Rufus Wainwright: ‘I’m often visited by my disgruntled youth’

Fresh from a livestream concert in which he performed the Judy Garland songbook at the Los Angeles studio where she herself recorded, Rufus Wainwright sounds full of pep. “It was a great festival of song and showbusiness and glitz and glamour,” he says with self-deprecating chuckle.

Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser
Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser

As successful as the event was, though, he says he is “done with Hollywood for the moment”. For now, it’s time to concentrate his own material and “finally promoting” his 10th album Unfollow The Rules, which might have come out in the thick of the pandemic last year but is, he feels “still worth singing about”.

A corresponding UK tour, which includes dates in Sheffield and York, is due to take place in October.

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The 47-year-old American-Canadian singer-songwriter seems sanguine about spending lockdown in California as the past year has afforded him time at home with his husband, Jorn Weisbrodt, and now ten-year-old daughter, Viva. Taking an active role in parenting has, he says been “a great revelation”.

“Before, I was sort of in and out with my touring schedule and also with Viva being a much younger human,” he says. “Now she’s growing up so quickly in this amazing house. It’s amazing how engaged humans become so rapidly when they’re children. And thankfully I was able to remain here and to keep working from home and also enjoy the process of bringing a child up on a visceral level, so yeah, it was a blessing.”

So far Wainwright feels he is “doing a lot better” than his own parents, the musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. “That’s not saying much when you look at the period my parents were in, the 70s and 80s were a really tumultuous time for bringing up kids, whether it was divorce or the fallout of the 60s, there was general confusion about the home,” he says. “I think now I have a lot more resources and there’s a lot more focus on what it means to be a parent today. It’s all part of a process.”

During the past year Wainwright has also immersed himself in his back catalogue through a series of Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective online shows. He says the excavation of his past proved “incredibly reassuring”.

“I do have some very distinct memories of being incredibly difficult at times with people I was working with, mostly in terms of maintaining a certain type of standard for my songwriting, and I remember at the time not knowing quite why I was,” he says. “It was just a guttural feeling that I had to protect my material at all costs. Thankfully now I know the reason why, because the songs were built to last and they were built to remain sort of ageless.”

Rufus Wainwright. Picture: Tony Hauser

There were, he says, “a lot” of songs he had not played for a while that surprised him now. “Harvester of Hearts, that was a song from Want One that I don’t perform much but I really love that song, or The Consort from Poses,” he says. “There was a whole list of pieces that I really enjoyed going back to. I will say in general there wasn’t one that I was embarrassed about, but I was unrelenting to ensure they were something that I was satisfied with, and that has paid off.”

The series culminated with a performance of Unfollow The Rules, Wainwright’s return to pop after a decade spent working on operas, film soundtracks and a musical reworking of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The singer has reflected that his time in classical world had given him a new appreciation of the pop sphere.

Today, he explains: “Before entering the classical world I must admit that I had a huge perspective of what that universe entailed. I thought it was going to be far more creative, far more appreciative of the finer parts of music and so forth, I thought they would welcome me with open arms. It was the polar opposite. It was a very cold, a very dictatorial, a very severe place and I stepped into a real jungle of discontent.

“I actually became a lot tougher and in retrospect I appreciate how intense it was, because I really had to think about what I was doing and I really had to fight for what I was trying to say, so I don’t resent that at all, in fact I think it made me a better musician. That being said, it gave me a whole new appreciation of the freedom that I enjoyed earlier and that I now enjoy in the pop world. There’s a much wider range of paths that you can take and not be criticised for in the pop world, and I think I took those for granted when I started out; now I have an appreciation for them.”

Wainwright has also talked of Unfollow The Rules as a bookend to his eponymous debut album, which came out in 1998; he worked in the same studio with many of the same session musicians. He says that as he was making it, he could feel the closing of one chapter of his life and the opening of another. “I consider this album to be the end of an act. Hopefully I have a three-act play in me; it could be a two-act but who knows?” he says. “I feel strongly that the next stage will be completely different, whether it’s a French album or maybe something more poppy – I do live in Los Angeles, after all.

Unfollow The Rules was really me closing the case on really my youth in some ways, with a bittersweet feeling, for sure.”

As a songwriter, he feels more conscious of the passage of time. “I’m conscious of how brief everything becomes, of how quickly time evaporates,” he says. “I’ve read and heard it said many times that it gets faster and faster as you get older, and it’s frighteningly true.”

Nevertheless he believes he has arrived at a sweet spot in his forties, painting a picture of newfound domestic bliss. “Whether it’s my wonderful marriage with my husband Jorn or beautiful daughter who’s ten and such a joy or our wonderful dog Siegfried who we all love, yes, it’s a very special moment,” he says. “Thankfully we came out of the pandemic stronger and with our health and our careers intact so we have a lot to thank.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of his second album, Poses. Wainwright says he “totally” recognises his old self in the midst of heady New York life. “Recently I sold my New York apartment which was incredibly rooted in Poses mythology,” he says. “It was on Gramercy Park which is where I photographed the cover of Poses in Manhattan, so I was definitely convening with the spirit recently when I was packing up my things and heading off. I’m often visited by my disgruntled youth.”

After a year at home, Wainwright says he’s looking forward to touring. “I’m fully rested, my voice has had chance to get fully prepared for the onslaught, so I have high hopes,” he says. “Thankfully we live in Los Angeles where the order of the day is fitness and health, eating well and getting lots of sun, so I will emerge quite the vision.”

Rufus Wainwright plays at Sheffield City Hall on October 12 and York Barbican on October 13. rufuswainwright.com