Rufus Wainwright Comes Full Circle
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Michael Raine
“I’m enjoying today,” Rufus Wainwright says, smiling through the webcam while flanked by jam-packed, ceiling-high bookshelves in his California home. He’s looking very casual, his hair a bit disheveled with a grey beard that embraces his 47 years. We’d agreed to delay our scheduled Zoom chat by an hour so that we could both watch Joe Biden’s inauguration speech. “It was good. It’s all been very, very real here in Los Angeles, especially with the COVID numbers being so bad and the fires and everything,” he adds, displaying more relief than jubilation that a new political era has arrived.
The city is central in his story these days, both personally and professionally. “Oh yeah, make no doubts about it. Part of my reason for coming back to L.A. at this point was to claim my position in the Pantheon,” he says, punctuating the sentence with a bit of a laugh so as to not be taken too seriously in his self-aggrandizement. But he is serious about keeping the family legacy alive as he approaches the elder-statesman stage of his impressive career. “Yes, there’s a certain financial aspect to it, and I mean, I don’t expect to be put up on the shelf when Neil Young dies or anything in that sense. But nonetheless, I do strongly feel that that era of singer-songwriters, which my parents were a part of, really held [their craft] to a very high standard, both in terms of music and lyrics, and the marriage of those two, and production as well. So, I’ve come here to, sort of, just help hold up the fort a little bit, because obviously they’re not going to be around forever, these giants, and this is the tradition that I believe in.”
The city of Los Angeles has no shortage of both lovers and haters. Possibly more than even New York, the City of Angels represents an almost extreme exaggeration of American possibilities, from the glamour of Hollywood to the despair of Skid Row. Wainwright, in his own small way, is fortunate to represent the uplifting side of that contrast.
“My career began in Los Angeles, really. I mean, I was brought up in Montreal, of course, and I did a lot there over the years, but it was really when I came to Hollywood and I made my first album that I was, you know, thrust upon the mainstream, whether they liked it or not [laughs]. And so, in a lot of ways, this is really the epicenter, for me, in terms of my professional life as an attempted pop star [laughs again]. So, L.A. is a very important city for me,” Wainwright says, though notes that even more importantly, he and his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, also moved back to L.A. to be closer to their daughter, Viva, whom they share custody of with her mother, Lorca Cohen (yes, daughter of Leonard).
And while his old home towns of Montreal and New York will “always be central in my heart,” Wainwright says, it’s L.A. that he feels lived up to the hype, for him at least. “You know, I failed in Montreal and several times in New York. It’s funny, because with Montreal, it was after my success in Los Angeles, actually, where I kind of returned to Montreal thinking that everybody would just be so excited to have me back, and they weren’t, necessarily. I mean, they were somewhat trepidatious. I think there’s this kind of Canadian instinct to be weary of American success. So, it was kind of weird to come back to Montreal for several years, but it got great eventually. And New York, I failed miserably at the outset. I mean, I went down to sing downtown at the time of like Jeff Buckley and stuff and my whole sensibility – this sort of this very dandyish persona who loved opera and played piano – really didn’t make sense in the hip, heroin-chic downtown of my era. It was really only when I came to California that it clicked. So, I am very much indebted to this town.”
And so, for these reasons, Wainwright’s latest album, the Grammy Award-nominated Unfollow the Rules (for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album), is a full-circle moment in his life and discography. For the album – which came out in July 2020 on BMG – he returned to some of the same L.A. recording haunts, such as the famed Sound City Studios, where he recorded his self-titled debut LP in 1998. As well, he brought back some of the same L.A.-based session greats, including drummer Jim Keltner, who played also played on the 1975 album Unrequited by Wainwright’s father, Loudon Wainwright III. It had been nearly a decade since Rufus’ last “pop” album (2012’s Mark Ronson-produced Out of the Game), and by design, Unfollow the Rules was a return to the Baroque-pop sounds of his earlier record. That is not to say, though, that it is some kind of pale self-imitation of past glories.
“I consider my first album and this to be two bookends to this, hopefully, first third of my career — but maybe half of it, who knows? But yeah, I’m very set on this, sort of, delineation that this last record has created, where I was able to return to the scene of the crime, shall we say, and really put out something that is related, but also more advanced and more precise with Unfollow the Rules. Also, it gives me the opportunity to now do completely different things, which I’ve always done anyway, so look out!” he says, once more with a self-deprecating laugh.
“One thing that I’ve definitely been more aware of, of late, is my parents’ connection to Laurel Canyon, even though they never lived here, per se, though I spent a lot of time as a little kid and at the Chateau Marmont because my mother was recording in L.A.,” Wainwright continues. “But their careers are really entwined in the sort of singer-songwriter tradition that comes out in L.A. So, especially my mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, their song ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ was a huge deal when Linda Ronstadt had that hit with that record. So, I think partially it’s really re-discovering that legacy and then now placing myself in that position a little bit.”
