hatred." Can you talk about that song?
RW: Yes. All these songs were written over many years. About 10 years ago, I decided to embark holistically on my classical career. I did some productions of my first opera and produced my second opera Hadrian, so I was focused on another area of expertise. I wound up missing songwriting and the pop world. I really appreciated the audience that I had left behind. I wrote a lot of material and was very inspired.
Later, I became inspired in a bad way. I went through a difficult time and was filled with hatred. Me, being a positive person, wanted to transform that energy to something that was useful for me. That song is about me becoming a warrior when faced with adversity. I wanted to use any emotion, good or bad, as a tool.
With the election this year, I think we are embarking on an incredible battle. We need all the tools in the box to get through this, sadly, hatred is one of them.
WCT: Thanks to this pandemic I've had plenty of "Alone Time" as you sing about. What's one bad habit you have picked up during the lockdown?
RW: We have a candy kids area in the corner of the kitchen. It's like the Bermuda Triangle of sweets. I try to steer away from it, but I fail daily. Candy is not my friend!
WCT: You drew the art on Unfollow the Rules record booklet. Did you grow up drawing?
RW: I went to art school in college briefly. If you really examine my story, there are examples where my art peaked out of the corner and revealed itself. With this album, it has taken a more permanent position. When the pandemic hit, it was a chance to really exercise that muscle. It has turned into an arena that I want to continue to pursue.
WCT: "Matinee Idol" was a song you wrote about River Phoenix. Was your family a hippy family like the Phoenix's?
RW: There was a hippy element, especially on my mother's side, but actually my dad did dabble in hippiedom at one point. He did become more conservative. I don't mean like a republican, but a WASP-y American man, who returned to his roots of Bedford, New York.
My mother was more of a Canadian creature, who loved living in Montreal. She loved to be close to the earth and her family was working class. They were all very musical. My grandmother was one of 17 children. They were salt of the earth people.
WCT: How did you commemorate Pride this year?
RW: I performed for Toronto Pride online. I have to say, I liked it when they changed the parade into a march for Black Lives Matter in LA. I wasn't able to attend, but I have been going out to the demonstrations when I can around here. New York has returned Pride to its roots, which has been needed for a long time.
WCT: I have been to your concerts in Chicago ever since you opened for Tori Amos. You usually have a very straight crowd attending. Did you ever think about how being an out musician has affected your career?
RW: I definitely think about how if I had jiggered my persona slightly and been more mysterious about my sexuality to my audience, I would have been more successful. Most of my concert crowd is straight.
On the other hand, the fact that I have been brutally honest about my sexuality from the onset has really started to pay off. People I work with appreciate the honesty. They like the fact that I've not tried to hoodwink them in any way. I went for the long game!
WCT: Well, it meant a lot to me when you spoke openly about your life at your live shows.
RW: Well, that's good to hear. I think with the small percentage of gay fans that I have, it meant the world to them. It really did.
WCT: Some people may not know how hilarious you are until they see your concerts with all the funny banter.
RW: [Laughs] I am more playful than my albums might present.
WCT: Are you planning a tour next year?
RW: Oh, yeah. We just moved everything a year down, so I am sure we will be talking again, sooner than later about the tour. We wanted to get the music out there, no matter what, on July 10.
WCT: Has there been one moment that has meant the most to you in your career?
RW: I go back to putting together these really fabulous shows of my mother's material. I was given the opportunity to really lose myself in her repertoire. I grieved her in a unique way by singing her music. Bringing that music to an audience and having them join me in that process was really amazing!