Music, of course, is the family business. Growing up in “the first family of folk,” as they’ve often been called, a life in music was not forced on Rufus or his sister Martha, who’s had a very successful career of her own. That said, there was no escaping it either. His American singer-songwriter father, Loudon Wainwright III, married Canadian folk pioneer Kate McGarrigle in 1971 and they divorced in 1976. Though he’s not as famous as Bob Dylan, James Taylor, or Kris Kristofferson, Loudon has enjoyed an impressive music career that includes more than 20 studio albums from 1970 to today, and he’s earned a large and loyal following over the decades with his personal, observational, and often funny brand of modern folk. Of course, Kate (who passed away in 2010) and her sister Anna McGarrigle, beginning with their self-titled debut in 1976, are among the most revered folk artists in Canadian history. Among their many achievements, they were made Members of the Order of Canada in 1993 and earned a SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
“I didn’t see my dad so much because he was touring a lot. He worked a lot while I was growing up, so I would see him very rarely and we would maybe get up and sing a chorus with him and so forth, like on ‘Dead Skunk’ at a folk festival, occasionally – though, that was intermixed with occasional trips to the theatre. I went to see Broadway musicals with my dad, so that was a great early education. He took me to see Annie and Guys and Dolls and all that kind of stuff,” Wainwright recalls. “My mother, on the other hand, was incredibly hands-on with both Martha and I, and so was Anna with her two kids. So, we would sing every weekend for our grandmother who lived up in the Laurentians, and we would learn harmonies, we would learn a lot of French folk songs, and we would put on little concerts for our grandmother. So, that was very hands-on, and then when my mother started to want to do Christmas shows, so we then went on stage with my mother and aunt.”
It was at only 13 or 14 years old that Wainwright first showed his future star potential, appearing in the 1988 Canadian-made kids fantasy film Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller to sing his own song, “I’m-a-Runnin’,” which earned him a Genie Award nomination for Best Original Song and Juno Award nomination for Most Promising Male Vocalist. Throughout his childhood, it was his mother who forced young Rufus to practice piano, and he continued to take lessons up until university.
“I hated practicing, but I did it nonetheless. And also, we played records a lot around the house. That was a big ingredient. My mother loved having a few drinks and playing records for us, and so that was a big part of our education,” he remembers fondly. “She would play, like, Doc Watson or The Staple Singers or they loved Bahamian-type folk singing, and they loved Edith Piaf. One of the big people that they loved a lot was Ewan MacColl, they played a lot of Bob Dylan, then they would also play their own records, and also my dad’s records. Also, classical music would be in there occasionally, but we had long listening evenings, which were full of laughs, but mostly tears [laughs].”
One artist who never got played at home was fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. As Rufus explains in a “making of”-style YouTube documentary about Unfollow the Rules, Mitchell’s music was verboten in the house because of Kate McGarrigle’s feeling that she wasn’t a true folk artist. “So, somehow for her, Joni Mitchell was a fraud in her mind… but then the other side is that I think my mother was incredibly jealous.” Fast-forward many years and his husband became a huge Joni Mitchell fan, leading Wainwright to finally dig into her catalogue. “I, of course, was blown away,” he says, and he then wrote one of Unfollow the Rules’ standout songs, “Damsel in Distress.” When his sister, Martha, heard the song, which is propelled along by this fantastic rhythm of layered steel and nylon guitars and flourishes of hand claps, tremolo-heavy electric guitar, and flute, she told Rufus, “Oh, that’s a Joni Mitchell song.”
Though he may not have ever changed his mother’s mind about Joni Mitchell, Rufus does thinks he broadened his mother’s musical horizons in other ways. His father, however, probably not so much.
“I think I challenged my father and continue to, and there’s maybe something in the sparring that occurs between us occasionally that is good for each of us artistically. But I think we’re pretty firmly rooted in our own camps,” he says, contemplating whether, as he found his own style and voice, he influenced his parents’ musical sensibilities. “My mother, on the other hand, really joined me on my operatic journey when I discovered opera at 13 and really became, sort of, my central inspiration. She knew about opera, but she hadn’t really been to that many and she didn’t really understand the intricacy of it, so she came along with me on that and I think that definitely affected her musical sensibilities, somewhat. But, I mean, she was still a folky to the end.”
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, but Kate McGarrigle’s lasting influence on her son seems to be a reoccurring theme in his conversation with Canadian Musician. It wasn’t necessarily the intention, as there’s only so many questions you can ask about someone’s famous parents before it’s off-putting, but Wainwright freely brings her up many times. For instance, where did the internal drive come from that sees him still practice piano daily, or leave popular music to spend seven years immersed in writing and performing two well-received operas, or release an album of Shakespeare sonnets?
“A lot of it is from my mother, really, I have to say. In the sense that every song that she ever wrote, it was very kind of infused with the blood. There was this desperation or this desire or hunger that she had for songwriting that she could never really relax about. It was this real double-edged sword for her. Even when you look at all of her work over the years, there was never a dissent in the quality. Even up to her last song that she wrote, ‘Proserpina,’ there is this constant upward motion of excellence. So, I think I’m emulating that, or trying to,” he says.
In emulating his mother, Wainwright says he’s spent his artistic life pursuing greatness, and that pursuit has been focused and precise.
“When I was writing songs early on, I was far more serious about the process in the sense, like, I really put myself through the wringer, in terms of lyrics and melody. I would go out and search for things, for experiences, and put myself in harm’s way occasionally for that, to kind of grasp that feeling or have that inspiration. That was about really constructing my sound and me trying to differentiate myself, and I worked very hard at that for many years when I was very young and then it paid off,” he explains. “I think once I was sort in my element, after a couple of records, then I started really working on production. Like, what is the sound in the studio that I’m going for? And then I started working on my singing. I think around the time the Judy Garland shows came up, that’s when I really started focusing on my voice.”
He’s referring the Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall shows he did in June of 2006. Backed by a 36-piece orchestra, Wainwright recreated Garland’s legendary 1961 concert at the famed New York venue. A live album taken from those shows earned Wainwright his first Grammy nomination.
“You can even hear a big difference in my voice pre- and post-Judy, where I started to pronounce things more and focused more on my breathing. So, my voice then became the thing. And then, once that was sort of under control and more fluid, I then went on to opera. So, I think it’s always important to have something that will really challenge you. If something becomes too regular, then it’s time to really move on to another discipline. What’s interesting about this pandemic, too, is that I’ve gone back to visual arts a little bit. I’ve gotten to draw a lot during this period. You know, you’ve just got to keep it scary.”
Throughout the pandemic, because there’s no touring going on, Wainwright has been performing a series of ticketed livestreamed concerts he’s dubbed the Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective. For them, he’s been playing his nine studio albums in consecutive order, with one album side per show, plus “fireside chat” Q&As. The experience was a pleasant reminder for him that he’s always had that drive to, as he says, keep it scary.
In preparing to perform the albums Want One and Want Two (released in 2003 and 2004, respectively), which really cemented his greatness with fans and critics, he admits to some nervousness about it.
“That was kind of an epic project and a real sort of Herculean task, putting those
records together and releasing them and touring them. I really remember thinking before I revisited them that I was fearful of the prospect because they were just so big. But they kind of went off without a hitch for me, just performing them in a more intimate way,” he says. “Then we hit Release the Stars, which came out afterwards, which is an album I made in Berlin, mostly, and it has the song ‘Going to a Town.’ That album was so difficult to do. I mean, it went really well, but I was kind of surprised at how challenging it was. But it was a good feeling that, at least fundamentally in my songwriting and my arrangements and in my ideas, I was still pushing, you know? That after the kind of summit of the Want albums, I was still moving further.”
At 47, he acknowledges that writing a hit pop song is less in the cards than it used to be, though he has been connecting and writing with some other L.A.-based songwriters over Zoom for fun, “so it’s not out of the picture, necessarily, but I wouldn’t say it’s as pertinent to me, though it would be great. I just like to have several goalposts that I’m running towards, and who knows if I’ll get there or not.” After all, as Pitchfork pointed out in its positive review of Unfollow the Rules, Wainwright is around the same age that Leonard Cohen was when he wrote “Hallelujah” (which Wainwright had his own hit version of from the Shrek soundtrack), and his father, Loudon, was when he released his late-career highpoint, History, in 1992.
“The Judy record was nominated [for a Grammy], but I didn’t expect that to happen. But this one I’m a little more hopeful for anyways. But that being said, it’s always the case that whenever you finish an album, you think it’s the most amazing thing in the world, and that the whole universe is going to explode. You need that sort of egotistic drive in order to really complete an album and to really believe in an album. It is a sort of mirage and a manic state of delusion that every performer goes through when they put out a record. And then there’s, you know, the two-week period of just facing reality – either that or it catapults up the charts and you’re a trillionaire.”
Unfollow the Rules isn’t making Wainwright a trillionaire, but it is a return that his fans had been waiting for, even if they enjoyed his journey into operas and Shakespearean sonnets in the previous seven years. Those forays were a fun challenge and passion projects for the artist, but the new album is a re-embrace of sounds that long-time fans know and love. Working with veteran producer Mitchell Froom (Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel), the album runs the gamut of classic Wainwright touchpoints. There’s the fun and jaunty “You Ain’t Big,” the acoustic love song “Peaceful Afternoon,” the strings and piano ballad of the title track, and the tense, near-apocalyptic crescendos of “Devils and Angels (Hatred),” and a number of other stops along the way. But of course, throughout the 12 songs, Wainwright’s voice and piano are the through line and that keep it all together.
“In retrospect, I’ve had some amazing moments, whether it’s some of the performances that I’ve been able to do, and, certainly watching the inauguration now, I mean, I’ve sung for Barack Obama, I’ve sung for the Queen, and I’ve been there at some great moments,” he says towards the end of our conversation. “But in terms of really conquering the pop world, that’s been elusive. I did care about it more when I was younger, but now, I don’t know, I think I’ve gained something perhaps more profound, which is longevity and a real respect from both my peers, older artists, and also a new generation. So yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about it these days.”